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Shoot the Moon

Keep one eye on what you're doing and the other on the Man In The Moon.

January 23, 2019 Landscapes

Super blood wolf moon eclipse

I'm over the moon thinking about the eclipse.* The Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse happens Sunday night and I'm hoping the weather gods grant us clear skies. Forecasters here hint at the chance, but they warn of sub-zero temps and strong, gusty winds, too.

No matter -- I'm making my plans like it will all work in our favor for this rare lunar event.

Here's my strategy: (see apps and story links below for more info and advice)

-Do your homework early. Read about how to photograph the eclipse soon, so you're not rushed on Sunday night (see the helpful stories and apps below).

-Gather the gear you'll need. I'm using a big lens, heavy tripod and a top-tier digital SLR camera, a Nikon 500mm lens with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters, a Gitzo G410 tripod, a Studioball ball head, a Nikon D850 body, an electronic cable release and a lens hood to keep stray light from hitting the front lens element.

If conditions are good, I may set up a second camera and tripod to make wide-angle images of the moon tracking across the sky during the eclipse. You can see examples of this in Michael Frye's post listed below.

-Get familiar with the process and your gear. Walk through a practice run of how you'll set up and photograph the eclipse. Indoors, of course -- you'll be out in the cold soon enough. If you're lucky enough to have clear skies on Sat. night, photograph the full moon as a shakeout run, so you get ideas about settings and compositions.

-Charge your batteries. I'll have two back ups, too, since Live View and the cold can drain them faster than you think. If it's extremely-cold weather, keep a charged battery on you in a warm place like an inside coat pocket. It will be handy and ready when the first one runs low.

-Use an app to find out where the moon will track in your sky. You'll want to know when it starts, when it peaks and when it ends. This free website will give you the event times for your location:

It's not a mobile app, so write down the times and keep them handy.

-Use a headlamp with a red light or filter. It's easier on your eyes once they've adjusted to the dark.

-Find a dark location away from bright lights. I'm heading to a state park known as a "dark-sky" spot. Avoid setting up where car lights might shine on you and your camera. Here's a dark-sky finder:

-Dress warmly head to toe. It's self-explanatory to those of us who live where there are four seasons. Warm layers, insulated pants and boots, gloves and a hat are essential for your comfort. Remember some heat packs for your boots and gloves. And a thermos of coffee or hot chocolate goes without saying.

-Set up early and walk through the steps you've chosen. The eclipse starts about 9:30pm for me. But I'll be there an hour or two before that. That's enough time to set up and make some full-moon images, too. If conditions are good, I may go early enough for moonrise here at 5:20pm. Sunset is 5:44pm, so there may be late light on the landscape as the super moon rises above it.

Here's a free app for moon and sun rise and set times and compass directions:…

And here's a free compass app to get you pointed in the right direction:…

-Jot down the settings you'll use. I like to have notes on paper that I can refer to quickly by head-lamp light rather than on a lighted screen. Once my eyes adjust to the darkness, I like to read the notes in the red light of the head lamp.

My goal is to make sharp, well-exposed images with a telephoto lens. Since the moon will be high over head during the eclipse, I'm choosing not to include the landscape with a wide angle lens. If I change my mind, I'll make the wide-angle photographs with an additional camera-and-tripod set up.

-Here are my starting eclipse settings for a 500mm lens with a 1.4x tele-converter/tele-extender for an equivalent 700mm focal-length perspective: 1/2 sec. @ f/11, ISO 800 and I'll make adjustments for a correct exposure according to the histogram. As the eclipse progresses, I'll change them to compensate for the reduced light on the moon. For the full moon before the event, I'll start at 1/60 sec. @ f/11, ISO 200 and make adjustments with the histogram from there until the eclipse begins.

During the eclipse, I'll try to keep the shutter speed at 1/2 sec. or faster, the aperture at f/11 and I'll increase the ISO as I need more light. At the 700mm perspective, shutter speeds slower than 1 sec. can record the moon's slight movement which will result in less-sharp images. In a pinch, I'll open up the aperture to f/8 for more light with a risk of a little less depth of field on the moon. Even at nearly-infinity it can still make a noticeable difference.

Here's a starting point for determining the correct shutter speed for your chosen lens focal length. A rule of optics says wide-angle perspectives won't show the moon's movement until shutter speeds longer than about 8 seconds. Longer focal-length perspectives require faster speeds like 2 seconds before movement is frozen. The favored formula goes like this: divide the focal length into 200 for a full-frame camera. So 200 ÷ 25mm = 8 seconds, 200 ÷ 100mm = 2 seconds, and 200 ÷ 500mm = 0.4 seconds. Bracketing your exposures from these choices is practical as is zooming in on your images often to check the focus.

