A version of this article was published in the November/December 1997
and February/March 1998 issues of Nature Photographer magazine.

Click on the pictures for a larger view and description.

One clear November night, while walking in the woods below my house in New Hampshire, I realized that the moon was so bright that I could turn off my flashlight and continue on unaided. I started to wonder why, if I could see clearly enough to walk through the forest, I couldn't photograph that same forest under similar conditions. The simple fact is that landscapes can be photographed using moonlight, provided you learn afew important techniques and have the right equipment for the job. Just as your eyes adjust to moonlight and allow you to see almost as well as in daylight, a camera can do a very good job exposing film using only the light of the moon.
There is a big difference between daylight images and those taken using the moon's light. The extended period of time required to expose an image atnight allows and forces the camera to capture elements of landscapes thatthe brain is unable tocomprehend under normal circumstances. The contours and patterns, theaspects of light and howit interacts with a scene, look vastly different when a subject's rapidchange and motion arecaptured on film -- not as an instant in time, but as 10, 15, or even 40minutes in time.
Over the last few years, I have worked at developing the techniquesand determining what equipment is necessary for achieving success in thisvery different type of nature photography. This article gives a briefprimer on the equipment, techniques, and new ways of thinking necessary toeffectively photograph landscapes illuminated only by the light of themoon.

There are several items that are necessary to effectively use thelight of the moon to illuminateyour landscapes:
Wood or large metal tripods work best. I have used large Bogen tripods andmedium-sized Sliks; both have performed admirably when all screws weretightened to the maximum.People that I have introduced to these techniques who have used small aluminumtripods have not alwaysbeen satisfied with their performance. I strongly encourage investing inas sturdy a tripod as youcan afford if you intend to attempt this sort of photography regularly.
I use my Nikon F3HP, exclusively, for moonlight photography. The moremanual your camera, the better. The most difficulty I have ever witnesseda photographer havewas experienced by a friend accompanying me in North Carolina as hestruggled to make hisNikon N90 accept the length of exposures he was attempting to program intoit.
Any camera that can easily be set for manual exposure using a cable lockis appropriate for moonlight photography.
I bring a variety of lenses with me, ranging from a 35mm f2.0 to a 300mm f4.5.Use whatever lenses you already own and are comfortable with. Although thefaster your lensesare the less time you will actually have to spend photographing, speed isnot your most importantconsideration.
Contrary to what logic may suggest, in this case, faster isnot better! I cannotoveremphasize this. To spend hours of your night photographing a beautifulscene only to havethe images come back grainy is not acceptable. The time you save with faster films will not beenough to make it worth your while. There are only a few films that Iwould consider: Kodachrome and theslower Fuji slideemulsions.
When photographic film is exposed for very long lengths of time, itoften is affected by what is called reciprocity failure. Reciprocityfailure, which causes color shifts in developed images, varies dependingupon the film's chemical formulation. When Kodachrome suffers reciprocityfailure,images gain anorange-reddish cast. When Fuji's Velvia and Provia suffer reciprocityfailure, they gain abluish-green cast. If my images are to shift their color balance, I preferthat they leantowards the blue-green side of the spectrum, so I use Fuji's Provia forthis type of photography. If you have a favorite slow filmthat you are accustomed tousing, use it. I recommend a speed ranging from 50 to 100 ASA, althoughKodachrome usersmay want to experiment with their 25 ASA slide film.
The above items, plus a high-quality cable lock (I haveseen three cable locks fall apart and instantly finish these outings), areall of the photographicequipment needs that you will have. I do not recommend using filters toget around reciprocityissues or for any other reason. The exposures are too long and youare likely to getdisturbing or confusing "ghosts" of reflective light sources that you didnot see when you framedthe image. Each time you go out for a moonlight shoot, as for anyimportant shoot, you should ensure that you have plenty of fresh batterieson hand to keep your camera's shutter functioning. This is particularlyimportant if you use an automated camera which has a high electricity andbattery demand.
There are a number of non-photographic needs thatshould be addressed. The first of these is a source of light beyond thatof the moon, for your ownuse and safety. You must safely get to the spot where you plan to takeyour photos. In addition,you must be able to choose apertures, change lenses, and so forth, inbetween shots. If youchoose to photograph smaller details of your scene, you will need toilluminate these in order tofocus. Having tried many different types of light sources, Iwholeheartedly recommend the use ofa headlamp. You will need a watch or a stopwatch of some sort to time yourexposures.

