Star Trails and Moonlit Landscapes Tutorial

moonlit-landscapes-lake-star-trails

“The first time I made a photograph of a moonlit landscape, I literally said “wow” out loud. I couldn’t believe how much detail the moonlight brought out of the photograph.” In this tutorial, Tyler Sichelski walks through his process for shooting and processing surreal long exposure landscapes under the light of the Moon.

Introduction

moonlit-landscapes-lake-star-trails

14mm, f/5.6. ISO 400, 155 seconds 

Landscape photography is all about chasing the perfect light. Most of us know of this time as “magic hour”; usually 1 hour after sunrise and 1 hour before sunset when the sun is low above the horizon, but sometimes we forget about the other light source in our sky: the Moon.

Photographing under the light of the Moon can create dramatic, surreal landscapes that will set your photography apart from the rest. The full Moon’s surface reflects an average of 12 percent of the sunlight that hits it. The soft moonlight is unlike the harsh daylight and interacts with the landscape in a different way.

moonlit-landscapes-canyon-lightning

22mm at f/4, ISO 800, 92 seconds

The first time I made a photograph of a moonlit landscape, I literally said “wow” out loud. I couldn’t believe how much detail the moonlight brought out of the photograph. In this article I will walk you through the process as I prepare for a moonlit landscape photoshoot, teach you how to capture some amazing shots, and show you how to stack multiple exposures to create an impressive final image. The best part: you can achieve incredible results with entry level equipment.

The first time I made a photograph of a moonlit landscape, I literally said “wow” out loud. I couldn’t believe how much detail the moonlight brought out of the photograph.

Equipment

Here is a checklist of the things you will need for moonlit landscape photography:

  • Any Digital Camera with Manual Controls
    • Bulb Mode (B) functionality (optional; without it your exposure length will be limited)
  • Intervalometer or shutter cable release for making many exposures over 30 seconds
  • Tripod
  • Flashlight or headlamp
  • Dark, interesting location
  • The Moon at or near full phase
  • Image stacking software (Photoshop or the free StarStax program)

Digital Camera with Manual Controls

You do not need an expensive camera to capture amazing images under the Moon! Any digital camera with manual controls will work. Manual controls give you full control of your camera’s aperture, shutter speed & ISO.

For this shot I will use my Canon EOS 6D

Canon EOS 6D

 

Bulb Mode and Intervalometer

Bulb Mode functionality is ideal, but is not absolutely required. Bulb (indicated as B on your camera), is a shutter speed setting that allows for long exposure times directly controlled by you. Simply put, the shutter will stay open as long as you have the shutter release button pressed. I highly recommend a lockable shutter release cable or an intervalometer to prevent any vibrations that may blur the final image.

On my Canon 6D and many other cameras, a shutter release cable is necessary for exposures over 30 seconds. For this tutorial, I will be using my cheap Polaroid Intervalometer. I’ll use either the shutter release lock for exposures over 30 seconds or program the interval timer to a specific shutter length. There are a lot of affordable third party intervalometers available. Just make sure you find one that’s compatible with your camera.

polaroid-intervalometer

Average/Large Aperture Lens

Lenses with a large aperture (low f/number, i.e. f/1.4) are often called “fast” lenses. A lens’s f/number represents its largest possible aperture. The lower the f/number the more light it lets into the camera. I prefer low f/number lenses because they tend to be sharper when *stopped down. For moonlit landscapes, I would recommend using a lens with an f/number of f/4 or lower. Almost any wide angle lens will fit into this category, and that includes the 18-55mm kit lens that most likely came with your DSLR!

*In theory, when using an f/4 lens, you should be able to increase the sharpness of your image by “stopping down” to f/5.6 (as we will in our example) instead of “shooting wide open” at f/4.

