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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, Digital Camera Magazine)

Lighthouse under starry sky

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


Look #1: Under the magical starry sky


- 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.
(This was shot shortly before dawn. At this time, the only direction that remained pitch black was the Northern Sky.)

- I chose a low angle that looked up toward the lighthouse.

Key camera settings:

- Focal length: 18mm, which included the starry sky without making the lighthouse appear too small.
- Shutter speed: 30 seconds, to capture the stars as dots of concentrated light,
- Aperture and ISO speed: f/2.8 (maximum) and ISO 2500, so that the shot was bright enough to keep the shape of the lighthouse recognisable. 

To enhance the impact of the glittering stars, I aimed to depict the light from the lighthouse as a concentrated light source just like the stars. The blown highlights in the lighthouse lamp were left intact. 


What made the shot work

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

Stars look the brightest when the moon is below the horizon and the sky is pitch black. Taking into consideration the influence of unwanted light sources and the position of sunrise, I chose to shoot against the Northern Sky. You can check the time of moonset in advance either online or with a smartphone app such as Sun Surveyor.

Point 2: Shooting from a low angle

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, which directs 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.


Know this: The shutter speed affects the shape of the stars

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

CLoseup of stars shot at 15 seconds

Shutter speed: 15 sec

Close up of stars shot at 40 seconds (obvious trailing)

Shutter speed: 40 sec

Inspired to shoot starscapes? Here are some tips and tutorials:
Slow Shutter Art: Using Zoom Burst to Transform Stars in the Sky into a Meteor Shower
Stunning Starscapes: Photographing a Spectacular View of Cherry Blossoms and the Milky Way at Night
EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM: My Go-to Lens for Photographing Starscapes
Astrophotography Techniques to Try with the EOS R


Look #2: Moonlight drama

Lighthouse on hill under dramatic 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


- 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 level as the lighthouse. 

Key camera settings:

- White balance: “Tungsten light" to add a cool tone that brings out the ambiance of the night shot.
- Aperture: 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. This makes the moon appear dimmer, giving the shot a softer feel.
- Shutter speed: 10 seconds, to prevent blown highlights near the lighthouse lamp.
- ISO speed: As low as possible without compromising the gradation in the sky. I found the right exposure balance at ISO 800.

I wanted to make the lighthouse look as vivid as possible. This would not only anchor the composition but also bring out its air of dignity as it loomed over its surroundings under the moonlight. The moving clouds in the sky add a fantastical feel to the image.


What made the shot work

Point 1: Creating depth with a wide-angle focal length

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 harness the unique sense of depth that an ultra-wide-angle lens can create. I shot at 16mm and included the grass in the foreground and the horizon in the background in the frame, which creates a perspective exaggeration effect in the areas before and after the lighthouse.

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 better convey the impression I had at the location of the shoot.

Point 3: 10-sec. exposure to prevent blown highlights

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. I measured the time needed for the light to make a complete revolution, and set the shutter speed to 10 seconds so that the shot would not be overexposed.


Know this: The importance of the moonlight

The shot below was 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 lacks dimensionality.

Lighthouse on hill under night sky with no moon


For more ideas on how to achieve different looks from the same location, also see:
One Location, Two Looks: Abstract Nightscapes – Tranquillity vs. Vibrancy


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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.