18.30 Saturday 27th February….and I’ve just experienced that special ‘tingle’…and it gets me everytime.
It’s the first sight of the full moon as it appears on the horizon!
As you can see looking through the photos I’ve posted on the website, I do like taking photos by moonlight and it’s always fascinated me; it’s just so ‘magical’ and I was always so pleased if I could capture the moon somewhere within an image when photographing a night shot.
Let’s photograph by the light of the Moon.
Knowing Michael Kenna had taken many of his ‘very minimal’ images by moonlight, I started about 15 years ago, trying to also capture some of that ‘magic’ with my camera, by photographing landscapes by moonlight. That’s the ‘whole scene’ just illuminated by the moon I mean.
How to expose for Moonlight:
So how do you expose for ‘the full moon’? Well I still shoot on film, and there’s an old exposure rule of thumb that was used by photographers, for ‘full sunlight’; it’s called the ‘Sunny 16 Rule’:
” The rule states that on a sunny day, you should get correct exposure with camera settings of aperture f/16 and shutter speed as the inverse of the ISO (film speed). So if you have an ISO of 100, then the shutter speed should be 1/100 (or its closest setting of 1/125s).”
It’s a rule that really does work on a sunny day, and we used this when we didn’t want to keep popping out the light-meter.
If you’ve got 100 ASA film, or a digital camera set to 100 ISO, then set your shutter speed to 1/100th (ie 1/125 in practice) and the aperture to f16. You then allow for any slight differences within the image, like a maybe a bit of shade and if you wanted to shoot at an aperture of f11, in the ‘full sun’ exposure, the shutter speed then goes up to 1/250th; f8…that’s 1/500th etc.
Now here we are, wanting to take a picture, not in sunlight at all but in ‘full moonlight’…and ‘the science’ tells us that full moonlight is 18 stops less than ‘full sunlight’! That ‘1/125th’ exposure therefore now becomes 32 minutes at f16 or say 8 minutes at f8. (Kodak give a guide figure of 30 seconds at f2 with 100 ASA/ISO, which works out at the same thing – advising “For scenes lit by the unobscured full moon to show full detail in the surroundings, not including the moon in the picture.”)
If the moon is less than full we can adjust it, and useable guides would then be: If the moon is ‘Gibbous’, like say 3 or 4 days have past after it being ‘Full’, then allow say 1.5 stops more, and if it’s a ‘Quarter’ moon, then up the exposure by 4 or 5 stops.
Now you really don’t have to be super accurate with long moonlight exposures, but with film, as the exposures increase, then ‘reciprocity’ seriously comes into play. That’s the extra exposure you need to allow when shooting a very long exposure on film.
On film however, I either use ‘reciprocity’ to give me that very long exposure that I’m after, or I chose to shoot on Fuji Acros 100 because the ‘reciprocity’ factor is low on that film.
Digital sensors do not however suffer from noticeable reciprocity and although they do differ, you can often up the ISO to quite high figures before noise becomes a major factor.
Oh Dear, Michael Kenna changed the rules again.
It was in 2007 though that Michael Kenna did produce a ‘moon light’ picture that did include the moon in a fascinating way and that made me choose to shoot a completely different ‘full moon’ shot!
He has photographed the complete sweep of a rising moon over the sea. This is looking out to the islands of Chausey in France.
This image has the wonderful curvature of the ‘moon rise’, accompanied with a couple of planets ‘rising’ as well and that’s the passing clouds that have produced the ‘thickening and blurring’ in the centre of the shot. Very long exposures often only register the clouds that are illuminated brightly by the moon and everything except the bright moon will take a long time to register.
I was so impressed that I started doing my own images of the rising and setting moons.
It was obvious that a very, very long exposure was going to be needed, to get the moon ‘rising’, or in fact ‘falling’. The one above was 1 hour long on a 250mm lens on my Hasselblad.
The shot above shows the moon ‘in a different scale’, as this time it’s a 50mm lens. It’s also the ‘setting moon’, which I find is harder to shoot than the ‘rising moon’, as it so often sets as daybreaks…or even later. This was Blea Tarn in the Lake District, I think it was about 3.30 in the morning when the shot was finished after a 2 hour and 30 minute exposure. It does help to have a nice warm ‘campervan’ parked nearby to retire to when you leave the camera running for that long on a freezing cold and misty night. A heater, like that used on telescopes or even just ‘hand-warmers’ help keep the lens free of condensation.
The closest I’ve come to copying that Michael Kenna image I guess is this one of Lyme Regis harbour, and I’ve plonked my tripod down here and shot this a couple of times now. my earlier version had the shutter open for 3 hours and 15 mins, but because of the brighter foreground this time I went for an exposure of 2 hours and 40 minutes with the 50mm lens.
It almost sounds like I know what I’m doing….but there’s a lot of guess work and trust in being able to get the image back to looking like I want it to be afterwards!
The longest I’ve done is 4 hours 30 but in his book, ‘The Forms Of Japan’, Kenna has exposures of twelve hours long. I guess if you put an ND filter on….you can just keep going until ‘daylight’ blows out your exposure!
I realised that the camera can reveal things your eyes have missed and over time new elements in the scene will be brought out. The sea in the Lyme Regis bay image was only illuminated ‘in sections’ as the moon’s reflection moved across it….the eye/brain combination can’t store that…only the camera can reveal the ‘final version’- likewise, below:
I had stopped at Burnham and tried to get an ‘original’ image on a number of occasions, but I wasn’t happy until I took this one. I’d waited for a full moon and a low tide to coincide and hoped my tripod wouldn’t sink lower into the mud during the 3 hours and 15 minutes the shutter was open. It was the coming dawn light that made me curtail the exposure in the end. The mud of course was never visibly as bright as it is in this photo, as the light ‘played over it as the moon climbed higher, during that long exposure. That’s the magic!
I think very, very long exposure images may be pretty impossible with a digital sensor though, as the heat will have become a serious issue over an hour or so. Although I guess someone will prove me wrong!
Also some cameras, like the beautiful digital Leica Monochrom I used to have, always insist on shooting a ‘noise reduction’ image after a long exposure. It was infuriating waiting while the Leica ‘re-shot’ it for a ‘black frame’ image, doubling the exposure time!
How bright the moon?
The full moon of course is surprisingly bright, as that famous Ansel Adams photo of ‘Moorise, Hernandez, New Mexico’ showed and the moon is going to lack any detail unless you can manage a shot of around 1/2 second at f2.8 and 100 ISO. But we are used to seeing that burnt out white globe of a moon, and in my long exposures the moon is of course extremely blown out, but thankfully the ‘knee’ of the film curve helps. The moon is also moving surprisingly fast and will blur into an ellipse with anything over about 30 seconds on a wide-ish angle lens, and less on a telephoto lens.
So that movement of the moon brings us back to just capturing the full moon in the shot, and then usually bright lights are needed to bring some detail into a foreground. Here I just let the moon ‘peep through’ the cooling towers at Drax, with some bright lights in the foreground.
Drax Cooling Towers with full moon Photo: David Taylor
Now whilst I’ve been writing, and not photographing, the full moon has steadily climbed, but although it now lacks the lovely yellow glow, that my monochrome film wouldn’t have showed anyway, it is still a wonderful sight, through the trees behind my house! No wonder the owls are hooting.