Focal length will depend greatly on where and what you are shooting. Shorter focal lengths are great when capturing large scenes, and a long telephoto focal length is great for isolating specific areas in the scenery. Be aware of zoom lenses with a variable aperture like an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. The lowest aperture f/number varies from f/3.5 to f/5.6; this means that as you increase the focal length, the f/number will get larger. With lenses like this, it tends to be best to zoom out to its shortest focal length to give you access to the lowest f/number for night photography.

Rokinon Samyang 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC

Rokinon Samyang 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC

I will be shooting with my Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens for this tutorial. It’s a fully manual lens and is very sharp when shooting at f/4. It’s available for most camera mounts and is arguably the best 14mm glass you can buy for the price (less than $400, compared to the Canon 14mm f/2.8L which is well over $2,000). However, on a full-frame camera like my Canon 6D, there is noticeable moustache distortion, most of which can be cleaned up using profile corrections in Adobe Lightroom or the RAW editor of your choice.

Here are some of my recommended lenses for crop sensor DSLRs (APS-C) for under $1000 (from lowest price to highest):

And here are some of my recommended full-frame DSLR lenses under $1000 (from lowest price to highest):

Tripod

One of the most important pieces of your kit will be your tripod. During very long exposures, it is vital to have your camera rock solid. You don’t want to be sitting around for minutes and have a slight breeze ruin your shot.

There are a lot of brands out there; I personally use the Manfrotto MT190XPRO3 tripod, with a Manfrotto 498RC2 ball head. If I am going to be traveling, I will take my Benro Travel Angle Tripod/Ballhead. I love using ball heads because it allows me to move my camera freely in all directions with one turn of a knob.

MT190XPRO3 498RC2

Image Stacking Software

After our shoots, we’ll use Adobe Photoshop or StarStax to combine multiple exposures into one final image. See Post Processing section below for details.

Pre-Planning

The Moon

I like to use www.timeanddate.com for a general forecast of when the Moon will be within +/- 3 days of a full Moon and where it will be in the sky on those 7 nights. Also note the altitude the Moon will be at and at what times.

The most dramatic moonlit landscape photos come between 30 – 70 degrees, after astronomical twilight.

The most dramatic moonlit landscape photos come between 30 – 70 degrees, after astronomical twilight. The lower the altitude of the Moon, the more dramatic the shadows on the landscape.

 moonlit-landscapes-moonphase

For a more precise Moon forecast and to predict the exact direction of the moonrise and moonset, I use the Photographer’s Ephemeris. The desktop version is free to use, and they also have paid Apple/Android apps that you can take in the field, which is very handy. Another photography planning app with Moon information that I highly recommend is PhotoPills for iOS.

You will want to shoot on a clear/mostly clear night (depending on what you’re looking for in your photo), but don’t be discouraged to shoot on a cloudy night. Remember, long exposures will show a lot of movement in clouds, and that can create a dynamic look. (See the photo at the top of this post for an example.)

Finding the Right Location

For the best results, I recommend finding a dark location away from the light pollution of major cities. I use lightpollutionmap.info; it has worldwide coverage, and I’ve found it to be very accurate. Tonight I will be shooting at Canyon Lake in the Superstition Mountains outside of Phoenix, Arizona — one of my favorite places to shoot.

moonlit-landscapes-

Phoenix, AZ as shown from lightpollutionmap.info

I also use Google Earth to scout an area that I’m unfamiliar with. I recommend starting your search at national and state parks in your area, as these often have gorgeous landscapes away from all the city lights. 

I try to arrive on location while there is still light, especially if it’s my first time visiting. This will help you familiarize yourself with the location and allow you to start thinking about the composition of your photo. I recommend setting up your camera and taking a few shots while you are close to your car. Once your eyes’ night vision takes over and you become more confident, you can explore more of the area.

Wind will blur trees, bushes, flowers, etc.; keep this in mind if you’re shooting on a windy night. 

