Mono Moonlight, South Tufa, Mono Lake || Cassiopeia suspended above towering, moonlight-illuminated tufa. With the moon at my back, my exposure settings were ISO 400, f4, and 20 seconds.
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 single lens reflex (SLR) camera for the control it allows and its ease of use in difficult conditions. A wide, fast lens works best, ideally at least as wide as 24mm and as fast as f4. Wider and faster is better; lenses a little longer and a little slower are still manageable. To minimize camera shake, don’t extend 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:
It’s easier to identify potential moonlight locations and subjects in advance, in daylight
Avoid lots of intricate foreground detail–you’ll usually be focusing at infinity
Look for reflective subjects like water or granite, or subjects with a strong outline that stands out against the sky, such as trees or prominent rocks or mountains
Compose with the sky occupying at least 2/3 of the frame–it’s the starts that make night photography special; a frequent mistake photographers make is to not include enough sky
Try to include recognizable constellations, such as the Big Dipper, Orion, or Cassiopeia
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:
These settings will get your exposure within one stop; 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 usually opt for ISO 800 rather than increasing my shutter speed much higher than 20 seconds. If you have a lens that’s faster than f4, all the better–in that case you shouldn’t have much trouble keeping your ISO at or below 400, and your shutter speed at or below 20 seconds.
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 shoot. Invariably the camera is hunting in vain for focus because moonlight just 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:
On a tripod, compose your shot
Without changing your focal length, remove the camera from the tripod and autofocus on the moon
Return your camera to the tripod and switch the lens to manual focus (remember, don’t adjust your focal length!)
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 (the color of the light). Light temperature is important because most moonlight images seem 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.)