Lunar Eclipse

December 10, 2011- West Lafayette, IN

We had a very brief showing of the eclipse in my neck of the woods this weekend. It began at 7:45 am when just a slight shadow was visible on the moon and it started to pick up a little of the tell-tale red glow. Unfortunately, at 7:59 am, the moon set below the horizon. Regardless, I headed out in the dark and set up on a back road to try to get a shot of a unique occurrence- a setting eclipse at the same time as the rising sun.

It was cold- about 16 degrees. I did leave the car running as I set up the camera and bolted back towards it to wait for everything to begin (my camera and tripod outside frosting up in the cold). The shot here is just as it descended towards the horizon. As it got lower than this, the atmosphere made pictures impossible due to distortion. I also discovered these power lines that were invisible to me when I set everything up in the pitch black.

lunar eclipse in partial state near moonset near west lafayette, indiana

I did  have much better luck getting this shot than I did a few years back- 2/20/2008- Those shots, as the one below were very difficult to expose for as the bright part of the moon overexposed when I tried to get any detail in the red area.

lunar eclipse over Lafayette, Indiana February 20, 2008

So what did I take away from my morning in the cold and my mediocre picture?

1. Find a good spot ahead of time. There are many tools available to calculate where celestial objects will be in your location, sunset, sunrise, moonset and moonrise locations and directions. I would use these to find a good spot without power lines 🙂

2. Add context. I have browsed the web extensively looking at pictures of this latest eclipse and see so many shots of “just the moon”. While these are interesting from an astronomical point of view, photographically they are boring indeed. The best photos I have seen either juxtapose the eclipse with a landmark or frame the moon within mountains or trees. Though I wasn’t happy about power lines, they did give some context to the shot. I would in the future choose something prettier and more interesting for myself.

3. The right equipment. To get that awesome shot with all the detail in the surface of the moon, you need a long, fast lens. I brought my 70-200mm and it was set at 200mm the whole time. The moon is very far away and though it sometimes looks bigger to us, it is relatively always about the same distance away. I’m betting that 400mm would be the minimum to try this again. The moon also moves, so the shutter speed can’t simply be slowed down to get the exposure you want, but it is also very bright when not in shadow. A shutter speed of 1/500th is a general starting point (this also depends on your focal length) but it can stand a slower speed as the moon becomes darker from the eclipse.

4. Mirror Lock Up. The soft flutter of the mirror flipping out of the way is sometimes  just enough shake to reduce sharpness in your picture. This, I think becomes more critical as the focal length gets longer and longer. Most DSLRs will have some option that will enable you to lock the mirror up before the shutter is pressed, thus eliminating the vibration. Check your cameras manual to see if this option is available and how to activate it.

5. Tripod and Mount. Though, I think I was OK with my setup, this bears mentioning. Eliminate the chances of your tripod moving or shaking by seating it well in whatever surface you are on. Attaching a weight (your camera bag is great) to the middle hook underneath will keep it sturdy. If you are using a longer lens, use the lens mount instead of the camera mount and attach that to your head. My 70-200 is pretty heavy and even with a great ball-head, the weight of the lens can cause movement and difficulty positioning your shot. Having the weight more centered is certainly a heck of a lot easier. I ordered a plate for my 70-200 lens as soon as I found out that I didn’t want to switch my plate from my camera to my lens every time I needed to mount my 70-200 on the tripod.

I had fun trying and even though I am not a huge astronomy buff, I like doing challenging things with my camera and learning from them.