Photographing the Milky Way and Moonlit Landscapes

Moon Phase: Waxing Crescent | Illumination: 36%

“In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.” -Sir Francis Bacon

When I began photographing the night sky in 2010, I routinely aimed for clear, moonless conditions because I assumed this was the best way to capture a clear illustration of the night sky. The photos I often came back with were visually exciting and rousing to the untrained eye however, throughout the years, I began noticing a common flaw; I was coming away with striking pictures of the Milky Way but the rest of my image was filled with ambiguous landscapes that didn’t tell the whole story. It wasn’t easy to hike into remote areas that challenged my capabilities over difficult terrain and long miles, nor was it a walk in the park to carry a heavy pack through miles of deep snow fields to reach the rim of a collapsed volcano. Still, I put myself in harms way to get the shot even when the earth shook as lightning shattered the calm next to my tent. And although I reached magnificent views that took my breath away in places few could ever witness in a lifetime, I consistently came back with very little to show.

Photographing the Milky Way and Moonlit Landscapes

Moon Phase: Waning Gibbous | Illumination: 66%

“Photography is the story I fail to put into words.” -Destin Sparks

I’m not much of a writer; it’s obvious. I do my best to describe my experiences with written words, but I seem to do much better when I communicate through imagery. I can try to describe to you what it’s like to witness a vast night sky, filled with the brightest stars over a surreal landscape, but would eminently fail. Instead, I attempt to offer you a small taste of a magical moment with a glimpse of my experience. Knowing this, how can I expect you, the viewer, to fully grasp my visual story if it’s obscured?

Photographing the Milky Way and Moonlit Landscapes

Moon Phase: Waxing Crescent | Illumination: 15%

“I find one of the greatest challenges of photographing the night, is capturing the infinite obscurity.”

Throughout the years, the more I photograph the night, the more I crave moonlight. In fact, some of my favorite images are taken while under a moonlit sky. This is because light emitted from the moon allows elements of the scene to be much less hidden. Of course, the dim light we see doesn’t originate from the Moon. The Moon, like our planets, shines by reflecting sunlight. Roughly 3% of the Sun’s light that hits the Moon is reflected because its surface is actually quite black. This is why when light is reflected from the different ‘phases of the moon’; it provides various levels of illumination, each offering unique photographic opportunities. For example, some common Moon phases include: New Moon, Waxing Crescent, First Quarter, and Full Moon. Each stage is significantly different in terms of the amount of light each period produces. Some Moon phases, like that of a Full Moon, can produce a significant amount of light on Earth. So when a Full Moon is combined with a long exposure photograph, the results can resemble conditions similar to daylight and reveal the smallest details in a vast, darkened landscape. Now you may be thinking that this amount of light will flush out the fainter stars in your images. This is why subtle Moon phases, like that of a Waxing Crescent or First Quarter, can provide the perfect balance of light in such a way that it illuminates your landscape, but keeps most of the detail you would typically see in the night sky.

The illustration above shows a comparison of a scene taken with moonlight and without moonlight. Notice how the image with moonlight allows you to clearly view the landscape?

Want to see a time-lapse of how the landscape changes when the moon rises? Click the play button above.

Has this information inspired you to consider a different approach to night photography? Clear, moonless skies can provide excellent opportunities for capturing images of the Milky Way, but if your approach is also concentrated on the landscape, learning to use available moonlight to your advantage is a clear option. Many kinds of pointers are discussed and applied with my students during our night photography workshops. One of the most important being:

“Moonlight will always be your best light painter.”

  • Brad Goldpaint“Two great passions of mine are wilderness travel and experiencing the drama of a night sky. I combine my passions with photography by teaching night sky workshops to people just like you. Come explore the magic of the Milky Way with me as it travels each night over unique landscapes within the Western US.”