Night Photography Primer Part 2: Moon and Star Light :: Digital Photo Secrets

Night Photography Primer Part 2: Moon and Star Light

by David Peterson 5 comments

If you’ve ever been out for a walk on a moonlit night, you know how powerful the light can be. Sometimes moonlight is so bright you can actually see far off into the distance. Believe it or not, it’s entirely possible to take a moonlit or starlit picture that appears as though it was taken during the day. You just need to keep your camera’s shutter open a lot longer. In this next section of our mini series on night photography, we’re going to learn how to capture moonlit and starlit scenes.

[If you missed them, see my Part 1, and Part 3]

When you think about it, the moon and the stars aren’t all that different from the sun. They both radiate light. It’s just that they’re usually too far away or too dim to completely illuminate what’s around you. Depending on the night, everything is either partially illuminated or pitch black. If you’re in a city, you probably won’t see many stars. But if you’re out in the country, consider yourself lucky. They’re everywhere.

Photographing faraway suns

To photograph starry skies, you really do need to be as far away from light pollution as possible. Light pollution is any light that comes off of street lamps, cars moving by, city buildings, and generally everything in the urban landscape. It’s often so powerful in comparison that it will block out most stars.

When the stars have to compete with the light surrounding you, they don’t stand out as much. It’s hard to get a high contrast photo from a glowing haze, so I don’t even try. I’d rather drive 100 miles away from the city than attempt to compete with that. For many, myself included, the drive is satisfying. It’s an almost religious experience.

By virtue of your being out in the middle of nowhere, it makes sense to turn your starry sky pictures into stunning landscape photos. You can still incorporate architecture into them, but be careful about lights. I’m not saying you can’t keep the lights on, you just need to make sure they aren’t bright. Otherwise they’ll create more light pollution to compete with the light from the moon and stars.

Locate the North Star

Depending on the duration of the exposure you choose, you might end up with some rather interesting looking arc-shaped streaks from the stars. As a photographer, it’s helpful to know where the stars will be moving so you can frame the action in an artful way. The North Star, a.k.a., the Pole Star, is a convenient guide that will help you get started.

How crazy is this? Those stars are moving in a circle because the Earth is spinning along an axis lined up with the North Star.

The North Star is particularly important because all of the other stars circle around it. If you want to know in advance what the moving stars will look like in your image, it helps to imagine the other stars moving around the North Star. Consider this before you frame the shot.

Use this handy guide to locate the North Star. In the southern hemisphere, it's a little harder, but you can use the Southern Cross and the Pointers.

The guessing game

You won’t know exactly how long you’ll be exposing any one shot. There really isn’t anything you can do about it. Starlit photography will always be a certain kind of guessing game. That’s because the light at night changes the game in an important way. Suddenly the reflectivity of the rocks and the varying light intensities from the stars and moon come into play. Exposure length, in these perpetually changing situations, can range from as little as 2 minutes to as much as 45 minutes.

Instead of blindly guessing, I like to get a feel for the light by starting with the quickest exposure possible. Switch your camera over to bulb exposure mode, press the shutter button, wait about two minutes, and then press the shutter button again to finish out the exposure. Two minutes is the least amount of time you’ll need to spend idly collecting light for a night photo.

Mono Lake captured under the light of a full moon.

For those unfamiliar with bulb mode, it’s a special setting available on most digital SLR cameras as well as some and point and shoot models. It’s just like any other shutter speed, except you get to directly tell the camera when to begin and end the exposure. It’s entirely designed for night photos just like the one you’re taking, when you don’t exactly know where to find the “sweet spot” for exposure time. It’s also handy when you’re measuring your exposure in minutes instead of fractions of seconds.

After you’ve taken your two minute exposure, take another exposure at five minutes. Note the difference in light levels between the two minute exposure and the five minute one. You’re going to take that difference as use it to guess the sweet spot. If you think you’ll need three times the brightness, for example, go for a 15 minute exposure and so on.

It also helps to pay attention to what you’re photographing. As you get more experienced with this, you’ll start to notice all the different types of rock and how reflective they are. Certain rocks take a lot less time to expose, especially when they’re covered in snow. When you know in advance, you can stop yourself from spending more time waiting in the cold.

Not that it’s always a bad thing. With good company, a hot thermos full of coffee (yes, coffee at 10 P.M.), and a few thermal layers, you won’t mind the cold. It’s a fun break from your day to day routine that’s worth doing every now and again. Or, if you’re like me, it’s something you do religiously at least once a month. I never have any regrets. It’s always a breathtaking experience.

Next time in our Night Photography Series, we'll look at photograping cityscapes at night.

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  1. Ghassem Kabiry says:

    please Gmail me from now on .Thanks

  2. David Peterson says:


    I can't be 100% sure because you didn't show me your photo, but yes,
    it's likely to be light pollution.

    I would not recommend taking photos of star trails unless you're a
    long way from a big city. That's the only way to stop it. Changing
    F-stops won't make a difference. ISO won't help either (although I
    would lower your ISO to 100, or 50 if you can).


  3. Sue says:

    I tried this technique and got a really neat shot! But... why is the sky super light? I shoot with a Canon Rebel xTi - used Manual mode on Bulb, for 30 minutes. The test shots I did for 2,5, and 7 minutes looked good, but at the 30 minute mark, the sky is very bright and the stars, while leaving the tracks I want, are not as visible. Is it light pollution? (I live in a small city) Should I set the F stop differently? (I have it on F8) What about the ISO (I have it on 200) I am very excited to try in a more rural area for a longer amount of time, but I hate to waste the battery and time if it's my screw-up. Help! Thank you!

  4. DK Hawk says:

    David, thank you for the tips on night photography. This was very helpful!


  5. Rosa Loots says:

    Thanx again. I learned a lot about night photography.
    This is great.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.