Images made by moonlight have an odd mix of day and night about them. Landscapes show an astonishing amount of color and detail, while skies attain a deep blue to set off the brighter stars. These colors are not seen by the eye however, because the levels of illumination are too feeble to be picked up by the eye's color-detecting cones. Film and CCD chips in digital cameras can build up exposure in low light levels to record the color and detail hidden in the night such as in the image below.
Looking across the Merced River to El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite
National Park. The full moon, a hint of dawn and the stars provide the only
light in this nocturnal scene looking towards the east. (Nikon F3, 35mm lens
at f2, 20 second exposure, Fujichrome Provia film pushed to 400 ISO)

Moonlight on the hoodoos at
Bryce Canyon with the stars
of the Big Dipper above.
(same exposure as above)
Why would an image taken by moonlight look much like a daylight one? Isn't light from the moon completely different from that of the sun?

Photographically, moonlight and sunlight are quite similar. This makes sense since moonlight is simply reflected light from the sun. The lunar surface is a neutral gray, adding little to no tint. The size of both sources is the same too, about half a degree wide. That makes both types of lighting equally harsh, with shadows cast by the sun and full moon of the same sharpness. Moonlight only seems softer to the eye because the eye's defects really begin to show in very low illumination.

The most glaring difference, of course, is that of intensity. Light from the full moon is some 400,000 times dimmer than that of the sun. The moon may seem like a blindingly-bright orb in the night sky, but it is actually a dark gray sphere reflecting only about 7% of the light hitting its surface.


All images are copyrighted by Frank Zullo. Please do not use without written permission.