Moonlight photography is both simple and rewarding. In my “Shoot the Moon” article that appeared in the April 2010 Outdoor Photographer magazine, I shared my exposure recipe and a few tips to ensure moonlight success. This post summarizes the moonlight material from that article.
Equipment for moonlight photography
At the very least you need a tripod sturdy enough to support your camera. And while some point-and-shoot cameras are capable of the necessary exposure settings, I highly recommend a mirrorless or DSLR camera for the exposure control it allows and its ease of use in difficult conditions. A wide, fast (-ish) lens works best, ideally at least as wide as 24mm and as fast as f4. To minimize camera shake, try to avoid extending the center post, and use a remote (cable) release or your camera’s two- or ten-second timer.
Composition for moonlight
Composition is subjective and ultimately up to the creative instincts of the photographer. Having said that, I can still offer some experience-based suggestions:
Assuming the moon is at your back (where it should be to fully illuminate your foreground and maximize the number of stars visible), here are the manual exposure (don’t use auto-exposure in moonlight) values I recommend for full moon (full moon +/- 1 one day) photography:
A full moon’s brightness will vary depending on many factors, but these settings will get your exposure within a stop or so; when the exposure is complete, check your LCD and adjust the light up or down. Though my moonlight shots almost always use a fairly wide focal length, to minimize star movement when I need more light, I often opt for ISO 1600 rather than increasing my shutter speed. With a full moon, there should be no need for exposures longer than 20 seconds, and given the high ISO capabilities of today’s cameras, I don’t hesitate to use ISO 3200 (or even higher) if necessary. If you have a lens that’s faster than f4, all the better—in that case you could drop your ISO or shutter speed by one stop—try it both ways and decide later whether you like the slightly cleaner lower ISO image, or the more pinpoint stars of the faster shutter speed.
Focus in moonlight
By far the greatest difficultly people have photographing in moonlight is finding accurate focus. Accustomed to reliable daylight autofocus, they scratch their heads when everything seems to be set properly, yet their camera refuses respond when the shutter-button is pressed. The problem is, the camera is hunting in vain for focus because moonlight usually isn’t bright enough for autofocus. And since there is no fixed infinity point on a zoom lens (trust me), the old prime lens trick of dialing the focus all the way out to infinity doesn’t work either.
Fortunately, all is not lost. Follow this multi-step process each time you adjust your focal length and all will be fine:
The above method works best for DSLR cameras. On my Sony mirrorless bodies, I usually just magnify a bright star and manually focus until it’s the smallest dot possible. If you want to autofocus on the moon with a mirrorless camera, you’ll need to drop your shutter speed until you can see detail in the moon.
Processing moonlight images
I strongly encourage you to shoot in raw mode. A raw image increases your margin for error (it’s easier to correct mistakes in a raw image than in a jpeg image), and gives you total control over your light temperature (white balance). Light temperature is important because straight from the camera, moonlight images tend to look like daylight with stars (too bright and warm). You can avoid this problem by exposing a little darker than daylight (the exposure settings I suggest above should result in a histogram skewed slightly to the left, as it should be), and cooling the color temperature down to the 3,000-4,000 degree range in the raw processor. (If none of this processing stuff makes sense, ignore it and continue shooting in jpeg mode until you learn how to process raw images.)