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Fall Aspen By Moonlight

I recently spent a few days high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California photographing fall aspen trees. The bright yellow leaves always contrast beautifully with the clear blue sky and often snowy mountain peaks, but I was looking for a new approach. A friend had mentioned experimenting with moonlight exposures and how they looked rather like daylight exposures. It sounded different so I decided to give it a shot.

Digital cameras have been notorious for producing lots of noise with long exposures and high ISOs, but manufacturers have introduced very effective noise reduction solutions during the last couple years.  I was going to be using 30-second exposures with my 24-70mm zoom set to f2.8. I would merely bracket ISOs to get a reasonable histogram. After the initial 30-second exposure, the camera records a second exposure with the shutter closed. This second exposure records only the noise produced by the chip during the long exposure. This noise is then magically removed from the first exposure, giving clean black shadows that would normally be filled with noise, especially at higher ISOs.

© Chuck Place

Two hours after sunset, under a bright moon, the temperature at 9600 feet was literally freezing. I was able to compose the shot with just moonlight, placed the focus at infinity and proceeded to make long exposures at ISO 400, 800 and 1600. To my eye, there were only a few stars in the sky, the aspen were a pale yellow and distant peaks looked close enough to touch. The resulting images were quite unexpected!

ISO 800 turned out to be the magic number. The aspen came out a bright yellow, the peaks were highly detailed and the biggest surprise of all were hundreds of stars in the blue sky, including part of the Milky Way. Sunlight reflected off the moon gave me accurate colors and there was no noise in the deep shadows. At the end of the shoot, I couldn’t feel my fingers, but it was worth it to create what was for me a unique landscape. Who knew moonlight was so magical?


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