How to compensate for a night-time photo with much too great a range of dark to light areas

Last night I tried to take a photo of the Miami skyline, with a setting moon above it. Considering that the skyline is a typical night shot, and the moon is still illuminated in bright sunlight, this was impossible. When I got a decent image of the moon, the skyline was almost all black, and when I got a reasonable exposure on the skyline, the moon was totally blown out. I tried using Photomatix, with an HDR using 5 bracketed photos, but the result wasn’t at all pleasing. I gave up on this, and tried something I thought was easier, just the skyline.

Without the moon in the photo, this seemed easier. I will attach the five NEF images here of the skyline. If I don’t want blown highlights, the brightest image is out, but if I drop down to where the “city” looks good, the water and the boats start getting very dark. Then there’s the sailboat with the blue lights on the rigging - the longer exposure gets too blurry, as the boat is moving back and forth because of the waves.

I really have two questions - how to get a nice photo of both the “dark” ground, and also have the moon show up nicely? Or do I just write this off as something impossible.

My other question is which image to select when none of my images have captured the full range of brightness?

_MJM2081 | 2020-12-22-{Moon over Miami}.nef (16.3 MB)

_MJM2082 | 2020-12-22-{Moon over Miami}.nef (16.6 MB)

_MJM2083 | 2020-12-22-{Moon over Miami}.nef (16.9 MB)

_MJM2084 | 2020-12-22-{Moon over Miami}.nef (17.2 MB)

_MJM2085 | 2020-12-22-{Moon over Miami}.nef (17.6 MB)

I will see which image I think works best for me, and how well I can get it to show. There are too many restraints I was fighting against. The lens is “only” f/3.5, not very fast. I could have raised the ISO a lot more, but I went as far as I dared. The shutter speed was bracketed, but I wanted a faster shutter speed to freeze the boats better. Actually, the boat with blue rigging is what prompted me to take this other shot, after I gave up on the moon photo.

Camera was my Nikon Df. The lens is an ancient manual focus “E-Series”, Nikon’s bargain lenses back in the 1980’s. Camera was mounted on my tripod, and set to take five bracketed exposures, with one stop separation between images.

This is the best I know how to do.
(The funny line at the top right is an airplane.)

These two photos show what I was first trying to do, capture the skyline and the moon, and also a photo of just the moon.

I don’t know any way to do this, other than as a “photo illustration”, combining two images.
I’m forgetting about this for now. Need to think about it some more.

I’m afraid there really is no other way. You are talking of a dynamic range of around 20 stops between the moon and shadow detail.

1 Like

Use a graduated neutral density filter.


HDR made carelessly in Lightroom, removed the plane and reduced the blue
with HSL. Also added some warmth using the WB slider.

The moon is a tiny spec unless taken with a long lens…

Nearing the end of a Lunar Eclipse, September 2015.
Lens: Mamiya 300 mm with 2x converter (both for M645)
Camera: Canon EOS 5D3. Screenshot of unprocessed image.

Here is my quick take on Mike’s image. My goal was to retain the darkness of the sky and bring out details on the water without brightening them excessively. This was achieved primarily using control points


The one you chose was definitely the best exposure. I used FRV to determine this. Very little blocked shadow and the only real over-exposure was the specular highlights of the lights which are allowed.

Graduated local adjustment over the sky of -0.94 exposure

This is something that photographers often forget in this digital age and yet it is all part of making the best possible image in the camera, in order to get the best possible results in post-processing.

1 Like

Hi Mike,
with all respect to your ambitions, I don’t understand why you cling to this subject. Just compare these photos to your pic from December 4th, which is brighter AND by far sharper, and you are done.
For me, the most interesting part is the illuminated skyline. But this big empty sky is boring and the foreground with a lot of details is simply to dark to bring interest to your eye. And forget about the moon (doesn’t help). – Sorry for being harsch.

Why don’t you take photos in the blue hour and concentrate on the skyline. When it’s so dark that you
can’t see any more colors in the foreground, the camera is not going to register them. As I’m no landscape guy, I don’t know about long time exposures.

I’ll enclose a quick HDR with very few edits in PL4, then sent over to Nik collection HDR2 …
have fun, Wolfgang


That should work fine, once I get the correct filter. I think it’s a dead end street though, as if I don’t use a very long focal length lens, the moon is going to be too small. Or, if I go for a “photo illustration” and enlarge the moon - or use a longer focal length lens so the moon appears larger, and crop the image… lots of ideas to play with. I suppose I can also process the image in Luminar, and pick any moon I want in the photo… not.

