ISO 200, f5.6, 1/640

There is something elusive and mysterious about night photography, most especially the moon.

But the challenges during the dark are no more challenging than situations you come across during the daylight hours. The answer is always the same: balance the exposure with your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

This particular full moon I captured at moonset on Easter morning, which coincided with the sunrise. My ISO was 200, to keep a high quality image. I wanted to be able to take the photo without my tripod, so I brought my aperture down to f5.6, which let more light in so I could have a fast shutter speed of 1/640s.

Note that to get this same exposure, I could also move my aperture to a higher f-stop while slowing my shutter speed. There are many, many ways to get a correct exposure, as the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed work together.

I am sure you have noticed how bright a full moon is. The moon reflects the sun, and at the full moon stage, we see more of the surface reflecting the sunlight. Why does this affect your photo? Well, the above picture was not taken in the dark, even though it looks like it. The sky was not able to be properly exposed at the same time as the proper exposure for the full moon.

The photo below was taken just moments after the photo of the above moon. You can see it was not night, but just about sunrise, with a beautiful deep morning blue hour.

ISO 200, f5.6, 1/640

So, how do you get a properly exposed moon and landscape? You must take the photo before the sun sets.
If you look at the sun/moon tables, you will notice that the full moon doesn’t rise until well after the sun sets. Yikes! What do you do? Simple: you take your full moon photo the night before the full moon.
And you know what? Unless you are using a super zoom, you will not notice the small percentage of difference in the size of the moon from the night before to the actual full moon. For example, this weekend’s full moon is Saturday night and rises well over an hour after the sun sets. But on Friday night, the moon will be close to full – at 93% – and rise over an hour before the sun sets, giving us plenty of time to capture a properly exposed moon and landscape.
Grab your camera, read your manual so you know how to change your settings, and bring your tripod along to try some longer shutter speeds if you want. The best way to demystify night photography is to practice and play.

A starting point:

photo of Nikon D3100 courtesy of

Set your camera mode to “shutter priority” – this is the S on a Nikon or the Tv on a Canon. By shooting in shutter priority mode, you let the camera figure out the best aperture and ISO for the correct exposure. Warning, though…don’t start here if the sun has set and the sky is darkened. Your camera may not adjust the exposure for the brightness of the moon, but instead adjust for the surrounding area.

Now set your shutter speed by turning the dial at your thumb. This is the dial at the back of your camera that disappears into the camera. Begin with 1/100s. You may have to shoot faster, so move the command dial to bring up your shutter speed. Note that if you go lower than 1/60s, you will need a tripod to keep your image focused.

After playing with the shutter speed, move your mode dial to “manual mode” – the M on your mode dial. Don’t freak out! You already know that you want a fast shutter speed since the full moon is very bright, reflecting the sun.

You will now want to make sure you have an ISO of 100 or 200 to keep a high quality image. Note that the higher your ISO is, the more likely that you will have noise, or grain, in your image. How high of an ISO you can use without getting a grainy image will depend on your camera.

Next, set your aperture to f8 as a starting point. Now your settings should look like this: ISO 100, f8, 1/100s. Take a few clicks to see how your image is.

Are the shots underexposed (too dark)? Let more light in by first lowering your aperture and take a few more. A lower aperture, or f-stop, opens the sensor, letting more light in.

Maybe the first shots were overexposed (too bright)? Try letting less light in by bumping up your shutter speed or raising your f-stop.

Like anything else, the more you practice and play, the more you learn. And with a full moon, you get that chance every month.

Here is an image I captured just last night. The moon is properly exposed,
as well as the surrounding landscape because the sun had not yet set.