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One Location, Two Looks: Photographing a Lighthouse in Moonlight v.s Under the Stars

The key to making each one of your photographs of the night sky look unique lies in what you choose to be the central component of the photo. You can also add variation by shooting at different times of the day, as well as from different angles. This article introduces some techniques for capturing the night sky before and after moonset. (Reported by: Minefuyu Yamashita)


Making use of the moonlight: dramatic depiction of the gradation in the moonlit sky

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM/ FL: 16mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/2.8, 10 sec., EV+0.3)/ ISO 800/ WB: Tungsten light

In this example, I made use of a wide-angle lens to bring out the wide expanse of the landscape.
To prevent the lighthouse from appearing unnaturally distorted in the image, I mounted a tripod at a spot that was on the same horizontal level as the lighthouse. 

Overview of camera settings:
I set white balance to “Tungsten light" to add a cool tone that brings out the ambience of the night shot. 
Many photographers would use a smaller aperture for a scene like this, but I chose to use the maximum aperture of f/2.8, and established focus on the lighthouse to create a fuzzier impression by making the moon appear dimmer. 
I set the shutter speed to 10 seconds to minimise blowout near the lighthouse lamp.
I also wanted to lower the ISO speed as much as possible without compromising the gradation of the sky, and found the right exposure balance at ISO 800.

I wanted to depict the lighthouse vividly to anchor the composition and bring out its air of dignity as it loomed over its surrounds under the moonlight. I also included the moving clouds in the sky to add a fantastical feel to the image.



Point 1: Create depth with a wide angle focal length

Using the 16mm focal length on my wide angle lenses, I created a perspective exaggeration effect in the areas before and after the lighthouse by including the grass in the foreground as well as the horizon that was visible in the distance under the moonlight. For this moonlit shot, I didn’t want to just use the vertical and horizontal expanse to emphasize the sense of scale, but also wanted to make use of the unique depth created by the wide-angle lens.


Point 2: White balance – “Tungsten light” to stress the blueness of the sky

Similar to the setting sun, the yellowish moon began to take on a reddish tone as it moved closer to the horizon. The image would resemble a sunset shot if I were to set white balance to Auto. Instead, I set white balance to “Tungsten light" to convey the impression I had at the location of the shoot.


Point 3: 10-sec. exposure time to prevent blowout

The lighthouse was rotating gradually while emitting light, which may cause the photo to be blown out depending on where you are situated from it. What I did, therefore, was to measure the time needed for the light to make a complete revolution, and set the shutter speed to 10 seconds to shorten the duration of exposure to the light beams.


Shooting using light from the lighthouse

Below is a shot taken when the moon was hidden by the clouds. With only light from the lighthouse, the grass in the foreground appears dark and the lighthouse also lacks dimensionality.


Making use of the starry sky: Capturing the stars in the pitch black sky as tiny dots of light

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM/ FL: 18mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8, 30 sec.)/ ISO 2500/ WB: Tungsten light

To capture a sky full of stars, I moved away from the location for photographing the western sky, where the afterglow of the moon still remained, to one where I could capture the northern sky.
At this time, the only direction that remained pitch black was the northern sky. I chose a low angle that looked up to the lighthouse.

Overview of camera settings:
I set the focal length to 18mm so as to obtain an angle of view where I could include the starry sky without weakening the presence of the lighthouse.
To capture the stars as dots of concentrated light, I selected a shutter speed of 30 seconds. 
I opened up the aperture to the maximum (f/2.8), and set ISO speed to 2500 to obtain an amount of brightness that kept the shape of the lighthouse recognisable. 
Blowout in the lighthouse lamp was left intact. 

To enhance the impact of the glittering stars, I aimed to depict the light of the lamp boldly as a concentrated source of light, in the same way as the stars


Point 1: Choose the part of the sky with no unwanted light sources

As the moon sank below the horizon, the stars showed up in the pitch black sky. Taking into consideration the influence of unwanted light sources and the position of sunrise, I chose to take a shot of the northern sky. You can check the time of moonset in advance using smartphone applications or on the Internet.


Point 2: Use a low angle to showcase vastness

To minimise the influence of all light sources, I chose a low angle that looked up to the lighthouse so that I could include the dark starry sky in the background. Doing so also creates a perspective exaggeration effect on the lighthouse, thereby directing the viewer’s attention to the light source at the centre of the image.


Point 3: 30-sec. or less of exposure to capture the stars as concentrated points of light

To capture the stars as concentrated points of light, it is best to keep the exposure time to about 30 seconds or shorter. A duration longer than this would result in obvious light trails. To adjust the shutter speed, raise the ISO speed. In this example, I set the ISO speed to 2500.


Shape of the stars varies with the shutter speed

While focal length is also a factor of consideration, a slower shutter speed causes the stars to turn out blurrier, which may make them look less glittery.

Shutter speed: 15 sec.

Shutter speed: 40 sec.


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Minefuyu Yamashita

Minefuyu Yamashita

Born in 1979 in Aichi. After gaining experience in jobs such as interior and graphic designing, Yamashita became an independent photographer in 2011. His works have been used in many calendars.