Shooting in Moonlight

With the recent supermoon, you’ve likely seen several photos of the moon captured and shared by both amateur and professional photographers. Even though moonlight can be intimidating to photographers, it is simply another source of natural light. And while capturing it can be tricky, the images can often be the most rewarding.

Instead of feeling intimidated by moonlight, it helps to remember that the moon is essentially just a giant reflector. Remembering this can help you to understand how moonlight will affect the image you capture.

Here we’re going to talk about how to capture quality images of the moon as your subject, and how to capture quality images using moonlight as your primary natural light source. We’ll start with capturing the moon itself.

1. Photographing the moon:

Photographing the moon itself is actually much different than using the moon as a light source. When photographing the moon, the rule of the thumb is to use the Looney 11 Rule, the Sunny 16 Rule’s counterpart. The Looney 11 Rule states that “For astronomical photos of the moon’s surface, set your aperture to f/11 and shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO film speed.” In other words, if you are using ISO 100 film, set the aperture to f/11 and the shutter speed to 1/100 second.

While this is a general rule of thumb, a standard starting point for shooting the moon is ISO 400 at ƒ/4 for 30 seconds. You will begin to see star trails in your photograph at exposure times longer than 30 seconds. If you are looking for stars with sharp edges, keep your exposure time less than 30 seconds and adjust your aperture and ISO accordingly. If you want to capture start trails, consider shooting on a moonless light.

It is also important to note that the moon’s brightness varies each month, as well as within the month, according to the moon’s phase. This moonlight tool will help you calculate and adjust your shooting variables according to the moon’s phases.

2. Using moonlight to illuminate your subject:

Using the moon as your light source can create dramatic, sharp shadows that produce compelling photographs.  While capturing the moon as your subject can be done throughout the moon’s various phases, using the moon to illuminate your subject is best during a full moon.

Here a photographer can see the moon’s phase and position by inputting the date and location of an upcoming shoot.

When photographing your subject using moonlight, turn your back to the moon, so that your subject is frontlit. When shooting in moonlight, just as daylight, it is helpful to have a strong foreground. Shooting reflective objects such as granite works well.

Instead of setting your manual focus ring to infinity, set the focus just short of infinity. This will bring more depth of field in front of the horizon and will help bring your foreground into focus. To take a test shot, set your ISO to 6400. This will allow you to figure out your exposure for shots that will only take a few seconds. Then use your exposure triangle to keep your exposure the same by increasing your shutter speed, closing the aperture and decreasing your ISO.

And be sure to shoot in RAW files so that you can adjust your white balance later. It is common for moonlit photos to appear to be taken in daylight, but you will be able to restore the proper color temperature in post-production.