Since "discovering" night photography about four years ago (just so we're clear, I didn't actually discover night photography, but it was a real photographic epiphany to see what my camera was capable of after dark), it has become a huge part of what I do, both in my personal shooting and in my workshops. Visiting over-photographed locations at night gives me the freedom to roam in peace, without distraction; instead of merely duplicating what has been done thousands of times already, I'm suddenly reenergized by the opportunity to capture fresh images. And while I once stressed about boring, cloudless skies during my workshops, I now breathe easily on those days with the knowledge that the photography will be fabulous once the sun goes down.
At the risk of sounding like a marketing brochure, let me just say that photographing in full moonlight is fun, easy, and rewarding. Rather than rehash old how-to material, I'll just refer you to my Shoot the Moon article published in the April 2010 "Outdoor Photographer" magazine. In the article I mention that the best moonlight subjects are reflective surfaces, like water and granite. I should add to that Mono Lake's tufa, the limestone towers formed by underwater springs and exposed as the lake receded due to growing Southern California water demands. But while a good foreground is essential, night photography really is about the sky. I choose my foregrounds to complement, not compete with, the celestial canvas, making the vast majority of my compositions vertical to include as much sky as possible.
I never meter a moonlight scene; rather, I have a starting exposure (look at the exposure settings to the right of this image) that gets me within a stop of where I want to be, and then I adjust from there. I want a foreground bright enough to reveal detail (unless I'm going for a silhouette) and a sky dark enough that the stars stand out. The exposure ends up being between what my meter suggests and what my eye sees.
Processing an image like this takes a bit of time and experience. The human eye adjusts to moonlight by expanding the pupil to collect more light, and the brain has a built-in white balance tool that adjusts for color temperature, so the experience on location actually changes with time (though most aren't aware of it). Through trial and error I came to realize that digital cameras do a real poor job with moonlight white balance, rendering these scenes in daylight tones that rob them of their night feel. Since the last thing I want is an image that looks like daylight with stars, I photograph in raw mode for complete control over the color temperature. The first time I open a moonlight raw file I drag my white balance slider to the left, usually somewhere in the 3,000-4,000 degree range. My goal is a scene that's cool (blue) enough that the foreground says "night."
To account for the eye's ability to bring in more light, in post-processing I usually dodge (increase the exposure) the foreground a bit (but not so much that the shadows lose their blackness), and decrease the sky exposure (burn). Taking care to avoid decreasing the exposure of the stars when I darken the sky (this gets into Photoshop techniques that vary tremendously from photographer to photographer and go beyond the scope of this post), I'm able to make the stars stand out a bit more. My ultimate objective is something that conveys the experience of being out there beneath the celestial canopy.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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