Keep in mind that you will be taking these photographs late at night,presumably following afull day and knowing that you have to drive home following your successfultrip. It is essential,therefore, to prepare for your physical needs: bring along snacks andwater (and possibly athermos of your favorite beverage) to keep your body happy and well-fueled.Out in nature late atnight is no time for mistakes caused by hunger and fatigue. Also, dresswith the understandingthat you will be still for several hours, late at night. Wear an extralayer or two of clothing beyondwhat you think necessary, and thicker socks than you think you need.

When taking photographs utilizing the moon as your primary lightsource, time is of theessence. There are only a few days each month when moonlight photographyis even possible.Although the night of the full moon is the best, there is usuallysufficient light to photograph withon either of the two days before or after.
The light is best for your purposes starting about two tothree hours after the moon rises. At this time, it will be high enough inthe sky to fully light yourscene, without losing shadows, which will happen when it is directlyoverhead. This ideal time to shoot may occur at any time of the night,depending upon what time the moon rises. You will find that some months itis not possible to shoot at all because the moon rises extremely late orduring the daylight hours. Check theweather section of your newspaper to determine moonrise times.
Even after you have learned from experience the time necessary formoonlight compositions inyour favorite spots, a nighttime photo session will take 2-3 hours tocapture 10 or more images.Plan accordingly. I have only managed a few times, in the summer monthswhen it was warm, toshoot an entire roll of film in a single outing. When you are beginningthe learning process, expectto take only two to five different images per shoot, accounting for timespent bracketing. If youcan convince a photographer friend to come along, it is not only easier topass the time, but safer.I recommend that all but the most experienced outdoorspeople make this anexcursion for at leasttwo people.

Composition is vitally important to moonlight photography, as it is toall photography. I willnot dwell upon the usual "rules" of composition, many of which by necessityapply to thisprocess. There are additional rules that apply specifically to landscapestaken by the light of themoon.
The first is to avoid placing too much sky in your pictures. The skyhas almost no albedo, orreflectivity. In addition, there are numerous light sources found in thesky -- planets, stars,airplanes, the moon, UFOs, and the like -- which will not only effect yourexposure, but may alsocreate unpleasant bright streaks through your image. If you are shootingnear an urban area, thesky will likely be very bright due to light pollution. Flight patterns maybring airplane lightsthrough your image. I try to keep the sky to a minimum in nighttimephotographs, unless I knowthat there will be little light interference.

It is useful to try to include in your images subjects with a varietyof albedo. I like to shootrocks, trees and other plants, and especially water. Rivers and streamswith waterfalls or rapidsare ideal for moonlight photography because the water reflects differentamounts of light dependingupon how it moves. A scene which includes still water, a waterfall orrapids, and a shore of sometype works well. I have also had wonderful results with the beach,especially with large breakingwaves, due to the various characters of light reflected in different partsof the scene. Shadows castby objects are valuable in illustrating the difference between moonlightand daylight in yourimages.
Bracket your exposures. The likelihood of properly exposing yourfirst attempt at moonlightphotography is almost zero. All of the rules that you have been taught,your light meter andprobably the light meter in your camera, are useless to you now. You maywant to test the abilityof your camera to correctly expose your images. Although no manufacturerwill claim to haveprogrammed its camera to deal with exposures much longer than 15 seconds,the camera doesn'talways know that! I have found that my F3 occasionally comes close tocorrectly exposing imagesof an almost unbelievable length of time; yours may too. Despite this, donot count on yourcamera to properly expose your nighttime images.
Always set your lens to its fastest aperture, focusing on infinity(unless you are shooting adetail and have used your light to focus upon it). With your camera on asturdy tripod, anappropriate composition framed within your viewfinder, your lens wide openand focused out, anda cable lock attached to your shutter mechanism, you are ready to starttaking pictures.

