Jeff Smallwood Photography
Full Moon Seascapes
May 14, 2012
Under the Light of the Supermoon
144 seconds - Under the Light of the Supermoon.
Click for larger view

I was lucky to have been in the Bahamas recently, and as luck would have it, the trip coincided with the rise of the supermoon in May. Unfortunately we weren't in a location where we could witness the moon actually rise. I snagged a few shots about an hour after it came up, but since I couldn't see it come up over the horizon the next best thing was to wait till late at night. A full moon is awesome light and gives a distinct, unique illumination to the world under long exposures.

Decay Under the Moon
Old pier by Chesapeake
Bay, 180 seconds


Silent Beacon
Chesapeake Bay under full moon light

Whether it's locally along the Chesapeake Bay or in the tropics, I love shooting under the light of the full moon. Coincidentally, when I was in the Bahamas in November it was also during a full moon and I learned first hand what full moon seascapes are like. The full moon can create very unique lighting conditions. The shooting times are much shorter than you might think, especially with a fast lens. With a fast 50mm (like an f/1.4) and a bump in ISO, you can even shoot sub 1-second shots and brighten them in post enough to see the scene well. The two shots below are ones I took last November. Of course, with a lower ISO and higher aperture, it's still easy to push exposures from 30 seconds to several minutes and get unique scenes captured.



Shoot It Once, Shoot It Twice
"Short" exposure of only half-second for the waves (50mm f/1.4)
blended with a 30 second exposure for the cliffs


Full Moon Light
200 seconds of full moon exposure, really brings out the color in the water.


Moon Mist
203 second exposure from the top of the cliffs. Large waves
were crashing on the rocks resulting in the misted exposure.

In November I was in the Exumas, a much darker area of the country than the city of Nassau (which is where I was last week). The three shots above are from Staniel Cay in the Exumas, a good 130 km southeast from Nassau. In Nassau the lights of the resort were flooding the sky and the beach so I went out to the edge of the coral rocks, as far away as I could. I couldn't get very far, but it was far enough. The only problem I had was picking up the slight yellow glow from artificial lights, which competed slightly with the full moon. I had to reduce the yellow tint a little bit in post processing but otherwise the colors came out true.

Tips and Techniques
One of the toughest things to do in shooting scenes like this is getting the focus right. Auto focus goes out the window and you usually have to do it all manually. If you know the hyperfocal distances on your lenses and have a flashlight, that's one way to ensure you're getting it right. But with the limited light you usually aren't working at extremely high apertures. If you're going for the horizon, the next best technique is to use live-view (or test shots) and focus on a distant light, getting it as a pinpoint. If you're working at closer distances, live-view and test shots can work as well and it also helps if you have a rough estimate of your subject distance so you can focus the lens using the marked guide first.

Another thing to remember is to set your white balance to sunlight. After all, the light of the moon is just reflected sunlight and sometimes the camera will get it wrong so it's best to set it manually. I also highly recommend shooting in RAW. You'll want as much luminosity information as possible to work with and the lowest noise (and ability to reduce noise in post if needed).

Other than that, just look for scenes that would do well as any normal long exposure. The fun and ease of working at night is that you don't need any neutral gradient filters to get those long exposures. All you need to sacrifice is a little sleep!

Results from the Supermoon

A lone palm tree on the beach. Hint of start trails are above.


Silhouetted by the full moon.
Atlantis resort in the background.

When I went out in May I started with the lone palm tree at the edge of the resort beach (the shot above and at left). Tried two angles, one facing away from the moon, one facing into the moon to bring it into a slight silhouette. Totally different effect, but both relatively short exposures given it was around 1am. Next I wandered down to the small, exposed area of coral rock beyond the edge of the sand. I didn't have a flashlight with me, but luckily the supermoon was more than enough to navigate by. The rocks are very sharp and dangerous, and you definitely don't want to fall on them (see the jagged surfaces in the shot below). The ocean was eerily calm too, so much so that I was able to get down to within a few feet of the edge and not get wet. The waves were very gentle and produced a small amount of sea foam at the edge of the rocks. I setup right where the gentle waves were crashing and the water was flowing between the crevasses and holes in the ledge. I didn't last long though as I had visions of a larger wave suddenly rolling in out of the dark, crashing over the rocks and knocking me over (or worse, damaging my equipment!). In all seriousness, I did keep a very close eye and ear on the sea.  An environment like this at night is nothing to fool around with. I remained diligent in watching and listening for even the slightest difference in the swell/wave/crash pattern. I think I spent around 30 minutes on the rocks and figured I was ahead of the game since I hadn't gotten wet yet or dropped anything valuable. Grabbed my tripod, threw my bag over my shoulder, and headed back up to my room to get some shut-eye.

Oh, and one last hazard I had to deal with was a departing cruise line. Not sure which one it was but it decided to leave right in the middle of my shoot, streaking red and white lights across the horizon. Kind of kills the natural feel I was going for but I decided to keep the shot below. After all, if you're in a place where you have to complete with cruise ship traffic in your shots, you're probably in a good place to begin with :)

A cruise ship departs from Nassau at night while I was shooting along the shore.
94 second exposure @ ISO 160, f/6.3, 17mm

Besides silver bullets to defend against werewolves, what other tips and techniques have you used when shooting under the light of the full moon?

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