Photography Using Moonlight

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 high, I had to wait until the moon was higher in the sky so the light would spill down unobstructed onto the South Platte river.

11 Mile Canyon @ 2:30 am MT (

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. I usually bring a bright flashlight, set it on the ground pointing towards me, walk back about 50 feet away, the manually focus on the flashlight. Careful not to touch the focus ring, I set up for the scene I’m interested in shooting.

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 the above scene, I lit up the side of the canyon wall and the river water in the center of the shot. 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.

South Platte River (

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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