Make your first exposure approximately 2 minutes, your second around5, your third around10, and take a fourth for about 15 minutes. Clearly, time constraints willprevent you from takingmore than a few different pictures until you learn the character of thelight where you are shooting.The amount of water or rocks in your frame will greatly effect the lengthof your exposures; themore high-albedo objects or surfaces, the less time you will need (snow isthe best!).
Unlike daytime photography, a few seconds of exposure either way isnegligible. If you missthe time you specified to stop your exposure, it is not a catastrophe.When dealing with 10-20minute exposures, it takes entire minutes to alter the exposure noticeably.Experiment with thelength of exposure your first few times out. Write down the length of eachexposure consistently; this will help you identify "typical" exposure timesfor various light and scenery qualities.

During the day, your eyes rely primarily upon the cones in the retina,seeing the world incolor. As the sky darkens at night, the rods in your retina take over mostof the work of vision,and you begin to see the world in white, gray, and black. What you see inthe landscape is notwhat your camera and film will capture.
Color slide film always sees in color, regardless of whatthe photographer perceives with her brain.
The leaves of trees that you perceive as gray will be green to yourcamera, if exposed longenough. As in the daytime, still water reflects the color of the sky overit. Moving or falling waterbecomes a bright white reflection of the moon's light. Rocks are stillgray, while wood is brown.Flowers, if their blossoms are open, are the same color they would be indaylight, even thoughyou perceive them to be gray. Shadows of moonlight are often moreblue-tinted than those ofdaylight. The light falling upon everything is much whiter, less yellow,than the light of the sun.All of these hues are invisible to you as you look at the scene throughyour viewfinder. Your brainsees shades of gray where there is in fact a myriad of colors waiting to bereleased onto your filmwith extremely long exposures. None of the colors can be perceived by yourbrain at night, butyour camera will capture them for you if you let it.
Be aware that clouds in the sky will greatly affect this particularphotographic pursuit. Do notbe afraid of skies with partial clouds, but do determine beforehand wherethe clouds will be in thesky in relation to the moon. If they will obscure its light substantially,consider another night.Clouds create color and tonal differences in moonlight photographs, and ifthey do not obscure themoon, they can create very interesting effects. Increase the time of eachexposure by severalminutes on nights when the moon shines through thin clouds.

Photographing landscapes by the light of the moon is not somethingthat should be attemptedby people who need to see quick results. Hours will be spent taking only afew images, withuncertain results.
In your first outings, while you learn about super-longexposures and thecompositional elements within them, you are likely to have few great images. But you will see inthose images a world that is entirely different from the one you perceivewhen you look at it -- indaylight or at night. As a photographer who strives to see and capture thebeauty present in thenatural world, I think that one of the greatest rewards is to see, todiscover, a new beauty that hadbeen hidden.
It has taken me years to develop confidence in my ability to walk intoa landscape in the darkand photograph it effectively. With the appropriate tools, technicalknowledge, techniques, andpatience, I learned -- and so can you. All photography is trial and error,and relies upon a faiththat what you "see" is what will turn up on your processed film. There isa great difference that Imust reemphasize here: What you see is not what you willget when you photograph using thelight of the moon. You get something that you will begin to see onlyafter you have "gotten" it.The greatest worth of this technique may be that in addition to capturingbeautiful images on film(perhaps reward enough), you are likely to learn a new way of perceivingnature and the processesactive within it.

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Copyright 1997 Bruce B. Clendenning