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 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.