Night Photography Explored – Part 3: Moonlight

Incoming Winter Storm in Moonlight

Camera: Canon 5D Mark III, Lens: Canon 17-40mm f/4, Aperture: f/11, ISO: 3,200, Shutter Speed: 10sec., Focal Length: 17mm

For many night photographers, the moon can be more of a deterrent from proceeding with night shots. Moonlight drowns out many faint stars, as well as the Milky Way. That means that you won’t be capturing bright Milky Way shots filled with an unfathomable amount of stars flooding a night sky. Where it hampers dark sky photography, however, it opens up new landscape possibilities, bringing new life to familiar scenes.

With moonlight, the focus isn’t just on the stars as it was with new moon photography. Instead, you now have the option to compose full landscapes and any sky that’s included will likewise include the brightest stars from the night sky, making it much easier to isolate many constellations. Even though there is much more light available than previously, you’ll still want to manually focus to infinity. This is still the best way to insure everything remains in focus.

Composition and Settings

As mentioned, your composition will be much more inclusive of landscapes than in the previous section. This is because with a longer exposure, the moon essentially acts just like the sun, shining enough light on the landscape to bring out its richness and details. Likewise, shooting directly into the moon will yield similar results to shooting into the sun: high contrast scenes which are typically too harsh to create a nice photo with. (As always, rules can be broken. If you’re new to it though, it’s best to understand the rules before trying to break them.)

To begin, your ISO will be able to come down considerably from dark sky shooting if you had pushed it up higher. An ISO of 1,000 or 2,000 should be plenty depending on the available moonlight. If you’re dealing with a crescent moon, you may find you want to increase it a bit. With a full moon, however, especially on a snowy landscape, an ISO of 1,000 won’t need to be exceeded.

Fall Colors Under Stars

Your aperture will also be adjusted depending on the available moonlight as well as the particular depth-of-field you’re trying to preserve. If your chosen composition doesn’t contain any foreground objects, meaning, the important elements of the scene are not right in front of you, you’ll most likely want an aperture of f/4 or so, which will preserve the depth-of-field from that distance. If you do have objects in your immediate foreground, you may want a higher aperture to preserve the depth between that object and the stars. Keep in mind that the higher the aperture goes, the more of the fainter stars you’ll lose. This is why it’s still best to stick with a low aperture if you can, but of course being able to showcase interesting objects in the foreground can always make for more compelling compositions. In either case, the brightest stars will still shine through very nicely.

Due to the aperture being increased, your shutter speed will most likely still be around 20 seconds or so. Again, this all depends on the settings narrowed down by the amount of given moonlight and compensations in other settings. If star trails were a problem from the previous section, this would be an opportunity to bring down your shutter speed while still allowing enough light for a nice landscape.

In terms of the histogram, you’ll want most of the information to either be in the middle, or even the middle-right. Unlike in the previous section where you wanted to preserve those highlights and stars by avoiding the right side, with moonlight, much of your exposure will share similar lighting, so preserving those details this time means capturing a full histogram “leaning to the right” as is one of the many phrases associated with daytime photography. For a refresher on the histogram, please refer back to Part 1.


With moonlight allowing you to compose a much more “natural” scene, this also means that certain rules of photography are brought back in, such as the rule of thirds. For those that don’t know, the rule of thirds is an understood rule of photography that breaks down your photo’s composition into thirds. Often, the most aesthetically pleasing images follow the rule of thirds. The reason is because upon initially viewing a photo, a viewer’s eye will naturally gravitate directly toward the center, so if your most important feature is directly in the center (think of countless sunset photos), you’ve immediately made the rest of the photo uninteresting and pointless. However if all of your interesting features lie along the lines that make up the thirds, you now have reason for the viewer’s eye to move around the photo to explore it.

What About the Milky Way?

If you’re in an area with a dark sky (regardless of moonlight), you’ll notice that you can still see the Milky Way Galaxy. Obviously, due to the moonlight saturating the night sky, you’re not going to get the bright, illuminating Milky Way shot, however, it can still make a nice accent to a moonlit landscape. Contrary to the previous section, it won’t be the focal point of the composition with moonlight. What it can do though is provide a subtle, interesting feature stemming from the ground, mountains, or whatever the case may be with your region.

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  1. Pingback:Night Photography Explored – Part 4: Northern Lights

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