Under An African Sky: The Moon's Aura & Its Light Side

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The Moon. It is one of those things. It is just there, all the time. It is so present that its aura can become lost through its continuous presence overhead. However, its relative positioning makes the world of difference. The moon is to night photography as the sun is to wildlife photography.

As the nearest, prominent celestial body to Earth, the moon reflects a great deal of the Sun’s light rays back onto us when we are facing away from the Sun (during night time). It takes slightly less than 24 hours for the moon to complete its orbit around us and so from a single observation point on Earth, its presence may only be seen across the sky for several hours a night. That, coupled with its relative position to us and the Sun, mean the amount of visual surface of the moon reflecting light changes every night, until finally full moon occurs (normally) once a month as it rises while the Sun sets. For a few nights either side of true full moon the appearance of the moon is still magnificently large and “full” of light, as the majority of its visual surface reflects sunlight back at us. This drastically changes the game for night photography.

moon, TMP

Photograph by Trevor McCall-Peat.

An very full moon, with all of its visible surface reflecting sunlight back, looks bright white will high in the night sky and is therefore a great source of white light which is not as harsh as the midday white light from the Sun. 1/320 at f/4; ISO 100. 

With a moon surface filled with reflecting light, the night is not so dark. This is often considered unfortunate timing for those wanting to experiment with astrophotography. It is true that the moonlight dims out many of the stars, but close to the full moon period astrophotography is still possible either early in the night before the waning moon rises or later (very early morning) after the waxing moon sets but before the sun approaches. The latter requiring either dedication or jet lag.

sunset, SC

As the Sun disappears, a new opportunity for photography begins. 1/400 at f/10; ISO 500 [at 200mm]. Photograph by Sean Cresswell.

milky way, satellites, SC

Photograph by Sean Cresswell.

Without any moon in the night sky, all celestial bodies appear clear and bright! This long exposure on an area of the Milky Way reveals its amazing colours, the large shine of Jupiter, and three separate low-altitude satellites bypassing one another towards the centre of the image. 25,0sec at f1.4; ISO 800 [at 20mm]. 

In my opinion, it is much more enjoyable to use the great big glowing white moon to your advantage and attempt to capture a completely different type of image during the night. With either a very wide aperture or a very slow shutter, one can achieve beautifully unique landscapes using only moonlight. As the moon’s cool light casts shadows beyond trees and textures the entire scenery, stars litter the skyline behind.moon lit landscape, SC

With a bright moon in the night sky, images like like are possible. Stars remain visible in the background while the entire landscape becomes illuminated with moonlight. 10,0sec at f/1.4; ISO 100 [at 20mm]. Photograph by Sean Cresswell.

sand river, finfoot, moon light, SC

An otherwise pitch dark scene is revealed through moonlight. The Sand River is bathed in cool moonlight while the stars glitter beyond. 3,0sec at f/1.4; ISO 320 [at 20mm]. Photograph by Sean Cresswell.

From a purely photographic perspective, make the most of a bright moon as it only comes around for a short few nights every four weeks. Get experimental and let us know what you walk away with.moonlight, SC

Eager photographers set up cameras in the dark to capture moonlit landscapes, and so use a flashlight to light up a nearby tree as a subject on which to manually focus before beginning the shot. 1,3sec at f/1.4; ISO 1000 [at 20mm]. Photograph by Sean Cresswell.

Next on my schedule is to try using the full moon to backlight subjects like tree canopies, dead Leadwoods, or even old and vacant buildings. Another idea is to start photographing animals with moonlight; noting the slower shutter speed and thus the need for stationary animals. Perhaps a standing rhino or seated lion could make for an interesting photograph?The world is at your fingertips, with the moon as an alternative source of lighting. Play with it!

Rich Laburn
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.
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