Tips for Photographing Moonscapes

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

Your Thoughts…

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!

101 Things to Do in Southern California
The eBook is 51 pages long, featuring 75 photos, and (obviously) 101 things to do in Southern California. If you want a copy of this totally free 101 Things to Do in Southern California eBook, all you need to do is subscribe to our newsletter and you will receive a link to download the eBook.
We respect your privacy.

16 replies
  1. Frank Lindgren
    Frank Lindgren says:

    Dude, technically this is not a moonscape. That doesn’t look like the moon and if I want the moon to look like a star
    I wouldn’t have read your article. I want the moon to look like the “moon” with detail sitting in the sky and the foreground
    properly exposed. There are hardly any articles on how to do this properly. And if you had left your shutter open for 2 minutes there should be more movement since the moon is moving (earth)

  2. George
    George says:

    Yes, please do more of these! I get a lot out of them, both as far as the work being done with the camera, as well as post-processing. In my case, I’m pretty comfortable with shooting, but am only now starting to feel my way through post-processing, so any information is great.

  3. Christina
    Christina says:

    Thanks for following up on all the requests for more technique-focused posts! Looking forward to learning more about both your actual picture-taking and post processing.

  4. Clara
    Clara says:

    Yay, so excited for Technique Tuesdays! Thanks for doing this. It’s fascinating to hear about your thought process and then the step-by-step decisions you made. I’m relatively new to photo editing (learning Lightroom right now) – is there a site or book that you recommend for beginners to familiarize themselves with things like curves adjustment layers, etc.?

  5. Olivia
    Olivia says:

    Awesome! I’m going up to the Rockies this month and I’m going to try this! I have my tripod and remote so maybe I can get some nice photos in dry stream beds, like the one you posted. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    Great first post, Tom! Now I have something to look forward to on Tuesdays!! 🙂

    Thank you for taking the time for something like this. Your fans, I’m sure, will all appreciate it!

  7. KCmike
    KCmike says:

    Such a wealth of information. My family and I are headed back to Yosemite in the early summer when the falls are in their full tilt. Thanks for taking the time to give us your techniques and the backstory of how it all went down. It makes for such entertaining photography. I can’t imagine staying up that long and then making the long boring drive back down towards SoCal. Glad you both made it back safely. Can’t wait to see your seascapes and coastal images. While Yosemite is “Heaven on Earth” for me, I fall head over heals for California’s Central Coast and Monterey area.

  8. George Potter
    George Potter says:

    I love this idea.
    Please continue making notes on your compositional choices too, like your thought process here about the moon inclusion. Your compositions are fantastic and that’s what I learn the most from your work.

  9. Louise
    Louise says:

    Thanks for your detailed description of the technique you used for this photo Tom! I will look forward to more Technique Tuesday posts!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *