I came across a bunch of really nice night photographs the other day that a few people had taken using the light of the moon. At first I was skeptical that the pictures I was looking at were real, in that they seemed like they were heavily modified. The foreground was exposed as if it were daylight, yet I could still see stars in a blue sky at night. My first inclination was the sky was photoshopped, and the rest of the photo was a normal daytime exposure. I just didn’t understand how the foreground could be so well exposed and the stars visible under the light of the moon. When I look at the light cast by the moon, it looks drab and muted. However, as it turns out, these photographs were not modified. You can really get some stunning photos using the moon as a lighting source.
I decided I was going to try and recreate a similar exposure the next time conditions permitted. Towards the middle of July in 2016, the moon was about 90% full and the weekend was upon me. Weather conditions were not perfect, but they were close enough. There was a bit of haze and smoke in the sky due to a couple forest fires and there was just a bit of cloud cover low on the horizon. Nonetheless, I took a gamble and drove about 1.5 hours to Rampart Reservoir just outside Colorado Springs, CO. It’s actually closer to Woodland Park, but more people are familiar with the Springs when gauging distance.
I left around 7:00 pm MT and got to Rampart Reservoir around 8:30 pm MT. At first, I was a bit bummed because I thought the park might be closed to the public since it was so late, but it turns out there is an “honor” system pay box available for folks to drop $6 in a envelope and put a paper stub on their dashboard. By the time I got to the lake, there was still enough light so I could walk the trail and scope out a few good spots.
I knew I wanted to include the water in my compositions. I wanted the lake to have a “glass” look but also needed something else to capture the attention of the viewer. I found a good spot next to a rock outcropping, set up the tripod and took a few test exposures to get my framing right. Since I was shooting west, I had to wait another 2 hours or so for the sun to completely set, because the sky was still way too overexposed due to the light. By about 10:30 pm MT, I was taking a set of exposures using just the light of the moon.
Since I had never done this before, there was a lot of trial and error. I knew I needed to keep the aperture wide open at F2.8 to let in as much light as possible, but in hindsight, I’m thinking that might have been a mistake. Even though I have a really good lens on my full-frame Canon 6D, when it’s wide open, it gets a bit fuzzy around the edges and isn’t as sharp. I would have been better off shooting at about F3.2 or F3.5 to get things more sharp. Unfortunately, this is one setting I didn’t adjust, so all my shots were wide open at F2.8.
The three things I did tweak were focal distance, exposure times, and ISO setting. Exposure times were the first thing I worked on. At ISO 100, any exposure under 60 seconds were coming out way too dark. I started increasing the exposures to around 90 seconds, but what I found was the breeze was making the leaves a little blurry and the stars were getting smeared. To cut the exposure time, I increased the ISO to 200, then 400, then 800, then a couple tests at 2000. With the Canon 6D, there was very little noise at 200 and this cut my exposure times down to about 65 seconds. The stars looked a little better and there were a few more visible. At 400, I was able to reduce the exposure time to about 30 seconds and even more stars were visible. They were also brighter. At 800, I was down around 20 seconds, but the noise became visible on the lake. The stars looked good. As 2000, I didn’t see a whole lot more stars and there was considerable noise.
I did make a couple mistakes, though. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until I got back home and started the post-processing. My focal distance and focus were not correct. The rocks in the photograph were too close at 15 feet to be using F2.8 at 30mm when the trees across the lake were 1/2 mile away. As a result, the trees off in the distance were not in focus. Not even close. I needed to double my distance to about 30 feet if I were to shoot at a 30mm focal length. Stepping down the aperture to increase the depth of field didn’t seem like a good option because this would increase my exposure times leading to more star blur. I should have messed a round a bit more with the focal length and ISO for the composition.
Despite this, my first time shooting at night under the moon did yield some good results. I really set out to see if those other peoples photos I saw were in fact photoshopped. I can now sway with 100% confidence, they were not. Moonlight is very subtle, but with long exposure times produces a very rich and stunning light. Having learned from my mistakes, I’m hoping to make another trip to Rampart Reservoir and take another stab at it. Or, I might choose another location remembering to stop down to about F3.2 or F3.5 and calculate depth of field for focus and sharpness.