My first choice of settings to change for the dimming light of the total eclipse will be increasing the ISO. With the D850, I'll add light by one-third-stop increments to ISO 1600, then to ISO 3200 as needed. If "noise" -- the grainy look of long exposures -- shows up, I'll deal with it in Photoshop later. I'll reluctantly go to ISO 6400, if I have too, but I'd rather not. That's the trade off to making sharp photographs when you know slow shutter speeds and shallow depths of field work against you.

-Stay composed. Both mentally and photographically, that is. Your first composition will need adjustments as the moon slowly tracks across the sky. I'll make my initial composition through the lens. Then I'll close the view-finder curtain to keep out stray light. After that, I intend to recompose, refocus and re-meter in Live View. I'll dim or brighten the camera-back view screen as I need. Tipping the articulating view screen of the D850 upward will prove its value again and it will literally save my neck.

-Don't panic once the eclipse begins. Take a deep breath and carefully progress through the process you've practiced.

-Enjoy the adventure of it. This celestial event won't come around again for years. Be sure to stand back and watch it and its affects on the landscape around you. And so you're cold and tired when it's all done -- what's a little chill and lost sleep compared to how satisfied you'll feel with many pleasing eclipse photographs and memories?

Helpful links and apps:

Five friendly, encouraging tips from Steve Culllen: read it.

Michael Frye posted fine images and a thorough review of the process based on years of experience: read it.

*Note: The first portion of this entry was written three days before the January 20th lunar eclipse. Making The Photograph below it was written two days after the eclipse.

MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH Written two days after the January 20th lunar eclipse.

SUBJECT: The Super Blood Wolf Moon's total eclipse.

CONDITIONS: Clear, cold, nearly-calm winds: -2 degrees F, 5-10 mile-per-hour winds.

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D850, 500mm f/4 lens + 1.4x teleconverter, Gitzo 410 tripod, Studioball ball head, electronic cable release. Manual exposure mode, Matrix metering, Auto-focus back button, Live View for composition, exposure and focusing. Selected image area: DX format (24x16).

EXPOSURE: 0.4 sec. @ f/11, 800 ISO

Sometimes you have to look to the heavens for inspiration -- and the next challenge. I'd never photographed a total lunar eclipse, so I faced new learning curves before and during the event. The results were pleasing enough, though now I know what I'd do differently the next time this kind of thing comes around. Since that won't be for a few years, I made notes about what worked and what I'll change.

The strategy listed above worked well for my first-time lunar eclipse adventure. The homework about the moon's track and the timing of its eclipse phases was mandatory. And the research about the camera settings saved me time and frustration before and during the eclipse.

Before I go further, here's something about bracketing your exposures. You may read about doing this as insurance for getting a correct exposure when things are happening quickly. My best advice is to bracket only with the ISO setting.

If you know that slow shutter speeds will cause blurred images of the moon, then don't bracket to speeds slower than you've calculated for your lens focal length. And if apertures wider than f/8 or f/11 won't give you adequate depth of field, don't open up to add shutter speed either. That leaves the ISO setting for bracketing lighter or darker exposures. Dial it in in one-third stops -- most likely to faster ISOs -- as the eclipse progresses. Leave the shutter speed and aperture where you started.

One thing that surprised me was how much trouble I had focusing on the moon during the darker eclipse stages. The auto focus struggled to find enough light to identify the edge of the moon when it was darkest. Manual focus confirmation wasn't much better.

My best auto focus results came when I opened up all the way to f/4, focused on the edge of the moon, then stopped down to f/11 and clicked the cable release. Don't rely on infinity focus. Even though the moon is 240,000 miles away which sounds like infinity, your lens can likely focus beyond it. So don't rely on manually rotating the focusing ring to infinity to make the moon sharp.

The moon is always on the move. It's a steady, predictable motion. That sounds like an obvious point, but you'll be surprised how fast it travels across the viewfinder when you choose a long lens. That's why you'd best calculate the slowest shutter speed for your lens and stick to it for sharp images.

I found that after I clicked a few frames, if I recomposed with the moon in the lower left corner of the frame, I was likely to still see it in the upper right corner when I wanted to make the next photograph. This habit reduced the number of times I had to swing the long lens around the sky looking for the moon again.

Like any new technique, this one requires some practice. But that's not easy when eclipses aren't everyday events. If you anticipate some of the challenges, you'll be prepared for them when the action begins.

And like you do when you make any photograph, you must divide your attention between the subject and the camera controls. So if you want to make eclipse photographs that please you, keep one eye on what you're doing with the camera and the other eye on the Man in the Moon.

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