Photography Using Moonlight

Scott Book Photography Moonlight Night
South Platte River

Nothing like being deep in the Rocky Mountains under a full moon. There is enough reflected light that one can usually walk around without the aid of a flashlight. There is even enough light to take some really cool photographs of the surrounding landscape without any fancy equipment. About the only things one needs are a camera with “bulb” setting, a tripod and a good subject to photograph.

However, finding the right scene can take some planning. I usually take mental notes of neat and interesting places while I’m out and about during daylight hours. When well rested and motivated, I return days or even weeks later at night, under a full moon, and hope the weather is right.

One such place I recently visited at about 1:00 am MT was 11 Mile Canyon in the Rocky Mountains just off Highway 24. Because the canyon walls are steep and tall, I had to wait until the moon was higher in the night sky so the light would spill down unobstructed onto the South Platte river.

One of the trickier things about photographing in dark situations is focusing. It’s almost always too dark for a camera’s auto-focus to work, so one has to rely on manual focus. But even this is difficult when it’s really dark. One solution it to go into “live view” mode on the Canon and point the camera at the moon. Rotate the manual focus ring until the moon looks sharp. They other option is to set a flashlight on the ground about a hundred feet away pointing back towards the camera. I can then manually focus on the flashlight instead of the moon. Careful not to touch the focus ring, I set up for the scene I’m interested in shooting.

Scott Book Photography
11 Mile Canyon

Too add a bit a drama, I will usually light-paint with a flashlight and light up the objects I want the viewer to focus on. In both picture presented, I lit up the side of the canyon wall and the river water in the center of the shot. Not too much, though.You don’t want any one thing to stand out too much.

The type of flashlight makes a big difference in the colors captured by the camera. LED flashlights tend to be very blue and cool, while the old school incandescent flashlights are orange and warm. I used the latter in this case because the moon’s light is already on the cool end of the color spectrum.

When photographing the moon at night, you don’t typically want to expose the scene to be as bright as daylight. I like to keep it under-exposed and then in post-processing, brighten up and lift the shadows in the areas of interest. That gives the photograph the dreamy moonlight feel. How long you expose for is a trial and error process. On this night, there was a thick fog that reduced the amount of moonlight reaching the ground. So my exposure times were about 90 seconds.


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