It may seem that way, but I’m mostly doing very different “stuff”. Here’s the collection of photos I just posted a few days ago, taken during the past week. Very different:

I guess I’m “clinging to” this subject because I haven’t figured it out yet, by Joanna more or less answered my question, telling me what I was trying to do is not possible. As to the photos in the gallery posted above, I’m not all that excited about them, as none of the first group of images shows the detail in the pelicans. The last images were taken with a lens that worked better, but I need to get a telephoto lens set up to get close to the birds - then maybe I’ll get photos I’m happy with. What’s in the gallery was processed in PL4, but they were cropped down to a tiny amount of the image size.

The Type-E Nikon lens I used last night was still on the camera as I was setting it up to try pelican photos - it’s up to 135mm, which is good, but manual focus, which may not be quite so good. I dunno. I had to call Nikon to ask about using this lens with my Df.

Hopefully I’ll have something very different to ask about here in a few days. Thanks! And yes, I agree completely with your advice, and shoot when it’s “blue”, not “black”. :slight_smile:

Your photo accurately shows what I saw with my eyes last night, and what I didn’t see. I think I like this more than what I created. It is very “real”.

I’m glad you liked it. I actually based my edits on my understanding of your expectations from previous conversations. If I was editing this image for myself the results would have been different.


Back in the 1960’s, nobody knew about “raw files”. Heck, nobody even knew about “files”. IBM punch cards, but no files. Maybe five years or so ago I switched from ‘jpg’ to ‘raw’. My thoughts about raw files were that they were mostly the same as jpg, but I had a greater ability to adjust them later.

I guess I could put it this way - to me, raw files aren’t “the end”, they are part of the “means to getting to the end”. I’m sure what you wrote is not only correct, and I’m sure I know even less than you think I know, not more. You and most of the people in this forum are WAY over my head. On the other hand, PL4 to me is just like Lightroom, ON1, Affinity, DarkTable, RawTherapee, Luminar, and all the other image editors. To me, they are a means of getting from the photo I captured with my camera, into a photograph I can post, email, print, whatever.

So yes, 95% of my editing is now done in PL4, and however ignorant I was, and still am, I’m happy with what I’m doing. There is always room for improvement, and there will always be room for improvement, but understanding raw images is just a tiny part of what goes into making a good photograph - but I have now seen that it can take a good photograph and turn it into a better photograph.

Something for people think about - what is more important, the ability to fully control everything that goes into the making of a good photograph, or the ability to “see” the photograph one is trying to create? Technique, vs art. Both are important, but to me, the “art” is far more important. PL4 - it’s a tool. It helps me get where I want to go better than the tools I used before.

A photograph doesn’t need to be technically good to be a good photograph.
It’s the photographers vision, helped by his ability as an artist, to make a good photograph.
I am learning to enjoy the tools in PL4 more than the tools in the editors I used before.

…but be that as it may, can I ask what are your qualities to create a good RAW file?

Aha! That makes sense.
I think I’ll stop posting these night shots, although I would still enjoy seeing your vision of a photo, and how you edit it to look the way you like.

I do that with lots of photos - especially those by Ansel Adams. I enjoy seeing the original, and how he modified it. I also wonder if he visualized the final image before or after taking the photo.

Here’s my attempt. I like it but it may not be to your liking.

1 Like

Gee, that was hiding in may image all this time??? Wow.
Yes, I like it a lot.
Control points?

I need to stop thinking what I remember, and instead think of what is possible!


What white balance? For color film, there was a choice of “daylight” or “tungsten”. And there were filters if it was the wrong film for what you were doing. Light meters? There was Weston, with the “Zone System”, and there was me, with “Sunny 16”. I didn’t have the money for much more.

To me, “taking control” means selecting the best combination of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. Most of the time, the rest can be selected by the camera automatically. Most of my attention goes to composition and timing.

If I was setting up a camera on a tripod, to get as close as possible to a perfect image, you’re right, digital photography offers a lot more choices. My “problem”, is I shoot digital the same as I used to shoot film. I don’t see that as a problem.

So, it’s boring to type about what I think or do - it would be more meaningful if you were to describe all the things that you do, and the choices that you make. What goes through your mind when you’re setting up to take a photo, and how do you adjust for these things? We’re talking now about taking a photo, not about editing it later.

How people make pictures is none of my business. However. Once a picture i tampered with in Luminar, it does not longer tell the truth.

True. A scene with large dynamic range can only be photographed with graduated filters or multiple exposures.