Once upon a time, moonlight was the only kind of night photography I did. As lifelong astronomy enthusiast, I’ve always been mesmerized by all the stars that come out when the moon is down, but film and the earliest digital cameras were just not capable of adequately capturing the world after dark without help from multiple exposures or artificial light (dealbreakers for me).
While waiting for digital technology to catch up with my Milky Way aspirations, I watched other photographers achieve beautiful results using night photography techniques that didn’t appeal to me: Light painting (long exposures with foreground subjects illuminated by artificial light), and blue-hour blends (one image captured with the foreground illuminated by twilight “blue hour” sky, blended with a second image of the stars from later total darkness at the same location).
Longing for something different than moonlight, while staying true to my one-click natural light objective, I added star trails to my night sky toolbox. Start trails allowed me to keep my shutter open long enough to reveal the landscape beneath a moonless, star-fill sky—albeit with star streaks that bore no resemblance to the pinpoint stars I was so fond of gazing at. Another perk star trail photography was the opportunity to kick back beneath a star-filled ceiling while waiting for my exposure to complete.
When digital sensors finally improved enough to enable usable starlight (moonless) images, I was all-in. Armed with my newly acquired Sony a7S camera (and subsequent versions) and super-fast and wide prime lenses, I aggressively pursued images of the Milky Way’s brilliant core above my favorite landscapes.
So thrilling was this Milky Way revelation, I all but dropped moonlight photography. In fact, moonlight and Milky Way photography are mutually exclusive because when the moon is full, the Milky Way is lost in the moon’s glow. So by 2015, the only moonlight photography I was doing came during my annual spring moonbow workshops in Yosemite, where bright moonlight is required for the lunar rainbow’s appearance.
As much as possible I time my trips, both personal and workshops, for moonless nights to maximize the Milky Way photography opportunities. One exception is my annual autumn visit to the Eastern Sierra, which is always timed for early October to coincide with the best fall color while letting the moon phase fall where it may.
When the moon cooperates, the dark skies east of the Sierra are ideal for Milky Way photography
This year’s Eastern Sierra visit was joined by a waxing gibbous moon that was well on its way to full (the day after my scheduled return home). Yet despite the nearly full moon, I longed for a night shoot. So on my first night in Lee Vining I decided to revisit (non-moonbow) moonlight photography for the first time in seven years and drove out to Mono Lake’s South Tufa after dinner. (Shout-out to the Whoa Nellie Deli.)
With my very first click, memories of how enjoyable moonlight photography is came rushing back: Composition and (especially) focus are orders of magnitude easier than with Milky Way photography; there’s no worry about getting lost or tripping over something (or someone); and even with the sky washed out by moonlight, the camera captures many times more stars than my eyes see. None of these insights were actually new, but they still felt like revelations because I’d been doing nothing but dark sky photography for so long.
This might be a good time to mention that for anyone interested getting into night photography, I strongly encourage starting with moonlight. Unlike Milky Way photography, you don’t need fancy gear—just a decent tripod, any mirrorless or DSLR body, full frame or cropped, made in the last 20 years (pretty much since the first digital cameras) will work, and an f/4 lens is plenty fast enough. Read my Photo Tips article on moonlight photography for more detailed instruction on moonlight photography.
One thing that made this Mono Lake night especially nice was the disappearance of the light breeze that had chopped up the reflection at sunset a couple of hours earlier. The lake wasn’t quite mirror-like, but the surface had settled to gentle undulations that smoothed completely in my multi-second exposures, revealing a gauzy reflection that stood out beautifully in each image. And the 82% moon, while not quite full, was more than bright enough to illuminate the water and limestone tufa towers better than any light painting could have.
I started with images of just water and Mono Lake’s iconic “shipwreck” tufa feature beneath the stars, but soon went exploring for a more interesting foreground. When I found the scene in this image, I oriented my Sony 𝛂1 vertically to maximize the sky, and widened my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens to 16mm to include more foreground than I usually do in a night image.
In almost all of my night images I simply focus on the stars, but this foreground started about 5 feet away and had so much interesting (important) detail, I stopped down to f/8 and focused about 6 feet from my camera to ensure front-to-back sharpness. Using my 𝛂1’s Bright Monitoring feature (I highly recommend to Sony mirrorless shooters who do night photography that they assign it to a custom button), I was able to manually focus through my viewfinder.
To compensate for the light lost to the smaller aperture and less than completely full moon, I bumped my ISO to 3200 and exposed for 20 seconds—less than ideal, but the 𝛂1 handles ISO 3200 easily, and at 16mm there’s not much visible star movement in a 20 second exposure, so I wasn’t worried.
I was only out here for about an hour, but it was such a joyful experience, and I’m so pleased with my results, that I know there’s a lot more moonlight photography in my future.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE