Ive always loved photographs of night skies, and on clear nights, when the sky is filled with stars, you can achieve really beautiful, magical shots. Similarly, you can create very atmospheric shots of the moon, either as your main subject, or as a striking focal point in the background. It might surprise you to learn that the one thing you cannot achieve, is a clear shot of the moon AND the stars in the same shot, and I’ll explain why in a moment. So you first need to decide, am I taking a photo of the stars? Or the moon? Am I taking a wide landscape shot, with a big sky full of stars? Or a close up of the moon, hovering over the horizon?
In this blog I will tell you how to do both types of shots, and give you an understanding of the technical challenges posed by night photography, and outline the different settings you will need on your camera, so that you will be able to achieve exactly the photograph you want.
The reason why you can’t capture the stars and the moon in the same shot is because they both emit very different levels of light. Compared to the stars, the moon is incredibly bright. And whilst you can see both with the naked eye, your camera is far more sensitive to light. If you adjust your settings to photograph stars, then the moon will be so overexposed, there will be no detail in it, and it will pretty much burn out your entire image. If you set your camera aperture for getting a great shot of the moon, with all its wonderful details, then the stars will not show up in your image at all, you will just have a great shot of the moon in what will appear to be a starless sky. Its unfortunate that you cant get both in the same shot, but its something you need to understand before you begin, so that you can make your choice – moon or stars.
So lets start with the moon, since thats the simplest. Because it is very bright, compared to stars, its doesn’t pose such a problem, technically. Your main challenge is composition. If you just want a shot of the moon surrounded by a night sky, its very easy. But for a really striking image you want some landscape in there too, so you need to plan your shot for when the moon first rises over the horizon, as it rises very fast, and within 40 mins it will be so high, you wont get anything other than sky into your shot, unless you are using a wide lens making the moon quite small in your shot. The sea is great, because it reflects, adding drama, but if you aren’t anywhere near the sea, then open fields, or winter trees can also make for excellent landscape shots. Buildings, city skyline, can also make great subjects.
Choose a clear night with a full moon. To get in close, making the moon large in your image, use a long lens, at least 200mm, but the longer your lens, the better. If you are using a zoom lens, zoom in as far as you can. This will bring the moon ‘closer’ to you, making it appear large in your image. I would always recommend using a tripod, because the longer your lens, (or the more zoomed in you are,) the more any tiny wobble from the shutter will be magnified, causing you to lose sharpness.
Now onto camera settings. Always have your quality settings set to highest quality, to record as much info as possible. If your camera can take RAW images as well, these will give you the best results.
Get into manual mode. Set the white balance to daylight. Set the focus to infinity. Set your ISO to 100 to give you maximum clarity and sharpness, with no noise or grain. Set your aperture to 1/125 sec. Start with an aperture of f11, and then review the photo. You don’t want your moon too bright, you want the details, but if it looks too dark, open up to f8, review the image, and then adjust your aperture till you find the optimum f stop. Once you have that, experiment a little with your composition, leaving all the camera settings fixed.
Stars are a lot more tricky, since they emit much lower levels of light, so most of your settings need to be right at the opposite end of the scale. Also, you’ll get a much more dramatic shot if you use your widest lens. If you only have a zoom lens, then zoom out as wide as you can. Because of the relative brightness of the moon, pick a clear night where you have no moon – a new moon. This only happens once a month, but a day either side of this should be fine.
Again, manual settings. Set the white balance to daylight. Set the focus to infinity. To allow more light in, so that you can capture the more faint stars, you need to set your ISO to 800 or 1600. I would do a few shots on each setting. ISO 1600 will allow you to capture more stars, but the higher the ISO, the more noise / grain you have in your image, so there is a compromise either way, which is why I use both.
Open up your aperture as wide as it will go, again, this is to let more light in. Try f.2.8. Finally, you will need to have your shutter speed set to long exposure, as you will want the shutter open for at least 25 seconds. I do mine for 30 seconds. If you have the shutter open longer than that, then due to the movement of the earth, the stars start to look like little lines, rather than dots. So 30 secs is really the longest you can have your shutter open. If you have it open for less than 25 seconds, you won’t capture as many stars, so I would try 25 secs and up to 30 secs. Because of the long exposures, you can only do this shot with a tripod.
If you use photoshop, then there is a lot you can do afterwards to enhance your images, by adjusting the brightness, sharpness, contrast, and even the colour balance. So just play around, there are no fixed rules here, as it really depends on your image. But the great thing about it, is that the experimenting is really fun and creative, and as long you have set your camera correctly when photographing the moon or the stars, you will have wonderful images to work with!