In this post, I’m going to offer tips for photographing a moonscape (night landscape illuminated by the moon) and post-processing tricks for making these scenes pop. At night, a full moon can be used as a light source in a similar way as the sun during the day, except with less light.
There’s some science behind this, and it probably has to do with the sun being a star that is a light source, whereas the moon is a giant block of cheese that actually reflects light, or something like that. The only thing you really need to know for the purposes of shooting full moon landscapes is that the moon can be used as a light source in your photos.
I’m going to use a single photo to illustrate how this can be accomplished–a shot I captured at Yosemite National Park, during a 40-hour whirlwind photography trip to Big Sur, McWay Falls, Shark Fin Cove, Bixby Bridge, Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Crystal Springs Reservoir, and finally, Yosemite National Park. More on this awesome, sleepless trip later. (Update: here’s my Pacific Coast Highway Trip Report.)
Moonscapes are seemingly less common than star trails and Milky Way photography, and it’s important to point out from the beginning that I don’t recommend trying to photograph star trails or the Milky Way under the light of a full moon. You certainly can try if you want (and you’ll inadvertently end up with some star trails in most night landscapes), but the conditions that lend themselves to star trails and/or Milky Way photography are not the same as those that lend themselves to moonscape photography. As such, don’t use these tips for those types of photography.
Before we get to the photo at hand, here are some general rules of thumb for photographing moonscapes. First, you need a tripod. It’s an absolute necessity. Second, a remote is not a strict necessity, but I highly recommend one.
Finally, as for settings, it’s easiest to use an aperture in the range of f/2.8 to f/8, but I prefer an aperture of f/11 (we’ll get to why below). Shutter speed will likely be 30 seconds if you don’t have a remote, or will be “bulb” mode if you do have a remote, and could then be measured in minutes rather than seconds. ISO could be your base ISO if you have the patience and a remote, or might be something higher like ISO 800-3200 if you’re using the self-timer and doing 30 second exposures.
Another rule of thumb that I think is totally, absolutely wrong is that you shouldn’t include the moon. I’ve heard numerous photographers recommend not including the moon, and it baffles me. The logic is that you can’t properly expose for both the moon and the landscape, so choose one or the other. This is technically true, and is a good rule of thumb when you’re photographing the full moon itself, but usually these photos are occurring earlier in the late afternoon or evening as the moonrise occurs, when you can properly expose both the landscape and the moon in one frame.
Nighttime full moon landscapes are a different animal entirely, as they are the landscape being illuminated by the moon. The same rules don’t apply. Just as I don’t think it’s bad to shoot into the sun when photographing a daytime landscape, I don’t think it’s a no-no to shoot into the moon when photographing a nighttime landscape. In fact, I think shooting into both will–in most cases–lead to the better shot.
This photo was shot at Valley View/Gates of the Valley on a cold winter evening in Yosemite National Park, with the Merced River partially frozen over. For this photo, I used my Nikon D810, Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 fisheye lens, MeFoto travel tripod, and cheap-o wired remote.
The settings on the main photo here (it’s actually two exposures merged) were an aperture of f/11, shutter speed of 124 seconds, and ISO of 640. As is the case with all night photos I take, this was shot in full manual mode.
My starting point for this shot was the aperture. The conventional thinking that you don’t want to blow out the moon is sort of right in this case, but the easy way around this, I think, is to use an aperture that will cause a starburst (or “moonburst” since the moon isn’t a star). One thing I love about my Rokinon fisheye is that it bursts pretty well, and I can achieve a nice looking moonburst at f/11.
The problem with this is that an aperture of f/11 shooting landscapes at night dictates a really long shutter speed, or really high ISO, or both. Without the light of the moon, you’d be looking at a 10-minute plus exposure at a fairly high ISO. With the moon, you can bring that shutter speed down (in my case, to 2 minutes). I could have gone with a longer shutter speed and lowered my ISO, but it was absolutely FREEZING out there, we were on hour 34 of the trip with no sleep, facing a 6 hour drive back to Southern California, and since the D810 handles noise pretty well. Instead, I used a different trick…
That different trick was to shoot a second exposure at a more open aperture (f/6.3) with a shorter exposure and slightly higher ISO; this photo would be blended in to bring detail to the darker parts of the photo. I had to do this anyway because the location where we were shooting was alongside the road, and cars would intermittently drive by, causing large red and white streaks of light on the side of the frame.
If it weren’t for these headlights, I probably would have used a single exposure for this shot, as the f/6.3 shot really wasn’t that much brighter than the f/11 shot given that the exposure was shorter. One of the things I really like about this Rokinon 12mm lens (this is a brand new lens–I just reviewed it over at Disney Tourist Blog) is that, unlike fisheye lenses I’ve used in the past, it’s reasonably sharp wide open at f/2.8, and very sharp at f/4.
That’s a big deal, because my past fisheye lenses weren’t sharp until f/8. With other moonscapes shot during this trip, I took an exposure at f/11 and then one at f/4 so I’d have a second frame with more detail (if necessary). I don’t know why I only went to f/6.3 here…perhaps brain freeze? In any case, it wasn’t a costly mistake here. The light from the moon reflected off the river gave plenty of detail to the frame.
Editing the photo was fairly simple. I opened the two exposures in Adobe Camera Raw, then applied a basic preset I have that I made to open the shadows while giving it some contrast. Basically, this preset involves raising the shadows to +100, contrast to +25, blacks to +15, sharpness to +30, and clarity to +20.
Since this was a nighttime exposure shot at ISO 640, I dropped the sharpness to 0, and also backed the blacks back down to +3. To make the snow pop a bit, I increased the whites to +18. I normally leave the whites at 0 and actually recover the highlights a bit to equalize the histogram, but in this case, I didn’t mind if some parts of the photo were a bit blown. I thought the whites, blacks, and blues would play nicely together.
From there, I opened the two photos in Photoshop, and layered them on top of one another. I used a layer mask to brush in the portions of the second f/6.3 photo where there were not car headlights, and then also brushed in some of the detail along the tree line and in El Capitan. This didn’t really change the photo too much–it brought just enough detail into El Cap to give definition while still looking natural.
If you’re a beginning photographer, I can’t stress enough how important this “while still looking natural” bit is, moreso with sunsets shot into the sun than moonscapes, but the idea is the same. Quite often, I see sunset photos shot into the sun featuring a subject that would naturally look like a silhouette, but with full detail. I did this type of thing for a long time, and while it can look cool, keep in mind that it can also look really unnatural. Personal preferences obviously vary, but it’s a look I now try to avoid (not that my style is exactly photo-realism, but everyone has their limits).
Finishing involved applying a curves adjustment layer with white and black points selected, then backing the opacity of that layer down to 66% so it didn’t pop too much, then doing a vibrance adjustment layer and increasing that to +35. Finally, I used the healing tool to remove two dots of flare.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with the final shot. The biggest thing I would have done differently in hindsight is to take a much longer exposure and only bothered with a second photo for the headlights. I think one of the coolest features of moonscapes is those inadvertent star trails you get in super long exposures, and if I left my ISO at 64, I probably could have pushed this shot to 8 minutes or longer. That would have given me some cool star trails, instead of the little stubby trails here, which look a tad awkward.
If you’re planning a visit to Yosemite National Park, please check out my other posts about Yosemite for ideas of things to do and photography tips. If you’re into photography, I highly recommend Michael Frye’s Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite.
Are more photography technique posts in this style something that interests you? Is there any additional info you’d like? How would you have approached this shot differently? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!