When planning your shot, keep in mind that long exposures will make calm water look like glass, and choppy water like a ghostly fog. It will also turn clouds silky smooth, moving in the direction of the wind. Wind will also blur trees, bushes, flowers, etc.; keep this in mind if you’re shooting on a windy night. 

Time to Shoot!

Now that you have all of your gear packed up, and you’ve picked a location on a moonlit night, it’s time to talk about how to get that shot. Here’s what we’ll cover in this section:

  • Camera Settings
    • RAW
    • White Balance
    • Shutter Speed
    • Aperture
    • ISO
    • Long Exposure Noise Reduction (NR)
    • High ISO NR
  • Focusing in the Dark
  • Test shots

Camera Settings

Shooting RAW

There are many articles discussing the benefits of shooting RAW over JPEG, so I’ll keep it simple: Shoot RAW! When shooting JPEG, image information is compressed and lost. No image information is compressed with RAW so you’re able to get higher quality images as well as correct issues with white balance or exposure in post processing.

White Balance

I will be setting a custom white balance of 4100 degrees Kelvin. I find this to look the best with moonlit images. White balance is greatly based on your personal taste, but start somewhere between 3800 – 4300 degrees Kelvin. If you are shooting RAW, you can also change white balance in post processing.

Long Exposure/High ISO Noise Reduction

When shooting any kind of long exposure images, I always turn the Long Exposure/High ISO Noise Reduction to OFF. If turned on, the camera will take a frame of equal exposure and apply it to your image to reduce noise caused by the sensor. For example, if you take a 10-minute exposure, then you will have to wait an additional 10 minutes before being able to take another photo. I personally like to reduce noise in post using the Google Nik Software.

Exposure Triangle – Aperture, ISO & Shutter Speed

The Exposure Triangle is very important to remember, as a change in one of the elements will affect how we use the other two. I will briefly discuss the three, and show examples of different exposures.

Aperture f/number

As was discussed earlier, I recommend a relatively low f/number for these shots. This doesn’t mean you can’t capture images with slower apertures like f/5.6. Just keep in mind that for every full aperture stop, you are cutting the amount of light in half. If your lens collects less light, it means we must compensate with either a higher ISO or longer shutter speed to maintain the same exposure, which might not be as desirable as just shooting with a lower f/number.

The full aperture stops are:

f/ 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22

For our example shot with my 14mm f/2.8 lens, I’ll be stopping down to about f/4 to f/5.6. That’s the setting I would recommend if you’re just starting out.

ISO

ISO can simply be understood as the the amplification applied to your camera’s sensor. Higher ISOs yield a brighter image but also brighten up the noise in the image. That being said, don’t hesitate to bump that ISO up if needed. We will want an ISO around 400-800 for this shoot. ISO 100 might seem tempting, but this will require VERY long exposures of 45 minutes or longer. Long exposures like this introduce their own noise, rendering the low ISO pointless. Keep it around ISO 400-800 to start.

Shutter Speeds

The final and most important part of the exposure triangle (for long exposures, at least) is shutter speed. Your final result will vary greatly depending on your shutter speed. I personally love the still water and cloud movement from a shutter speed of about 5 minutes or more. To make these extra long exposures, we’ll need to set the camera to “Bulb” mode to be able to shoot exposures longer than 30 seconds.

moonlit-landscapes-settings

Setting a camera to bulb mode allows for exposures as long as the shutter is pressed.

Just remember that there’s also a disadvantage to using too long of a shutter speed: Very long shutter speeds beyond 10 minutes will start to introduce extra noise, depending on your equipment.

Focusing in the Dark

The first thing I do before composing a shot or adjusting my exposure is making sure the lens is focused. Since we will be on a tripod, switch your lens or camera to manual focus, and turn your image stabilization function (IS, VR, OSS) off. Stabilization can actually do more harm than good while on a tripod, so it’s best to just turn it off completely. Generally speaking, you will want to be focused to infinity for most shots. Most lenses have an ‘∞’ symbol to indicate when the focus is at infinity. That said, the infinity marker can often be a little inaccurate, so use it with skepticism.

