Several years ago my friend Josh Smith and I tried our first full moon photography together in Yosemite. At that time I was still using the Hasselblad H3DII camera which only had a usable ISO of 800 and a max shutter speed time of 30 sec. Which was about two stops short of the exposure you need to get a moonlight image correctly exposed. But never the less we came home with some fun shots of the moonbow at Yosemite Falls and several other images of the valley.
It just so happens that my Spring Yosemite photo workshop (May 2nd - May 5th) falls on a full moon and the atendeees will be spending some time making images using these night time techniques.
New Year's Day I made a trip to the Alabama hills, which is located near Mount Whitney, to make two images that I had been thinking about doing for some time. I wanted to shoot both the Möbius and Boot Arches in the moonlight. I spent my first day there just scouting my locations and making only sketch images, then came back the next night to capture the final two shots. It's nice to take the pressure off yourself to come home with lots of photographs, which most of the time are just Ok, and slow down, spend the time to experience your location and make that one or two images that really express how you felt.
It's best to shoot when the moon is at it’s fullest but you can still make good photos a few day's before or after. Also the clear skies after a cold front will give you more light to work with. Cloudy skies will add mood and drama to your image so don’t shy away from overcast conditions. Also think about the direction of the light cast from the moon, it can add to your story and composition. Two Apps are helpful in determining the location of the moon, it's size and when it rises and sets, Light Trac and Star Walk.
Today's high ISO cameras have no problem capturing images using the moon as a light source, I use the Nikon D800e which has now replaced my Hasselblad H3DII. When shooting at night you still want to use the lowest ISO that will still give you the aperture and shutter speed to get the job done. It goes without saying you need to be using a good tripod for these images. One thing that I learned from this shoot is to keep the exposure for the sky under 15 seconds if you don't want to get the small trail from the star movement. You can shoot two images and latter merge them together in post. One using f/2.8 (or your lenses largest aperture) with focus at infinity to capture the sky and then make another exposure with an aperture that gives you the depth of field for the landscape that you desire. With a wide angle lens you don't need to stop way down but can usually keep everything in focus from eight feet to infinity using an aperture of around f/8. Another technique that you can use is focus stacking, I won't go in to detail on that now but will share this in another post. If your shooting water that is moving, that longer exposure will give you a very smooth and soft feel.
When you are using a shutter speed of 30 seconds, one extra stop makes it a 60 second exposure and so forth, it adds up fast. So if you wanted to do some light painting stop the lens down, drop the ISO, or add a neutral density filter and go for a really long shutter speed so you have more time to paint by moving your light around to various areas within the frame. With these long exposure times you will need a cable release that can be set to specific times. The EZA-N1 timer remote a good one that only costs around $20. Another option that I have is the CamRanger Wi-Fi controlled remote. You can use this remote with its software to control your camera with a smart phone, tablet or laptop (I use mine with my iPhone, iPad and Macbook). Along with shutter speed you can also control many other things as well such as aperture, bracketing, focus and ISO. It costs around $300. It’s very handy because you can be away from your camera and tripod when you release the shutter.
In these images I used two portable LED lights (the Miniburst 256) that have a brightness adjustments to dial in just the right balance of accent lighting with the ambient moonlight, you would be surprised how low I had to adjust them. Also you can put color correction gels in the filter holder of these lights to season it to your taste. The boot arch image has one light placed inside of the arch pointing up and the second light was placed to the left behind the large rock so it was hidden, it's aligned with the direction of the moon's light to blend in and create the look of one light source. Both lights are tungsten color balanced. On the Mobius Arch image I also used two lights, one to the far left side with daylight color balance and the other pointed into the arch from behind with a tungsten color balance.
The area in which this arch is located is very isolated from other people at the north boundary of the Alabama Hills, I felt the open vastness of space and the solitude of being alone by myself. The eastern side of the Sierras covered in snow was an element I wanted to have running horizontally the full length of the frame separating the sky from the foreground but still having the arch break above the horizon would give the arch the attention I wanted. Finding the right distance from the arch was very important, being too close made the Sierra Mountains disappear in some areas behind the foreground, then selecting the right focal length lens that would frame the image where I wanted it from side to side, and then cropping out some of the foreground made the image fell panoramic.
This area is very popular and even has it's own marked trail to the arch. When I scouted this area it was apparent I had to be fairly close to it because of the terrain, about nine feet away. I wanted to see mount Whitney thru the arch so I was very limited to moving around to much. So I pulled out my widest lens, the 14-24mm and found that it was perfect at 14mm, it still included quite a lot of the background that I wanted to the right. Using the warm tungsten light inside the arch would draw the eye where I wanted, bringing attention to the arch and Mount Whitney.
In post production I used various luminosity masks and adjustment layers to enhance the exposure and saturation. Also I reduced the noise in the sky area and sharpened the foreground. Also I darkened the foregrounds to keep your attention on the subject. I have included both raw image files for you to see how they started out and then their adjustments in Photoshop. The möbius image was shot at ISO 4000, f/10, for 30 seconds with a 14-24 mm lens at 14mm. It was captured with a very nice exposure with more info in the lights without blowing any highlights. The Boot Arch was underexposed by about one stop (ISO 1600, f/9, for 30 seconds using a 24 mm lens) but I was able to bring it back where I wanted it in post.
This was a blast to shoot and I know I will be doing more moonlighting with my photography.