By the Light of the Moon

February 24, 2012  •  2 Comments

Castle Hill by the Full Moon














Castle Hill Lighthouse illuminated by the full moon.  Canon 7D, with Tokina 12-24mm lens on a tripod.  F/4 for 6 seconds at ISO 3200. 

Welcome mofotographers.  Outdoor photography is the decathlon sport of the mind.  You often have to know the weather, the tides, the phase of the moon, the sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times, how to do some quick calculations in your head (or with your smartphone), and be a bad-ass mofo with your camera all at the same time.  Oh, and you need to be an artist, too.  And then, from a physical standpoint, it requires lifting and carrying heavy things, often over challenging terrain, and in poor light or no light.  The fact that it encompasses just about every skill imaginable (other than tax accounting and cooking) is the exact reason why I love it so much. 

And even when you've got all of those factors accounted for, you still don't know how the shoot's going to turn out until you actually show up.  So throw in a little luck, too.

For this shot of Castle Hill Light, all those factors came into play, and I thought I'd give an explanation of how I went about making this shot, because it provides a good framework and method to my outdoor landscape photography.  It's a bit long, and I promise that subsequent posts will be shorter, because I won't have to repeat all this again.

First the luck part:  If you go to a shoot location multiple times, you increase your chances of getting the exact conditions you want.  I went to Castle Hill Lighthouse in Newport, Rhode Island (which is about two hours from where I live) probably 8 times over the course of a few weeks, trying it in different lighting conditions from late afternoon into the dark of night.  I really dig lighthouses, as you can see from the other shots in my catalog, and I wanted this shot to not only be distinctive among my own lighthouse shots, but also be different from other photographers' renditions of this particular lighthouse.  Castle Hill is a beautiful little light, because it's built right into the granite bedrock without all the junk that surrounds other lighthouses; things like a house for the keeper, a lawn, a parking lot, a flagpole, a harbor, a tourist vistor center, etc.  It's just a rugged, gritty little lighthouse.  Strange, considering it's Newport, RI.  So about 7 trips into the 8 trip series of shooting this lighthouse, the opportunity arose for a full moon shoot on a clear, mild winter night.  I'd never seen such a shot of this lighthouse, so why not try?

Tip for newer foto mofos: When making any shot, think about what your main artistic considerations are, and then make your in-camera decisions to address those considerations.  A little bit about me:  I'm not one of those artists who tries to express in each photograph "the delicate and ambiguous nature of good and evil" or "the inner conflict that exists within the heart of every man" or crap like that.  That stuff's for art students.  My goal is to just make every picture evoke some kind of emotional response in the viewer by showing them something they haven't seen before, whether it's a different perspective on a common subject, interesting and emotional colors, unique textures, whatever.  I never even try to describe that emotional response in words, like happy, sad, or impressed.  But there has to be something about the experience of looking at the photograph that would make it feel different even from seeing it in real life, or seeing it on TV, or through someone else's photograph. 

My main considerations for this particular shot of Castle Hill Light were simple:  I wanted to have the lighthouse and it's surrounding granite illuminated by the full moon, and I wanted to render the water in an abstract sort of way, where the motion of the water is blurred, but you could still see the details of the wave splashing against the tidepool in the foreground.  So the first consideration: the moon.

The full moon on a clear night is bright enough to illuminate the landscape sufficiently well for a long exposure shot of a few minutes at a low ISO setting like ISO 100 and a moderately wide f-stop like 4.0 or 5.6 with no supplemental lighting needed (flash, light painting, etc.).  As a comparison, a moonless night in a remote area with just stars in the sky does not cast enough light to illuminate the landscape even if you leave the shutter open for the entire night.  So having a nice bright moon in the sky gives you an opportunity to grab some shots that you wouldn't be able to get on most nights.  For this scene at Castle Hill Light, at your camera's lowest ISO setting, which for most people is ISO 100, you would get a nice exposure in about 3 minutes at f/4 (on a tripod, of course).  ISO 100 gives you the highest picture quality with very little grain, and 3 minutes is not very long to wait in the grand scheme of things, especially if you have some interesting apps on your iphone to whittle the time away with (guilty as charged).  This is a great setting for most full moon landscape shots.  So why DIDN'T I just shoot this scene for 3 minutes at ISO 100?  Because that would have interfered with my second artistic consideration: rendering the water abstractly, but not so blurred as to obscure all details of the water movement in the foreground tidepool.

Over the course of 3 minutes a lot can happen in a tidepool.  Waves splash repeatedly over the same area (in this spot, about once every 10-20 seconds), and when exposed for the full 3 minutes on a sensor or film, the repeated motion of frothy water can create a "cotton candy" kind of blur, which makes the area look like an '80s rock concert with a fog machine backstage, or you dropped dry ice in a bucket of water.  It can be a nice effect, and I do employ '80s rock concert sensibilities into some of my shots, but it wasn't what I was looking for here.  To capture the blurred motion of just one wave splash, my judgment and experience tells me I would need about a 6 second exposure, timed to coincide with one of the wave splashes.  So to get the equivalent exposure value in 6 seconds to what you would have gotten in 3 minutes at ISO 100, while keeping the f-stop the same, you need to so some (drumroll) math.  In the interest of sparing you yet more length in this post, I will save the explanation of the math for another post, and just tell you that ISO 3200 is what you need to dial in to get the exposure you want.  Set your camera to Manual mode, and tell it who's boss, yo: F/4, ISO 3200, 6 seconds.  Take the shot, and you'd see that the photograph looks more or less the same in terms of brightness as what you would see in your 3 minute shot at ISO 100, but the water retains more detail, and has less of that dry-ice-in-a-bucket-of-water look. 

And then, make use of luck once again.  Put a cable release on your camera, and take several, and by several I mean dozens, of shots of the surf splashing in the tidepool, timing your shot to coincide with an incoming splash.  I assume you will be shooting digitally, so check your LCD after each shot, and after a while you will either get bored or decide that you got the "golden mofo" shot and are ready to call it quits, or hopefully both. 

The final consideration when shooting at ISO 3200 is that the level of noise that your sensor produces will be high, so be sure to use the in-camera high-ISO noise reduction feature if you are shooting JPEG, or do some noise reduction in the software post-processing if you are shooting RAW.  If you want to get fancy in post-production and agree with me that the art of photography is not just made in the camera, you can combine elements of different shots that you took of the same scene to get the visual effect you are after. 

Checklist of take-home points to remember:

  • Come back multiple times to the same shooting location; luck plays a part in getting the Golden Mofo shot
  • Bring a tripod
  • Sometimes a longer exposure at low ISO is what you want, but sometimes a shorter exposure at higher ISO is the ticket; try it both ways
  • Take many, MANY shots of the same scene until you are bored/happy
  • Reduce sensor noise either in-camera or in the software if you shoot at a high, noisy ISO setting









This is a beautiful shot, Paul. Did you take any at 3 minutes, as well? It might be handy for the fledgling mofos to see a comparison of the two shutter speeds.
Hey Paul! Thanks for setting up the Q&A! I was awed by the night sky on 02/26/12 when Jupiter and Venus came very close to a beautiful crescent moon. Hurried outside to take a picture only to find out I don't have the skills for such a feat yet! I was wondering if you could give me some starting points for taking such a shot. Apparently I will get another opportunity on 03/13/12, I want to be locked and loaded then...
Thanks so much for the advice but especially for the super helpful blog. Hoping to join the badass mofotographers one day.
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