The easiest and most accurate way to focus in the dark is to manually focus on a distant light (min. 100ft/30m away) while in Live View mode. With my camera, I can change my live view setting to “exposure simulation” which allows me to see the light source (even a bright star) in dark conditions.

I have also used a laser mounted to my hot shoe with some Blu-Tack and pointed at a distant object and focused on the laser dot. You can also place a flashlight at that distance and focus on that to achieve the same result.

If you’re having difficulty, take some test shots and check your focus, making small adjustments as needed.

Test Shot

At this point I like to take a test shot by bumping my ISO to its max (H2 – 25,600) and shooting a short 2-second exposure to see what my composition and focus looks like. I like to include some interesting foreground elements and leading lines and put my horizon on either the top/bottom ⅓ of the frame (Rule of Thirds). Once I am happy with the composition, I put my ISO back to 400 for the final shot.

Take the Shot!

So now that I have you thinking about the exposure triangle and scrutinizing your focus, it’s time to take a shot! After the exposure is complete, it’s helpful to look at the histogram. You want to have as much data as possible without losing any data at the edges. You may need to experiment with different exposure times to get the histogram to sit roughly centered.

moonlit-landscapes-histogram

Below are 5 unedited images of different exposures times at ISO 400, f/5.6. In my experience, I’ve found ISO 400 and an aperture of f/4 – f/5.6 provides me the best long exposure time/noise ratio under a full Moon.

moonlit-landscapes-exposure-comparison

The arrows indicate the amount of cloud movement I typically notice in the southwestern U.S. (relevant only on a night with clouds).

Notice the histogram for the 4-minute exposure is almost perfectly centered with no clipping in the blacks (left side of histogram) or whites (right side of histogram). Here’s a larger look at that 4-minute exposure:

4minute

In this case, the 4-minute exposure should give us the best balance between individual exposure time and image quality. In the next section, we’ll program the intervalometer to continuously capture a series of consecutive 4-minute frames for a period of about 30 minutes to an hour. This will result in approximately 7 – 15 total exposures.

Now, in order to get more interesting results for our final image, we’ll use a technique of stacking those exposures to make a final multi-exposure composite.

Shooting & Compositing Star Trails

In my moonlit landscape photography, I sometimes like to composite a star trail into the shot for an added layer of interest. The best method of making a star trail photo is to combine many shorter exposures to capture the movement of the stars as the Earth rotates. We already decided on an exposure of about 4 minutes for our example, so now we’re ready to program our intervalometer to capture multiple 4-minute exposures, one after another. Here’s a look at how I programmed my intervalometer to capture a bunch of 4-minute photos:

intervalometer-instructions

Once we’ve captured about 30 minutes to an hour of photos, we should have plenty of data to make our final exposure stack.

In the next section I’ll talk about a couple of methods for stacking all the exposures together into a final image. 

Post Processing: Stacking Multiple Exposures

Star Trail Stacking in Adobe Photoshop

Back at the computer we can stack the star images together to create the star trails. Here’s a quick example of how to stack and blend star trails in Adobe Photoshop:

  • In Photoshop choose: File > Scripts > Load Files into Stack… and select all your moonlit images.
    • Alternatively, if you have Adobe Lightroom, you can highlight all the moonlit images you captured. Right click and choose:  Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop…
  • Once loaded in Photoshop, highlight all layers except the bottom layer and change the blending mode to Lighten.

 lighten

  • That’s it. Now you can flatten the image (Layer > Flatten Image) and Save.

