Photography Using Moonlight

Moonlight photography is fun! It's entirely possible to photograph a landscape scene in near darkness, provided enough of the moon is out. In fact, if you expose long enough, you can make a nighttime scene look like it was taken during the day. Even with a half moon, there's enough light to take some really cool photographs of the surrounding landscape without any fancy equipment. About the only things one needs are a camera with a “bulb” setting, a tripod, cable release and a good scene to photograph.

However, finding the right scene can take a little bit of planning. Driving aimlessly around at night looking for something to photograph is near impossible, partly because you (not your camera) can't see anything! It's best to do some exploring during the day, taking note of interesting scenes you'd like to photograph at night when the moon is out and the weather is cooperating.

One such place I recently visited was 11 Mile Canyon in the Rocky Mountains just off Highway 24. The moon was about 98% full, which casts plenty of light.

One of the trickier things about photographing in dark situations is focusing. It’s almost always too dark for a camera’s auto-focus to work, so you have to rely on manual focus. But even this is difficult because you can't simply look through the lens to focus on anything (too dark). What I do is enable "live view", point the camera at the moon, use the digital zoom on the view screen to get in closer, and manually focus until it's nice and sharp. 

If you rely on the lens "infinity" focus point on the focus ring, it's unlikely you'll get a sharp focus. The reason being, 1) it's not that accurate of a mark on the lens, and 2) simply rotating the lens to "infinity" guarantees you won't be in focus. Auto-focus lenses have to be able to focus beyond infinity to know they've passed it.

11 Mile Canyon

Careful not to touch the focus ring, I set up for the scene I’m interested in shooting. This involves setting the ISO to about 800, an aperture somewhere in the f/5.6 range to maintain depth of field (DoF), and exposure for about 40 seconds. The exposure time will vary greatly though, depending on weather and available light.

To add a bit a drama, I almost always light-paint with a flashlight to highlight the objects I want the viewer to focus on an. The type of flashlight makes a big difference in the colors captured by the camera. LED flashlights tend to be very blue and cool, while the old school incandescent flashlights are orange and warm. I also underexpose the photo. I don't want it to look like daylight.

When photographing under the moon's light, I don't expose the scene to be as bright as daylight. I like to keep it under-exposed and then in post-processing, brighten up and lift the shadows just a bit in the areas of interest.

This gives the photograph the dreamy moonlight feel. I should also mention I always shoot in RAW so I have the most flexibility during post-processing in Adobe Lightroom. How long I expose the scene is matter of trial and error. On this night, there was a thick fog that reduced the amount of moonlight reaching the ground, so my exposure times were about 90 seconds at ISO 800 while stopped down to about f/5.6. Thankfully, there was no wind so the images still came out sharp.

It's really quite interesting, because the reflected sunlight off the moon is quite different than directly from the sun. It's nowhere near as harsh. But if you expose long enough, it will look almost like a daytime shot.