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What are the best camera settings for light painting photography near a full moon?


What camera settings are good for light painting photography near a full moon? I’ll try and help you out by offering these and other tips.

Abandoned bus near a full moon. 101 seconds f/8 ISO 200.
Abandoned bus near a full moon. 101 seconds, f/8, ISO 200.

Is it useful to know camera settings?

You can find a lot of night photographers that say giving camera settings for night photography is useless. In a way, they’re right. There are so many variables. For instance, it depends on what kind of lens. The larger the aperture the lens has, the more light it lights in. The wider the focal length, the longer the amount of time you can set your camera’s exposure length. 

That said, night photography near a full moon with light painting often has fewer variables. This is in part because this form of photography is considerably more forgiving with respect to how long the exposure is.

Joshua Tree National Park, CA.
Joshua Tree National Park, CA. This is a star trails photo, sure, but it’s also during a full moon. Each photo was 3 minutes, f/8, ISO 400. I stacked five of these photos to make an image that is 15 minutes total in exposure.

Assumptions before giving camera settings

To stop the variables from spinning out of control, we are going to assume that you have a relatively modern digital camera and an ultra wide-angle lens with a focal length of about 14mm or 15mm since that seems to be the most commonly used. We will also assume that you are not using a star tracker, and that it’s simply mounted on a tripod.

Starting camera settings for photography with light painting near a full moon

Photographing near or on a full moon means that the landscape is bright. Interestingly, this is often the least popular time for most night photographers because the moon is too bright for many of the stars to be seen. But that’s OK. This is an exciting time to do light painting of landscapes, abandoned areas and much more.

Here, I like to begin with a 2-4 minute exposure with an aperture of f/8 and an ISO of 200.

Exposure

Notice the variability between 2-4 minutes. That’s a broad amount of time! But with this sort of photography, you don’t need to be super precise with time. It also depends on how bright the scene is, whether there are streetlights nearby, how many clouds are blocking the moon, and how much time you need to complete your light painting.

Aperture

An aperture of f/8 is good and sharp and keeps a lot in detail.

ISO

For full moon photography of several minutes, you can keep a very low ISO. This will keep your noise level low. If there are clouds in the sky, the scene is otherwise dark or you must work more quickly, boost the ISO to 400 or more if you need it.

An abandoned mine in the Mojave Desert.
An abandoned mine in the Mojave Desert. 2 minutes, f/8, ISO 400. I turned up the ISO a little bit because the moon was behind clouds and therefore, the ambient light was darker.

Adjusting from the beginning camera settings

Just like you would with a day photograph, all your camera adjustments are the same. 

“My image is too dark!”

This is the most common thing people encounter. If your image is too dark, you can make it brighter by lengthening the exposure, opening the aperture and/or increasing the ISO. Sometimes, you can do this if the clouds are blocking the moon, making it darker. 

“My image is too bright!”

This is less common, but can occur more frequently when doing star trails or photographing near a full moon. 

Just like you would with day photographs, you can decrease the exposure time, make the aperture smaller, and/or decrease the ISO. For this sort of photography, sometimes, just decreasing the exposure time or using f/9 is easier since you presumably already have a low ISO of 200.

A piano that will play no more at an abandoned mental hospital.
A piano that will play no more at an abandoned mental hospital. Although this is indoors, I wanted to illustrate that the setting of 2 minutes, f/8, ISO 200 works really well for other applications as well. An exposure of two minutes allows you enough time to light the scene. The aperture of f/8 keeps everything nice and sharp. And ISO 200 is a nice clean setting with lots of dynamic range.

Further information

You may have noticed that I write a lot about night photography here. When you see a night photo, you can click on the image and see what the camera settings were. You can learn a lot from these by looking at the image, trying to figure out what the ambient light was, and figure out why that setting was chosen. After seeing a number of photos, you can also begin to see patterns emerging and begin to figure out why certain settings are chosen over others.



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Rafael Jones

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