Capturing Vivid Color

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Today’s Question: Recently the color of the moonrise has been spectacular. The moon has been full and a deep orange/red color. The sunrise has had a similar color. However, I cannot capture the color in my photos. The moon is almost white and the sun is a boring orange/yellow. I have tried a variety of setting and had no luck capturing the color I am seeing.

Is there a trick to capturing these vivid colors?

Tim’s Quick Answer: I would say there are two “tricks” to getting great color in the sun or moon. First, a custom white balance setting can be very helpful. Second, keeping the exposure slightly dark can help preserve and accentuate the color.

More Detail: In my experience, when photographers struggle with accurate color photographing the sun or moon, exposure is the key problem. Specifically, I’ve observed a tendency to over-expose the image, which results in lost detail (blown out highlights) for one or more of the individual color channels.

To be sure, including the sun or moon in the frame can be a challenge, because both of these celestial objects are very bright (the moon during daylight hours is obviously not a challenge in this way). You may need to compromise on the exposure to preserve detail in the scene without giving up too much detail for the sun or moon. You could also use high dynamic range techniques to overcome this issue.

By keeping the exposure a little dark, you’ll both preserve detail in the bright areas of the photo, which will help preserve color in those areas. You will also darken the color values, which will actually create greater perceived saturation. So a slightly dark exposure can actually provide a considerable benefit when it comes to retaining the vivid colors when photographing a sunset or the moon at night.

When it comes to adjusting the color temperature setting, it is important to keep in mind that the camera is generally attempting to neutralize the color of the light illuminating a scene. That can result in an image where the vivid colors appear somewhat muted because they have been shifted toward a more neutral value.

The issue of color temperature can be resolved when processing your original RAW captures, so this is less critical to deal with in the original capture if you are shooting in RAW. However, it can be helpful to set a more accurate (or pleasing) color temperature setting even with RAW capture. I generally prefer to use the option to establish a specific Kelvin setting on the camera, using the Live View display to preview the color and adjusting the setting to one that produces the most accurate color for the scene.

I find that taking these issues into account when establishing settings for the exposure can have a dramatic impact on photographs that include the sun or moon.