The moon is a beautiful but often elusive element for nighttime landscapes. If your previous attempts have resulted in sheer lunacy, take a look at these helpful tips.
Nothing perks up an evening landscape like a rising moon hanging above the horizon. You walk out of the office to go home. It’s dusk and there’s still color in the sky. Then, like magic, the moon appears from behind the clouds. You feel like you can reach out and touch it, just like that. These are the small moments that often stay with us.
Trying to photograph that is another matter. The moon hanging just above the horizon looked so big. But it seems to shrink in size the minute you point a camera lens at it. What was once a compelling evening moonscape photographs as a bunch of clouds with an overexposed dot of light among them.
Don’t despair. By making a few adjustments to how you take the shots and applying a little photographic wizardry, you can bring the moon back to its rightful splendor. But to do so you have to overcome a few common obstacles.
Obstacle: The Moon Is Brighter Than Everything Else
If you wait until the sky is completely dark and the moon is high above the horizon, chances are the moon is brighter than everything else in the scene. The trick here is to catch the moon when it’s low and to include other bright things in the composition. When the moon is lower, it shines through more atmosphere than when it is high in the sky. The atmosphere serves as a neutral density filter of sorts and reduces the moon’s luminosity.
However, if everything else in the frame is dark, then your camera will expose for the dominating dark elements and thereby overexpose the moon, rendering it as a fuzzy dot of light. Look for adjacent elements to lighten up the scene, such as brightly lit buildings (their lights often go on at dusk, before darkness sets in), illuminated clouds from the setting sun, or any other radiant element.
You will have to experiment with your exposure times as so many elements will affect the outcome. The degree of available moonlight; any other light sources; clouds; rain; light reflective surfaces; each of them can make a huge difference to the amount of exposure time needed.
In general, during night photography, one can say that on a night of full moon, with optimum conditions, 8 seconds at f/8 using ISO 100 film will be about right. If there’s a crescent moon and conditions are also optimal, you would need as much as 10 hours on one shot! So you see experimentation while photographing the moon is really the only way to go.