Which Moon Phases are Best for Different Kinds of Night Photography?

Don’t go ’round tonight
It’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise
— John Fogerty

A bad moon may be on the rise. At least for an unprepared photographer. In addition to werewolves, waves and ancient planting customs, the phase of the moon has a strong influence on our night photography. Should we plan our shoots around the full moon? The first-quarter moon? Or is better to use the new moon? How do I plan for the third-quarter moon, and what does that even mean?

If you find yourself asking these questions, you’re not alone. The lexicon of the lunar cycle can be tricky sometimes, but the knowledge is helpful for creating your best nocturnal images. Why? Because different moon phases illuminate the night to different degrees and in different ways, and therefore different phases lend themselves to some kinds of night photography better than others.

To help make sense of the possibilities, here’s a brief primer on the phases of the moon and a guide to which types of photography are better suited for each.

Phasing In

The four distinct moon phases are new, first quarter, full and third quarter. It takes roughly one month for the moon to complete the full cycle from new to full and back to new. This means there is roughly one week between each full phase.

New Moon

The new moon could also be thought of as “no moon.” Because the moon is not visible to us, this phase provides the darkest skies and the least amount of light.

New-moon nights are great for capturing single-exposure star trails. Because there is no light in the sky (provided you are not near a city) you can leave your shutter open for hours without danger of overexposing. This elongated shutter time produces extremely long star trails. This is also a great time to capture those concentric rings around the North Star!

The new moon is also a great opportunity to capture the Milky Way—the darker the sky, the more dim stars we see.

First Quarter Moon

As the cycle progresses, the moon becomes a small visible sliver. We call this a crescent moon. Because it’s on the way to becoming “larger,” it’s called a waxing crescent.

The waxing crescent turns into the first quarter moon—the first full phase after the new moon. The name for this phase is a little confusing because at this point the moon is what most of us consider half full.

Waxing-crescent and half-moon evenings are still good for star trails—even single-exposure star trails. However, the closer the moon is to first quarter, the more light will “spill” into the sky, making the sky brighter. The somewhat lighter sky tends to hide the dimmest stars. It also means you can’t leave your shutter open all night long. Exposures of 15 minutes or so are still achievable, though, providing enough time to create star trails of acceptable length.

Waxing crescent moon. 20 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 100. The illumination on the mountains was provided by the city lights of nearby Sedona, Arizona.

Waxing crescent moon. 20 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 100. The illumination on the mountains was provided by the city lights of nearby Sedona, Arizona.

First quarter moons are great for practicing light painting. The longer exposures give you plenty of time to move around the scene illuminating your subject. But wait, can’t you light paint on new-moon nights? Sure! The only problem is that it’s completely dark and moving around the scene can be difficult. Most of the time you wouldn’t want to use your flashlight to light the way, as that illumination would become an unintended and unwelcome part of your scene. (See “Staying Invisible While Light Painting—The Art of Not Being Seen.”) Oftentimes first quarter moons provide just enough light to get around, without overpowering the sky and hiding dim stars.

First quarter moon. 10 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 200. In Arches National Park, Balanced Rock in the foreground is gently illuminated by the half moon.

First quarter moon. 10 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 200. In Arches National Park, Balanced Rock in the foreground is gently illuminated by the half moon.

Full Moon

On its journey from half to full, the moon becomes three-quarters illuminated, which is a called a gibbous moon. Because it is still getting larger, it’s called a waxing gibbous.

Approximately two weeks after (and before) the new moon, we are treated to the full moon in all of its glory. The full moon is a great time for mixing light painting and the night sky.

Full-moon nights can be so bright that it’s sometimes easy to forget it’s no longer daytime! It’s amazing how bright it is once our eyes become adjusted. This extra brightness makes it quite easy to move about the scene and can be crucial when trying to light paint from many different angles while navigating difficult terrain. It’s hard enough to concentrate on the timing and technique of light painting without adding in the concern of tripping or running into a tree because you can’t see.

Full moon. 20 exposures at 3 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100 stacked in Photoshop. I painted the foreground tree with a  Coast HP7R flashlight  covered with an orange gel.

Full moon. 20 exposures at 3 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100 stacked in Photoshop. I painted the foreground tree with a Coast HP7R flashlight covered with an orange gel.

So what’s the downside of shooting under a full moon? The very same brightness that makes it easy to see and move around also forces us into shorter exposure times. Instead of 15 minutes or half-hour exposures, you’ll need to be shooting 2- to 5-minute exposures. Star trails will be significantly shorter in length when shooting so short.

Is this is a problem? Absolutely not. For many photographers, though, longer trails are the desired outcome. Many folks feel that straight shots of just these short trails and a distant silhouette seem a bit boring. I agree, but I also find that the shorter trails are just fine as long as there is something else of interest in the scene. An interesting moonlit foreground, light-painted subjects, or even man-made illumination or car trails can do the trick.

The extra brightness of the sky in this phase also means that we’ll capture fewer stars.

Brighter sky = fewer stars
Darker sky = more stars

The trick here is to use wider apertures.

Wider apertures = more stars
Smaller apertures = fewer stars

Of course using wider apertures will also shorten your overall exposure, meaning shorter trails.

For that reason, "star stacking" is a common full-moon photography technique. Star stacking is the process of making many shorter exposures in the field and then stacking them together in post using Photoshop or another computer program. While no solution is perfect for all scenarios, star stacking is a great way to achieve longer star trails when the sky is too bright to leave your shutter open for 15 to 30 minutes.

Third Quarter Moon

As the week advances, the full moon starts to lose illumination and once again becomes three-quarters illuminated. Just like the partial moon earlier in the month, we call this phase a gibbous. But because the moon is starting to disappear or diminish, it’s called a waning gibbous.

The waning gibbous of course “shrinks” in size until it’s only half illuminated entering the next full phase, which is called the third quarter. From a photographic standpoint, the techniques and strategies for the third quarter moon are the same as for the first quarter. Moderately dark skies allow for long exposures, and a dimly lit landscape allows you to move about and light paint in relative safety.

Third quarter moon. 8 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 400.

Third quarter moon. 8 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 400.

As the moon loses illumination and continues through its final phase, it becomes what’s called a waning crescent. This last light of the night sky eventually disappears altogether and returns to its new moon (no moon) phase.

Phasing Out

The night sky is miraculous and a wonder to behold, and each phase of the moon offers unique opportunities to the prepared night photographer.

All disciplines of photography benefit from an intimate familiarity with the subject matter. Night photography is no different. Think about your goals as you plan for your shots. Do you want long star trails and an interesting silhouette? Think about shooting under a new moon. Are you interested in light painting a subject but including the sky? Perhaps first or third quarter moon would be best. Is the moonlit landscape your ultimate goal? Consider planning your shoot around a full moon.

Counter to what John Fogerty and Credence Clearwater Revival might have you believe, there is no such thing as a “bad” moon, at least for photography. You can shoot under any moon, as long as you remember which phases are best for different techniques.

For a great explanation of the moon phases complete with diagrams, check out the website MoonConnection.com. For more on light painting, check out Tim’s ebook, The Magic of Light Painting. For more on shooting at night, check out Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots that Tim co-authored with our colleague Gabriel Biderman.

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.