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How to Photograph a Moonbow – Part 2

Continued from How to Photograph a Moonbow – Part 1

So now you know how to find a moonbow, CJ Kale will tell you how he goes about shooting them.

Equipment and Exposure

Ok… so now you’ve found a lunar rainbow. What equipment do you need to capture it? The most important tools are a wide lens, a tripod, and your camera. The cool thing about shooting under moonlight is that you don’t need the best low-light camera or the fastest wide-angle lens. I personally like to use a lens that is 16mm or wider; 14mm is ideal and a 14mm/2.8 is a dream.

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Exposure times for these rainbows are shorter than when shooting for the stars; ISO is also not as high. For example, I sometimes shoot at f3.5/10Sec. @ ISO 800. These settings can be achieved pretty noise free on most digital SLR’s. Also, if shooting film, push the film to 400 ISO and increase the exposure time remembering to calculate for reciprocity failure for the duration of your exposure and you’ll have a completely noise-free image. Many films push two stops from ISO 100 to ISO 400 without much effect to the image grain.

Some more optional accessories that I always like to have are a cable release camera to avoid camera shake and a circular polarizer to intensify the rainbow (or drive you mad trying to figure out why you’re not getting the rainbow in your shot).


How do you actually achieve the shot? First, I set up and get my camera focused. I use hyperfocal distance for the lens at the aperture I am shooting to get the sharpest image (there are field calculator apps that can help with this). After setting your focus, check it by zooming in after capturing an exposure and make adjustments as needed.

Volcano images Kilauea Hawaii


My next step is to refine my composition. To do this, I raise the ISO high enough to capture noisy one-second exposures as aids to check my composition. I shoot, look at the screen, and then recompose as needed. This allows me to see things that I may not have with my eyes in the dim conditions. Once I work out my composition, I drop the ISO to around 800 to 1600 and make any adjustments I need to get proper exposure. Remember, unlike the sun, the moon’s exposure values will vary from night to night. The the settings you used on one night may not work the same for the following night.

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Get Your Circular Polarizer ON

Finally, after completely all of these steps, now comes the potentially mind-numbing part. I put a circular polarizer on my lens. If the polarizer is set wrong, the rainbow completely disappears or is only half visible in the shot. If this happens to you, don’t panic; just turn the polarizer. If the rainbow is completely gone in your frame, turn the polarizer 180 degrees and it will likely be close enough to perfect. Otherwise, the best way to dial it in is to turn it a ¼ turn at a time, then expose until it is at its best polarization for the rainbow.

Note that the polarizer, on average, causes the loss of about 1.5 stops of light. You’ll need to compensate for this by increasing your exposure time, increasing your ISO, or opening up your aperture. Increasing the exposure or ISO causes more noise (not a problem with a good low light camera that can handle 6400 ISO without noise). Opening the aperture causes a few other issues:

  • You’ll need to rest your hyperfocal distance (if you are as picky as I am to get it right in camera).
  • If your lens is not fast enough, opening the aperature is not an option.
  • Depending on the lens, this opening up can cause overall softness and bad corners.

I personally take all in-camera decisions very seriously as I do not settle for less than a great shot. I like the challenge of getting it right in my camera rather than making it right on the computer during post-processing. If you find that the benefit you’re getting from the polarizer causes you to gain noise or lose sharpness, you’ll need to decide what benefits your final frame the most… the polarization or the extra stops of light. If you need the extra light due to a slow lens or a camera that does not perform as well in low light, don’t be afraid to lose the polarizer. These are decisions that photographers in search of one amazing frame (rather than a composite) must make.

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The amazing thing about moonbows is how unique and mind-blowing of a shot you can get right in-camera in one frame with no composite. You can take pride in a pure photo that is so amazing that people think it was created on a computer.

Now… put the mouse down, the laptops away, and grab your cameras and tripods and go capture some amazing shots straight from the photographer’s main tool… the camera.

About Author CJ Kale

Deemed a "daredevil photographer", in 2011 CJ feel into a lava tube 20ft while shooting the Kilauea Volcano and shattered his ankle. Even this was not enough to deter CJ, as only a few months later we was back in the surf and lava fields doing what he does best.

CJ's photography has been featured in new articles worldwide such as Natures best, National Geographic, Professional Photography Monthly, Surfer Magazine, UK Daily Mail, New York times, BBC, Ocean views, and One World One Ocean, and has won numerous awards and has even had his work displayed in the Smithsonian Museum.


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