How To Shoot Landscapes Under a Full Moon

full moon landscape

This article is about taking photos at night under a full moon or near a full moon. At night, the moon will act as a light source in exactly the same way the sun behaves during daytime, so you will be able to take photos that look like daytime scenes but with stars in the sky, and that’s really cool and unusual.

full moon

Getting Started
You will need your camera, a tripod and your lens of choice. The aperture (f-number) will depend on the scene and the depth of field you need. In most scenes, something between F4 and F8 will be enough. The exposure time will depend on your decision for the stars. If you want star-trails, then you can expose for as long as you want. If you want the stars without trails, then your exposure time is constrained and you have to find your maximum exposure time by trial and error. So let’s recap this:

For Trailing Stars

  • Aperture depends on DOF (F4 to F8)
  • Set the ISO to something like 200 or 400
  • Exposure time decides the illumination of the scene
  • Long exposure noise reduction = OFF

For Round Stars

  • Aperture depends on DOF (F4 to F8)
  • Exposure time is the maximum you can afford without star trails
  • ISO decides the illumination of the scene
  • Long exposure noise reduction = ON

So in one case you fix the ISO and expose based on shutter-time and in the other case you fix the shutter-time and expose based on ISO.

full moon

Nightscapes With Round Stars Under The Full Moon – How I Do It
When I don’t want the stars trailing I always use a wide or ultra-wide lens, this is because with longer focal lengths the apparent motion of the stars in the image is larger and you get trails at short exposures. So I put my widest lens in the camera to start.

Then I start taking exposures and checking the photo in the LCD for trails. I usually start around 20 seconds and see if I can expose a little more or if I need to go to a shorter exposure. You may be wondering why this trial and error approach is needed if we always use the same camera and lens. The answer is that the trails also depend on the area of the sky you are photographing, the closer you are to the North or South celestial pole the slower the stars will trail while close to the celestial equator the stars will go faster. So I always find the maximum exposure time by trial and error. Make sure to check the borders of the photo, the center always looks nice.

Once I have found my maximum exposure time I raise the ISO until the scene looks like a daytime photo. A word of advice here: at night you always tend to underexpose. Your pupils are dilated and the photo in the camera LCD will look brighter than what it really is. So always tend to overexpose a little in the camera, shooting RAW there’s no risk.

Think this: you can always lower the brightness if needed without a price but raising the brightness increases noise so going over is always better than going under when you shoot and night.

full moon landscape

Nightscapes With Star-Trails Under A Full Moon – How I Do It
When I want to shoot a nightscape with star-trails, I choose my lens depending on the scene; any focal length really works. Under a full moon, I usually choose the ISO as 400 or 800 as I don’t need to go higher than that.

Once I have fixed the ISO and f-number, I take test exposures until I find and exposure that makes the scene look like daytime with care to overexpose a little as I explained before.

Once I have a photo that looks nice, I repeat the same shot “n” times, with “n” depending on the real exposure time being used, how long I want the star-trails, how cold it is outside and dinner time. You have to be careful to turn off long-exposure noise reduction in your camera or the time used for noise-removal will create gaps in your trails.

A remote interval simplifies the capture process enormously. If you plan to do many star-trails photos then you probably need one.

Once the “n” photos are taken I stack them using StarStax a free software that is very easy to use and will produce the final star-trails image in seconds.

Taking “n” short exposure photos has several advantages compared to taking a single super-long-exposure shot. The biggest reason is to avoid thermal noise due to the sensor heating in a long exposure. Thermal noise is not an issue for exposures below 2 or 3 minutes but if you go to 10 minutes or beyond the image will look very noisy. A second reason is that if a plane, flashlight or anything crosses your scene you can just discard one of your exposures without ruining your whole shot.

full moon

Including the Moon
This is the most common mistake that people tend to do when shooting under a full moon. There’s a good reason for this which is dynamic range. The dynamic range of human eyes is impressive; you can see details in the moon surface and in the landscape at the same time, but that’s impossible for the camera with today’s technology, no matter how hard you try you can get moon and the landscape properly exposed at the same time(*). And doing HDR is really difficult because most HDR programs create a mess when you have such a wide difference in brightness and the moon included in the shot. If you manage to compose a good-looking HDR and you want to share the technique, then many photographers will be happy.

Having said that, you can still include the moon as long as you accept it will look overexposed in your photo. I recommend using a very wide lens to make the moon apparent diameter as small as possible and reduce the effect of the blown-out moon in the whole image. You also need to control or use lens-flare to your advantage. It will be a difficult shot, but it can still look nice.

(*) There’s one exception: when thin clouds partially obscure the moon, then you might be able to expose for both the moon and the landscape in a single shot. The clouds act like a natural nd-filter with selective effect on the moon only.

A panoramic image is a good way to include the moon in the scene and reduce the effect of its overexposure in the photo. Stitching problems have no major problem assembling the panorama; it’s just like any other daytime image.

full moon

If you like landscapes, then going out under a full moon is a great way to expand your horizons without changing your way of working much. You will just use the moon as you use the sun in a daytime scene. The results will look surprising, unusual and very special.

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6 Comments on "How To Shoot Landscapes Under a Full Moon"

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These are great tips. I have always found night photography confusing. This was really helpful.

Pamela Foster

Your photo of Nightscapes with star trails under a full moon is absoutely beautiful!



Annette (Schrab) Clark

from what I read recently, I didn’t think you could get good-if any-star trails on a full moon night. This is very interesting! I assume you set up before dark to find your composition and set focus. I’m curious if the above star trail landscape is a one-shot or stacked images? Thanks! This was really helpful!

david G

Great tips, let’s try now

Josh M

Awesome tips man! Gave me a few good ideas for a trip coming up. Love the shots posted. Thanks for the tips!

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