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How to Photograph Under the Full Moon

Photographers often search for nights with little to no moon. However, a full moon can really add a different twist to your photography.

By: Austin Jackson + Save to a List

As night sky photographers, we are constantly in search of skies with little to no moonlight. The moon is incredibly bright, and acts similar to light pollution from a city, washing out many of the surrounding stars. Anything more than a crescent moon is too bright to shoot the Milky Way, however, experimenting in full moonlight can produce some very unique results. Hopefully this story will give you a few helpful pointers to shoot under the full moon on your next outing!

1. Illuminating the Foreground

If you've ever shot at night, you know that the foreground can tend to be pretty flat. However, in the moonlight, that all changes. Night scenes are transformed and a full moon can give a photo a magical glow. Under the full moon, only the brightest of stars will shine through, and the foreground is illuminated. Take a look at the two photos below. The first one was taken after the moon had risen, giving light to the foreground, therefore giving it depth and a three dimensional look and feel. The second photo, taken on the same night but before the moon rose, appears very flat, and noisy. These were both shot at ISO 1600 on a Sony a7rii with a constant aperture, with the only difference being in shutter speeds. 

Some people like to use a light to illuminate the foreground, however, this is something I never incorporate into my shooting techniques. Using a light, no matter how diffused, always appears uneven and fake to me. Moonlight is great because it is so high up and illuminates everything, even the things in the distance. With an artificial light, your foreground may be lit up, but on your horizon it will likely be dark.

Moonlight Illuminating Foreground
No Moonlight Illuminating Foreground

2. Be Cautious of the Moon in Your Frame

Including the moon in your frame will be very difficult to pull off. Because the moon is so bright, I tend to shoot it around 1/50 of a second shutter speed with a low ISO and a closed aperture. However, if you include it in your frame and do this, you will not be able to see anything else. If you want to include the moon in your shot, you have two options. Either shoot the moon when it is behind you and then blend it in later, or you can bracket the shot and take multiple exposures to blend in later. 

Taken at Mobius Arch, California

3. Darken the Foreground in Post Processing

When you go to process your image, the foreground is going to look very bright, and depending on your white balance settings (I leave mine on auto and fix in post), it may even look like day time. It's important that you use a gradient filter of some sort to darken and fix the white balance. We don't want our night time photos to look like they were shot at high noon! Check out the examples below, where you can see the first image appears to be shot during the day time. Using gradients, I darkened and cooled down the foreground to give it more of a night time look.

RAW File

Edited Version

4. Yes, a Tripod is Still Required

You will still need a tripod to shoot exposures at night. I was shooting shutter speeds between 5-10 seconds, and I doubt you can be perfectly still for that long!

5. Camera Settings

When shooting other night time photos, such as the Milky Way, we often open the aperture as much as possible. This is often f/2.8 or f/4. However, this is rarely the sharpest aperture for your lens. For full moon shots, you won't need as much light since the moon is lighting everything up. On my lens, I usually find the sweet spot to be about f/6.3 or so, but test in the day and find your sharpest aperture for each lens you own.

For shutter speeds, I generally use the rule of 400. The rule of 500 is a lot more popular, but if you plan on doing any large scale printing, go with 400. This basically means that you divide 400 (or 500 if you don't plan on doing any prints) by the focal length of your lens. For me, that is 18mm. 400 divided by 18 is 22, meaning I won't shoot longer than 22 seconds. This is because the earth turns, making the stars move in the sky overnight. If your exposure is too long, you will experience star trailing.

Even at 20 seconds on an 18mm lens, I still experienced some star trailing. However, this is zoomed in and on a normal size print, you would not be able to tell.

Lastly, your ISO is going to be the last thing you decide on. Set your aperture and shutter speed, and then test a few exposures to see what is the best ISO. I usually aim for around ISO 800, in order to keep the noise down. However, depending on your camera, you may want to open up your aperture in order to lower the ISO, if you shoot on a camera that does not handle low light as well.

To sum that all up, figure out your shutter speed first by dividing 400 (or 500) by your focal length. Then, try to keep your aperture somewhere around f/8, but this will be dependent on your camera and how much noise you can handle. Lastly, dial in the ISO. Take lots of different exposures and figure out what works best for you!

Hopefully this helps you shoot the night sky on your next outing. One of the best things about the full moon is it allows everyone to take very nice night sky exposures. Practically any DSLR that would struggle in the low light of a Milky Way shoot can still take very nice images after dark when the full moon is out.

I'll leave a few of my favorite full moon images below, and if you'd like to see more, check out my website, Instagram, or Facebook Page.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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