Photography in the Moonlight - Digital Photography School

Photography in the Moonlight

A Guest Post by Phil Hart – author of the Shooting Stars eBook (use the code DPSTARS for a 20% discount).

Even a casual play with your camera at night will reveal its remarkable ability to see much more than your eyes can, and in full colour too. All it takes is exposures up to 30 seconds long with the aperture wide open and the ISO up reasonably high. Of course you still need to think about lighting but if you can get away from the city, there is one obvious and natural light source.

The Moon

The moon makes a great light source at night, but what you cannot see is that many of the considerations that photographers naturally take into account during the day also apply when the sun goes down. When the moon is high in the sky, like the sun in the middle of the day, the light is harsher and colors are subdued. When the moon is low in the sky, the light is softer with scenes appearing nicely saturated.

It takes some practise to visualise how your images will look at night before you take them, so experiment with different angles and review them on camera. It can be great fun and always delivers a few surprises. With practise you’ll be able to anticipate a little more about how the moonlight and other illumination around you will work in your images.

For this cattle ramp in rural Australia, when I arrived the scene was backlit by the moon, with additional color in the clouds from the lights of the nearby town of Mudgee.

Capturing the same scene from the other direction, the moon as the light source was behind the camera, bringing out the colors and texture of the timber and rusty iron gate.

Later in the night, the moon set, so it required a longer exposure to achieve a sky background bright enough for silhouettes against it.

For this final image, the scene was strongly backlit by a passing car. As well as the striking effect of the light rays around the gate, you can now see the color of the trees in the background as well.

Phases of the Moon

Unlike the sun, the moon itself varies considerably in brightness, depending on its ‘phase’ which changes over the course each month. At new moon there is no moon at all, as it is almost in line with the sun. And while the full moon can itself look spectacular, as a light source it is often too strong, washing out all but the brightest stars from the sky.

So my favourite time of the month for night sky photography is a few days after new moon, when we get a slender crescent moon low in the west as night sets in. This provides soft illumination of the foreground without washing out the night sky. A few days before new moon, there is also a slender crescent moon in the east just before dawn, but this is not the most convenient time of day for most people to be out taking photos!

There are many online calendars which show the phase of the moon. You can even add one to your google calendar or search for a ‘moon phase’ app for your smart phone. My eBook Shooting Stars (use the code DPSTARS for a 20% discount) also includes a 3D animation by my colleague and DPS writer Neil Creek that explains how the phases of the moon work better than words ever can.

So if you’re up for a night sky photography challenge, try capturing some night sky images three days to one week after new moon. With new moon on the 19th of June, your next window of opportunity is around the 22nd to 26th June.

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Phil Hart is an engineer by day and photographer under the stars by night. He is the author of the eBook Shooting Stars and a free Night Sky Photography Newsletter and runs Workshops in and around Melbourne, Australia.

  • http://www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve

    Balanced use of moonlight, artificial light and also including reflections can help give a simple but effective composition;

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-of-France/G0000BzQXTlspD3c/I0000YDrI97zkQdM

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    I wish I knew how to do this better. Recently I got the Petroans Towers in Malaysia with moon but all I could manage was this.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/05/petronas-twin-towers-with-the-moon.html

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    I wish i knew how to do this better. Recently I got Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia with the moon but all I could manage was this

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/05/petronas-twin-towers-with-the-moon.html

  • http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com Jeff E Jensen

    I love shooting at night. It’s amazing what kind of results you can get. I’ve got a shoot planned for next weekend where we will be using the moon and along with some other light sources for a night of shooting.

    Here’s some images from a night in the desert with a nearly-full moon:

    http://blog.jeffejensenphotography.com/2012/01/fire-in-desert.html

  • Tim Screw

    Is there a trick to making it look like it’s actually nighttime? Whenever I try to do longer exposures, the sky comes out looking blue like its daytime.

  • http://martybugs.net/blog Martin

    @Tim: if you let the camera determine the exposure, it’ll try to get a “normal” bright exposure, as the camera assumes it’s daytime.

    To get it to look like night-time, you need to ensure the photo is at least several stops under-exposed.

  • http://philhart.com/ Phil Hart

    tim.. it’s mainly about taking photos when the moon is only a thin crescent. once there is bright moonlight then yes the sky will look blue.

  • http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com Jeff E Jensen

    Here’s some shots I took in January under an almost full moon:

    http://blog.jeffejensenphotography.com/2012/01/fire-in-desert.html

  • Barb

    My hubby is an astronomer & I love the night sky, I told him that I want your book, and he said that he’ll get it for me soon.. I can’t wait.. I am just a beginner dslr photographer, and I want to take gorgeous photo’s like yours one day..
    I took this on a cloudy night and the moon was trying to peek through..

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151799736760414&l=d70d2a511c

    The noise in the photo was really bad.. (high iso setting) but it was hand held sitting out my sons window.. lol

  • Barb

    My hubby is an astronomer & I love the night sky, I told him that I want your book, and he said that he’ll get it for me soon.. I can’t wait.. I am just a beginner dslr photographer, and I want to take gorgeous photo’s like yours one day..
    I took this on a cloudy night and the moon was trying to peek through..

    The noise in the photo was really bad.. (high iso setting) but it was hand held sitting out my sons window.. lol
    [eimg url='https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151799736760414&l=d70d2a511c' title='photo.php?fbid=10151799736760414&l=d70d2a511c']

  • http://www.frankcarrollphotography.com Frank Carroll

    I am building my ‘night photography’ skills, and find the moon very fascinating to use as a light source. Full moon shots tend to be best right at moon rise/set. I do not use the AWB on the camera or any of the pictogram settings, but set the color temperature at 4000′K as suggested by http://www.schneiderkreuznach.com and their natural light source temperature page. Then you still have to make some adjustments either in the camera or post production work.

