Moonlight Mini-Lesson

The above photo by Andrew Tallon was taken at 10:30 pm! What I love about this image is it perfectly exemplifies that our moon is just a reflector for sunlight.

So why don’t we see our night landscape this way, if a camera can capture it?

A number of fascinating factors!

Our moon’s albedo (the measurement of amount of light reflected by astronomical objects) is 0.12, which means about 12% of light which hits the moon is reflected. This amount is subject to fluctuation by numerous factors, including the phase of the moon. The amount which hits the earth’s surface can be–and frequently is–significantly less.

To capture the above image, the shutter was open for 30 seconds. Our eyes have our own tricks for seeing in low-light scenarios, which involve our fantastic friends the rods and cones. The outer segment of rods contain the photosensitive chemical rhodopsin (you might know this as visual purple). Cones contain color pigments in their outer segment. Our rods predominantly help us in low light level environments, which means that we have significantly decreased color perception in moonlight.

Cones are located in the center of the eye and are high-density. Rods meanwhile are located around the cones, so in extreme darkness, a 1° blind spot is developed in the central region of the eye where there are only cones. Rods reach their maximum concentration around 17° each direction from the center line, so sneaking some sideways glances actually improves your nighttime perception.

Our rods are not equally sensitive to all wavelengths of light. They are far more sensitive to blue light, and at around 640 nm, are pretty much useless! Click this graph from the University of New Mexico to check it out:

This means that the color of light the moon is actually reflecting appears significantly different to us because of its low intensity.

A neat example I found on the American Optometric Association’s Website which caught my interest was:

For example, in a darkened room, if one looks at two dim lights of equal illumination (one red and one green) that are positioned closely together, the red light will look brighter than the green light when the eyes are fixating centrally. If one looks to the side of the dim lights about 15-20 degrees, the green light will appear brighter than the red.

If you’re planning on shooting your own moonlight landscapes, be a light geek! It is hard to find focus at night, so place a luminous object near your focus, whether it’s a lantern, or a friend with their cell phone! If you want to be super geeky, tape a laser pointer to the top of your camera, then manually focus on the dot.


So, with all of this science in mind, how would you replicate moonlight now, vs how you did previously?