Night photography has become increasingly popular in recent years. With the improvement in camera technology, the average photographer can now capture high quality images at night with relatively inexpensive equipment.
When shooting at night, the moon often acts as your primary source of light, just like the sun does during the day. You should always know what the moon phase will be before you got out to shoot. Photographing under a full moon can produce drastically different results than shooting under no moon. While there is no right moon phase to shoot under, there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to shooting under different phases.
You can check the moon phases and the times and locations it will set and rise with The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) at http://photoephemeris.com/. TPE is also available as an iTunes and Android app, and you can also use the iTunes app PhotoPills.
When shooting at night, it helps to have camera gear that can capture high quality images in low light. Ideally, you’ll want a newer digital cameras that is rated well for low-light ISO performance and a lens with a very wide aperture that can let in a lot of light. You’ll also always need to shoot with the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. I provide detailed information on equipment I recommend in my new book “Collier’s Guide to Night Photography.” You will need a strong, heavy duty tripod with a tripod-head, an SLR, a wide angle lens and possibly a telephoto lens like the Tamron 150-600mm for close-up shots. Additionally, if you get “very” into night photography you may want a Robotic Camera Mount – these are pricey but can be very helpful. An example is the GigaPan EPIC Pro Robotic Camera Mount.
Other tools can make your photos sharper, more artistic, and your job easier, such as an Intervalometer, wireless or wired shutter release, and special star filters. Super important equipment note: make sure you have a large memory card and extra batteries as you’ll be taking lots of photos and taxing your battery as you snap images into the night.
Regardless of the moon phase you shoot under, you’ll usually want to use the widest aperture on your lens, such as f2.8. You can calculate your exposure time using the rule of 500. Simply take 500 divided by the focal length of your lens to get the number of seconds to expose the shot. If you shoot with a 50mm lens, take 500/50 = 10 seconds. You’ll also want to use the highest native ISO on your camera that doesn’t cause any highlights to be blown out on your histogram. Under no moon, this will usually be the highest native ISO on your camera (a native ISO is one represented only by a number, like 6400, not by a letter like H1 or H2). Under a bright moon, you may need to lower the ISO to prevent overexposing the image.
Shooting Under No Moon
The biggest advantage of shooting under no moon is that your camera can capture more stars, since moonlight obscures fainter stars. This is particularly important if you want to capture dramatic shots of the Milky Way.
The biggest disadvantage of shooting under no moon is that less light enters your camera and there will be more noise visible in the photographs.
Photographs taken under no moon and with no light painting will usually render foreground objects as dark silhouettes. This can be good for objects with interesting shapes, like a saguaro cactus, a gnarled tree, or some of the bizarre rock formations in America’s Desert Southwest. It probably won’t work as well for things with less distinct shapes, like mountains or canyons.
Deciding whether you want to shoot under no moon is ultimately an artistic decision. I often prefer shooting under no moon because of the dramatic starscapes I can capture with no moonlight obscuring the view. Also, I think that silhouettes can emphasize how dark it is and keep the primary focus on the dramatic night sky.
If you want to do any light painting, you’ll generally want to do this under no moon. You can capture the dramatic dark skies, while illuminating some of the foreground with a flashlight.
Shooting Under a Full Moon
The advantages and disadvantages of shooting under a full or gibbous moon are the reverse of shooting under no moon. With the bright light of a full moon, you will get less noise in your images. This can be advantageous if you are using an older digital camera or if you don’t have a lens with a wide aperture that can let in more light.
Another potential advantage of shooting under a full moon is that it will illuminate the foreground and bring out the color and detail in the scene, in much the same way as the sun would. If the foreground is the most important part of your image and you’re not as concerned with capturing a dramatic starscape, you may want to shoot under a full moon.
It can also be good to shoot under a full moon if you’re forced to shoot in an area that has some light pollution. The light pollution can create unnatural colors in the foreground and in the sky, especially in the clouds. The bright white light of the full moon can drown out some of the light pollution. However, if you are too close to city lights, even the full moon will not help much. In this case, it may just be best to find a darker location to shoot.
The biggest disadvantage of shooting under a full moon is that it obscures the light from the stars, and the skies will not look as impressive.
It’s generally best to photograph with the moon behind you, so that it illuminates the front of the object you are photographing. Also, it is usually better to shoot with the moon low in the sky. If it is high in the sky, it can produce harsh light, just like the sun does during the day. Shooting with the moon behind you and low in the sky will also keep the part of the sky you are photographing a little darker and more stars will be visible.
A full moon will be up most of the night. So if you will be facing west when photographing, it’s probably best to photograph early in the night when the moon is low in the sky in the east. If you’re going to be facing east, it’s generally best to photograph early in the morning when the moon is low in the sky in the west.
Shooting Under a Crescent Moon
While there can be some advantages to shooting under a full moon, I find that the bright light usually obscures the stars too much. Also, with newer cameras and fast lenses, noise is not as big of an issue as it used to be. I therefore find shooting under a crescent moon preferable if I want to render detail in the foreground and capture more stars in the sky.
An interesting fact about the quarter moon (or a 50% illuminated moon) is that it is only 9% as bright as a full moon. This is surprising to many people who would expect a quarter moon to be half as bright as a full moon. However, light from the sun bounces directly off of a full moon and straight back to Earth. Light from a quarter moon has to bounce at a 90-degree angle to reach Earth, and much of that light is blocked by irregularities on the moon’s surface like craters and boulders. The light from a quarter moon therefore obscures the stars much less than a full moon and will often result in more dramatic images.
I generally like shooting under an even fainter moon, when it is 10%-35% illuminated. This provides just enough light to illuminate the foreground, while only somewhat obscuring the stars. A moon that is 10% illuminated is less than 2% as bright as a full moon. However, even this much light is usually enough to illuminate the foreground if you’re using good equipment that doesn’t produce too much noise. You do, however, need to make sure the moon is directly illuminating the front of the foreground objects, as any large shadows will usually be too dark to render detail under such a dim moon.
If the moon is more than 50% illuminated, I find that it starts to drown out the light from the stars too much. I therefore usually plan my photography trips so that they end after the first quarter moon.
The waxing moon that occurs shortly after the new moon will appear in the western part of the sky after sunset. Thus, it is generally best to shoot under this moon when facing in an easterly direction.
The waning moon that occurs right before the new moon will appear in the eastern part of the sky before sunrise. It is generally best to shoot under this moon when facing in a westerly direction.
Throughout the year, the moon can also move from far south in the sky to far north. It wanders farther north and south than the sun does. You can plan to shoot in a southerly direction when the moon is to the north and in a northerly direction when the moon is to the south.
One exception to this is if you want to include the moon itself in the shot. In this case, you will of course want the moon in the same part of the sky that you are photographing.
Grant Collier has been working as a professional photographer for 20 years and has been shooting photos at night for 12 years. He is the author of 11 books and has just released a new book called “Collier’s Guide to Night Photography in the Great Outdoors.” Grant also organizes the Colorado Photography Festival, where you can learn night photography and much more.