    I have started doing HDR moon shots, and find the results intriguing. Please visit my website in the future as I need to build more of a portfolio of this material to give good examples. Right now I’m at a one good for about five bad, so more work is needed.

  • ronald

    i did this one day with a cord or cable to press a button and hold it down to a count of 100 and the compuuter light in my fathers office lit up the whole back yard it was neat.

  • Scottc

    Beautiful night skies!

    Not quite the same genre, but taking advantage of some night light nonetheless:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4295288093/

  • Susant Pal

    Worth learning. But if the exposure details like timings, aperture and camera & lens used were given it would be more informative. Though I believe that gadgets arn’t important for a crditable creative work.

  • Chuck Nelson

    I took this pic with only the light from a full moon and the city lights below.

  • Chuck Nelson

    Okay, this picture.

  • Charlie

    Very interesting article but can you include the camara settings you used to took the pictures? Thanks in advance! ;)

  • Dlync

    First play with moonlight photography. Had to use a torch to focus, was amazed at the colour in the pic. Love the light trail at the bottom of the pic from a passing car. Looking forward to the weather warming up a bit so we can get out and do some more. ISO 800, 30 sec, f7.1.

  • Dlync

    First play with moonlight photography. Even though there was a full moon, I used a torch to focus; was amazed that the image had colour. Love the light trail at the bottom of the image from a passing car. ISO 800, 30 sec, f7.1.

Some older comments

  • Scottc

    June 8, 2012 10:16 am

    Beautiful night skies!

    Not quite the same genre, but taking advantage of some night light nonetheless:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4295288093/

  • ronald

    June 8, 2012 08:31 am

    i did this one day with a cord or cable to press a button and hold it down to a count of 100 and the compuuter light in my fathers office lit up the whole back yard it was neat.

  • Frank Carroll

    June 8, 2012 06:37 am

    I am building my 'night photography' skills, and find the moon very fascinating to use as a light source. Full moon shots tend to be best right at moon rise/set. I do not use the AWB on the camera or any of the pictogram settings, but set the color temperature at 4000'K as suggested by http://www.schneiderkreuznach.com and their natural light source temperature page. Then you still have to make some adjustments either in the camera or post production work.

    I have started doing HDR moon shots, and find the results intriguing. Please visit my website in the future as I need to build more of a portfolio of this material to give good examples. Right now I'm at a one good for about five bad, so more work is needed.

  • Barb

    June 6, 2012 09:32 am

    My hubby is an astronomer & I love the night sky, I told him that I want your book, and he said that he'll get it for me soon.. I can't wait.. I am just a beginner dslr photographer, and I want to take gorgeous photo's like yours one day..
    I took this on a cloudy night and the moon was trying to peek through..

    The noise in the photo was really bad.. (high iso setting) but it was hand held sitting out my sons window.. lol
    [eimg url='https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151799736760414&l=d70d2a511c' title='photo.php?fbid=10151799736760414&l=d70d2a511c']

  • Barb

    June 6, 2012 09:30 am

    My hubby is an astronomer & I love the night sky, I told him that I want your book, and he said that he'll get it for me soon.. I can't wait.. I am just a beginner dslr photographer, and I want to take gorgeous photo's like yours one day..
    I took this on a cloudy night and the moon was trying to peek through..

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151799736760414&l=d70d2a511c

    The noise in the photo was really bad.. (high iso setting) but it was hand held sitting out my sons window.. lol

  • Jeff E Jensen

    June 3, 2012 10:23 pm

    Here's some shots I took in January under an almost full moon:

    http://blog.jeffejensenphotography.com/2012/01/fire-in-desert.html

  • Phil Hart

    June 2, 2012 06:34 pm

    tim.. it's mainly about taking photos when the moon is only a thin crescent. once there is bright moonlight then yes the sky will look blue.

  • Martin

    June 2, 2012 01:28 pm

    @Tim: if you let the camera determine the exposure, it'll try to get a "normal" bright exposure, as the camera assumes it's daytime.

    To get it to look like night-time, you need to ensure the photo is at least several stops under-exposed.

  • Tim Screw

    June 2, 2012 04:41 am

    Is there a trick to making it look like it's actually nighttime? Whenever I try to do longer exposures, the sky comes out looking blue like its daytime.

  • Jeff E Jensen

    June 2, 2012 03:55 am

    I love shooting at night. It's amazing what kind of results you can get. I've got a shoot planned for next weekend where we will be using the moon and along with some other light sources for a night of shooting.

    Here's some images from a night in the desert with a nearly-full moon:

    http://blog.jeffejensenphotography.com/2012/01/fire-in-desert.html

  • Mridula

    June 2, 2012 02:04 am

    I wish i knew how to do this better. Recently I got Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia with the moon but all I could manage was this

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/05/petronas-twin-towers-with-the-moon.html

  • Mridula

    June 2, 2012 02:03 am

    I wish I knew how to do this better. Recently I got the Petroans Towers in Malaysia with moon but all I could manage was this.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/05/petronas-twin-towers-with-the-moon.html

  • Steve

    June 2, 2012 01:58 am

    Balanced use of moonlight, artificial light and also including reflections can help give a simple but effective composition;

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-of-France/G0000BzQXTlspD3c/I0000YDrI97zkQdM

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