Photographing A Moonlight Scene

Moonlight scene
A rural scene lit by a full moon.
Stray light from the town behind the trees reflecting from the clouds creating the “rays” in the background.

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 Photographing A Moonlight Scene


The moonlight.

The full moon.

What else has been a greater source of mystique in stories, movies, songs or photos?

It can transform people into werewolves, turn them insane or be a measure of fertility.

A more down to earth way of looking at the moonlight though, is that it can make for some great photo opportunities.

This is the story behind the moonlit image at the top of this post.


How did I plan the timing of the moonlight scene?

The very first thing to do is to find out when the moon is full.

Photographing using the moon as the only light source is best at the night of the full moon +/- a few days.  More than a few days either before or after the full moon, the light will be too weak. You will then need some impractically long exposure times to get a decent picture out of it.

What I do to find the phases of the moon and plan my photographic endeavors accordingly, is to use an app on my phone.

It’s called Sundroid. This one is for Android based phones.

Here are some alternatives for IPhone users.

With the Sundroid app, I can keep track of the moon’s phases, when it rises and sets, its elevation as well as track its position on a map (google maps). For finding the moon phases only, you could also just find a calendar online, like this one.

After conferring with a few of my fellow members from the local camera club, who wanted to come with me on this little excursion, we decided to go hunting for moonlight scenes the night after the full moon. This was the night with the most promising weather forecast.

This is where the luck part comes in. The weather has to be good. There has to be little or no clouds to disturb the moonlight. Sometimes there is overcast weather for the entire week of the full moon, and the only option is to wait another month for a new opportunity.

If the photograph you’re planning has a seasonal aspect, you might have to wait several months to get the same opportunity again. All in all, this type of photography requires some planning and good luck.

What kind of camera gear and lenses did I bring?

I brought my Pentax K-5 with the Sigma 10-20mm lens attached, and I brought my Pentax K-7 as a backup camera as well as a 40mm and 150-500 mm lens.

I usually go for a very wide-angle lens first when I’m photographing moonlight scenes. There’s something about wide-open landscapes, depth, shadow play and star trails in a super wide-angle view that appeal to me.

Of course, this is a matter of personal preference and taste. Any kind of lens can be used for this kind of photography.

In this case, it turned out that the 10-20mm lens was the only lens I used on the entire trip.

What really is important on a trip like this is to know your gear. It will come in handy to know your camera’s functions and buttons by heart, to avoid fumbling and frustration in the dark.

Of course, a headlamp can be used, but bear in mind when and where you turn it on. Especially if you’re out photographing with other people. It’s easy to ruin someone else’s shot by adding some stray light to his or her composition by accident (or maybe even your own if you become a bit distracted).

When using a headlamp or a flashlight you also lose some of your natural night vision for a while as well, and it takes a while getting used to the dark again afterwards.

I also brought my Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod, and my small Pentax IR Remote control.


How did I decide on this location?

The location where we decided to go look for our moonlit scenes, is an open-air museum at the edge of the town where I live.

It features old farmhouses from several parts of Norway, a theme that would lend itself well to be photographed under the moonlight.

In this case, I knew I wanted a side lit image. This makes the shadows and contrast more apparent.

The moon’s position and elevation in the sky decides the direction and length of the shadows.


How did I decide on this composition?

What first caught my eye about this scene was the old farmhouse and how the road went past it into the distance.

I knew I could use that to illustrate depth in the image.

Next, I noticed the birch trees at each side of the frame, creating some sort of symmetry on each side. That was about all I was thinking regarding composition before taking this photograph.

I didn’t even notice at the time, what in my opinion, would really make the final image.

Stray light from the town beyond hit the scattered clouds above, and with a long exposure, these clouds moved quite a bit. This in turn created an effect of “light rays” seemingly radiating out of the middle of the image.


What camera settings did I use?

The overall amount of available light is what mainly decides how long exposure times to use.

A general guide to exposure times when photographing under the moonlight can be found here. He talks about film photography in that article, but the principles apply to digital photography as well, except the part about reciprocity failure.

When using exposure times longer than 30 seconds, you will have to resort to BULB mode (on most cameras). This is the mode where the camera shutter stays open for as long as the shutter button (or remote control button) is depressed.

Then you will have to time the shutter speed yourself, hence the expression “timed exposures”.

My Pentax K-5 and K-7 cameras have a nice setting for using the IR remote in BULB mode. Press the remote once to start the exposure, and press it again to end it. Very convenient. No need to hold any buttons pressed for minutes on end.

You can also get remote triggers with timers built in to help you with these kind of exposures.


I had the focus ring on the lens set to 1 meter (3 feet) as I do most of the time with this lens, taking advantage of the hyperfocal distance.

I set the aperture to f/11. I wanted to use f/16, but realized that the exposure time would be extremely long. f/11 would still provide sufficient sharpness.

I refuse to raise the ISO except when absolutely needed, and especially in nighttime photographs as it would easily introduce ugly noise in the image. Although my K-5 usually performs well at high ISO, it’s best to not take any chances. Therefore, it was left at ISO100.

The settings summed up were:

10mm, f/11, 213 seconds, ISO100

The 213 seconds wasn’t a setting though. It was the result of an exposure I started while talking to my friends and forgetting the timing.

The image turned out quite dark.

I triggered the camera again for another exposure. When that finished the entire image was a weird blur.

I was a bit baffled at first, but then I realized what had happened.

After spending over 2 hours with my camera out in -15 C (5 F) degrees, frost had formed on the lens.

It was time to go home.

After researching solutions to this problem online later, I’ve ordered two of these lens muffs. A simple product that makes it possible to use disposable hand warmers to keep the front element of the lens warm, and prevent frost from forming. I will update this post when I receive and get to test them.

It seems there are a few DIY solutions to this problem out there. Do you have one of your own? Please tell me about it in the comment section below.


What kind of post processing did I do with this image?

Since it was a too short exposure and a dark image to begin with, I was really expecting to throw it away, until I started playing with the sliders a bit in Adobe Lightroom.

I raised the total exposure about 2 EV. Then lifted the shadows and the blacks a bit. This introduced some noise to the image so I had to move the noise reduction slider a bit. I pulled the white balance slider a bit to the left, making the image looking slightly cooler.

A bit of final contrast adjustments and it turned out to be a decent photograph of a moonlight scene.


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