Star Trail Stacking with StarStax

There is also a great program made by Markus Enzweiler called StarStax which will effectively do the same thing as Photoshop. StarStax is a very powerful yet simple way to stack exposures.  Its purpose-built for star trails, and it has some features that aren’t available in Photoshop. The best part about this program is that it is entirely free, opening up this type photography to everyone.

starstax

The major benefit of using StarStax is a Blending Mode called “Gap Filling” which will fill in gaps in the star trails that we missed during the 1 second interval between exposures. There is also an option under Blending Mode called “Comet Mode” which will fade your stars slightly with each exposure, giving the illusion of movement to your star trails. Note that this “Comet Mode” is more effective when shooting with shorter shutter speeds like 30 seconds.

Here’s what our final images look like after our final stacking process:

moonlit-lanscape-final

17 stacked exposures, 14mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 240 seconds

 

More Examples

moonlit-landscapes-vert-canyon-lake

14mm, f/4.0, ISO 400, 246 seconds

star-trails-petroglyphs

Canon EOS 6D, Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8, Foreground: 30 x 30s at f/5.6, ISO 6400, Sky: 70 x 4 min at f/4, ISO 400

B-17-tyler-sichelski-star-trails

Canon EOS 6D, Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8, Foreground: 4 x 8s at f/4, ISO 800, Sky: 70 x 4 min at f/4, ISO 400

That’s about it! Remember: it doesn’t require the best equipment to have some fun and get spectacular nighttime photos. So explore, get creative, have fun and most importantly, stay safe!

This article originally appeared on our sister photography site, The Photon Collective, here.

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Tyler Sichelski
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Tyler Sichelski

Tyler Sichelski is a photographer based in Arizona. Tyler loves to specialize in landscape, astro, long exposure and wild horse photography. He is very passionate about photography and teaching others. Check out his portfolio and workshops at his website: tyskiphoto.com and follow him from his Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
Tyler Sichelski
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22 Responses

  1. Bill Mack January 22, 2016 / 10:49 am

    These are beautiful photographs and a very instructive tutorial. I have a question regarding the water scenes in the foreground.

    How do you expose the photograph enough to show the night lit landscape details without showing traces of stars reflected in the water? It seems that your 4 minute exposure, as shown in the first lake scene, would also show star trails in the water. Were these blended out in the final image somehow?

    Thanks
    Bill

  2. Brent October 18, 2015 / 6:32 pm

    At those settings in surburbia, it appears way too bright for me. Does it matter whether I change the aperature vs ISO to get a darker sky?

    • Tyler Sichelski October 19, 2015 / 2:06 am

      Hi Brent – those settings were taken from a dark, remote location in Arizona. You’re results will absolutely vary depends on your light pollution levels and moon phase. I would adjust your ISO in this instance, but you may find it beneficial to have a histogram exposed to the right to get a better signal to noise ratio! Pull up your histogram in these shots and as long as your not clipping any of the highlights, you can recover the exposure in post. It’s ALWAYS better to decrease exposure in post than increase it.

  3. lathan October 2, 2015 / 8:45 pm

    Hey Tyler, ur photos have got me running around all night here in Patagonia. What i what to know though is im battling to stitch my photos.. im basically thumbing where to take the next panoramic shot… what i want to know is there a better way of doing this… when you do star trails and spend so many hours putting the shots together and then photoshop/lightroom fail to stitch the darn thing together I want to scream!! Do you have some secret technique for doing that alignment of the camera/lens.

    please keep the articles coming you have changed photography forever for me!
    thanks .L

    • Tyler Sichelski October 3, 2015 / 3:11 am

      Hi Lathan,
      I’m sorry to hear all the troubles you are having when stitching your photos! I suggest you keep your camera level for each photo of your panoramic, and overlapping your photos by 50% or more (esp if you are using a wide angle lens). I really can’t stress the overlapping issue… It’s always better to have too many exposures, than too little!

      It really means a lot saying I’ve changed photography for you! Thank you so much, and feel free to message me any time. Good luck!

