The Milky Way at Acadia National Park, by Mike Leonard

How to Take Photos After Dark

Vacations are a time to get away, explore, see and do new things, make memories, relax and of course take pictures.   There are numerous tourist attractions, landmarks and other excursions that are worthy of taking a camera and should not be missed.

Yet, come evening, many people tend to put their cameras away and that’s when you can often make your most memorable vacation images.

Photographing at night can be very rewarding, especially if you want to share the images you make with your friends and family on social media.  With just moonlight and or street lights you can make some dramatic pictures.  What’s more —when visiting popular places at night, you’ll likely find parking to be easier, fewer crowds—and you can skip the suntan lotion.

So, here is what you’ll need to get started taking pictures under moonlight:

A camera that can take long exposures of at least 20 seconds, a tripod, and a flashlight.

Put your camera on manual mode to allow you to set the shutter speed to 20 seconds and the Lens Aperture to f/5.6 or lower if your lens allows.  The sensitivity or ISO will want to be set around 3200 – 4000 for the low-light levels you will be capturing.  To minimize camera shake, use a tripod or steady your camera on a fixed surface and use the built-in timer, so when you press the shutter button, the camera will have a chance to stabilize before taking the picture – usually the two-second timer is adequate.  Set your White Balance to Daylight since moonlight is just reflected sunlight.  A half to full moon can bathe the landscape with a quality of light that can look like daylight.  Try capturing scenes that you’d normally do in the daytime, but under moonlight to make an image that is truly dramatic.

If you find your images are coming out too dark, try opening the lens aperture to a lower number like f/ 4 to f/ 2.8, if possible, to let more light in.  Alternately, you can raise the ISO but with the higher sensitivity comes grain and other noise in the image.  If the moonlight is bright and your starting image is too light, then try reducing the ISO until you get an acceptably exposed image.  It’s best to practice and become familiar with all of these settings before you head out at night to take pictures.

To catch the Milky Way, you want a night where the moon is not visible and where you are away from city lights.  There are apps for smart phones that will help guide you to the best location to capture the Milky Way, as well as moonrise and sunrise in advance, so you can better plan where to take your photograph.  One such smartphone app that does this well is called Photo Pills and is available for both Android and iPhones for a nominal one-time fee.

You can use a flashlight diffused with tissue paper to cast a soft light onto people to make a truly unique portrait of your family members under the stars while on vacation. You’ll only need to have the flashlight on for a second or two at the start of the exposure, then shut it off and make sure your subject doesn’t move until the end of the exposure.

So, before you put your camera away at the end of the day, try a photographic technique that may be new to you and make some photo memories to share that will be unique. People will be asking how you did that.

— Text & Photo: Mike Leonard. Mike is a night owl of sorts when it comes to photography. When he isn’t leading a photography cruise or doing a Photoshop class quite often after sunsets he can be found out collecting light of the moon and stars.  Visit his website at

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