  4. Steve August 12, 2015 / 2:34 pm

    Tyler, I see you are in Phoenix as well! Any other suggestions for nearby places to shoot interesting astrophotography? I’m up in north Phoenix and planning to go check out the Perseids meteor shower this week with some friends and bringing along my camera gear of course!

    • Tyler Sichelski October 3, 2015 / 3:05 am

      Hi Steve! I apologize for the late reply. I hope you got some great shots for the meteor shower. :) I like to head southwest near Gila Bend for some great dark skies, also southeast towards Picketpost Mountain near Superior. Traveling along the Apache Trail gets you some nice skies, but doesn’t get REALLY dark until you get past Tortilla Flat. Feel free to contact me any time.

  5. Mike Donahue August 5, 2015 / 7:50 am

    Thanks for the tutorial Tyler. I was a little late on reading it, but that made it just that much more timely being right around the time of the full moon. Having an interest in making more night photos, it really piqued the interest in not just waiting for the absence of the moon but to embrace it instead!

    I tried my first real, purposeful moonlit landscape this past weekend. Can still use more practice, but happy with the first result.
    http://www.bluegreenorange.com/moonlit-landscape/ (please feel free to remove the link if it isn’t allowed).

    Thanks!

    • Tyler Sichelski August 5, 2015 / 3:49 pm

      Hey Mike – Thank you for sharing your sorry and photo. I am really impressed. Great job!

  6. Tim July 30, 2015 / 9:42 pm

    brilliant. Great article, well later out, and easy to finest. Thanks Tyler I’ll be weaving a few of this tips in tonight!

    • Tyler Sichelski July 31, 2015 / 2:15 am

      Thank you very much Tim! I hope this helped you get some great shots

  7. Shane July 30, 2015 / 1:35 pm

    Thanks for the great tutorial Tyler!
    It just occurred to me while reading this post, would it be possible at all to capture the Milky Way along with the Moon? For example tomorrow night we have a full Moon which will be very close to the galactic center. ETTR will be my best attempt, but I wonder if there’s any cool trick (using some kinds of filters, etc.) to make it work. If you have any wisdom I would love to hear it :)
    Best,

    • Tyler Sichelski July 31, 2015 / 2:13 am

      Hi Shane, thank you very much! I would think shooting for the Milky Way into direct full moonlight may be close to impossible, but it would be a cool experiment to try. I don’t think any kind of CLS astro filter would work because those are meant to block a specific wavelength produced by generic city light pollution. The moon is just sunlight, which has all wavelengths of visible light. If you try it, be sure to report!

  8. Edmund Prescottano July 25, 2015 / 8:50 pm

    Could you recommend a good intervalometer for a Fujifilm X-T1 camera

    • Ian Norman July 26, 2015 / 12:23 pm

      Edmund,

      The X-T1 has a very capable intervalometer built-in! You can access it through the menu, go to the Camera tab #2 and select “interval timer shooting”.

  9. Jesus Ortiz Monsanto July 22, 2015 / 7:21 pm

    Hello! Thanks for the tutorial. Very enlightening. Quick question

    I always worry for noise when shooting long exposures >4 – 5 minutes. Does this is a concern for you? What Maximum ISO will you recommend to use under this conditions without having significant noise problems? You used a Canon 6D which is a very good camera for low light conditions but what about a Sony A7? any guess?

    Thank you

    • Tyler Sichelski July 23, 2015 / 12:53 am

      Thank you Jesus! Regarding your question… It would really depend on the light you are working with. With a full moon, high in the sky, try ISO 400. If your looking at less light, you may need to bump it up to 600-800. Once you take a few test shots, take a look at your histogram :) good luck!

  10. Sara S July 22, 2015 / 3:20 pm

    This is great! I like to take pictures of the moon when it’s out with my telescope, but this gave me all sorts of new ideas (instead of being mad at a full moon). Thanks!

    • Tyler Sichelski July 22, 2015 / 3:49 pm

      Thank you very much for the compliment, Sara! I can’t wait to see what you get :)

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