Shooting the Lunar Eclipse

6:35 am 70mm 1250 ISO .8 sec @f2.8

Those of us fortunate to live on the west coast of the United States were treated to a rare sight this morning – a total lunar eclipse.

Not wanting to miss out on this, I set my alarm for 3 am! I needed to be near the Golden Gate Bridge at 4:30 am at the latest as the eclipse was to begin it’s show at 4:45 am.

I didn’t want just an image of the eclipse, but rather something interesting in the foreground, an iconic image nearly everyone recognizes, so I chose the landmark bridge.

It also helped to have a great app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to plan my shoot. TPE is a free desktop app, which allows you to plot exactly where the sun or moon will be on any given day from any location in the world.

I arrived at a nearly deserted Crissy Field just north of the Palace of Fine Arts/Exploratorium at 4:30 am. I had 15 minutes to set up 2 cameras on tripods and make a few test exposures. I knew exactly where I needed to set up thanks to TPE. A steady, bitter cold wind was blowing off the bay waters making it miserable on two accounts – making me shake and also my cameras. Long lenses even when locked down on tripods can move in the wind, ruining a long exposure.

Soon, I was not alone as more photographers arrived and I stopped counting after 100. Nearly all of them I’m sure used TPE to keep me company.

For the next hour and a half, we watched and shot the lunar show above the Golden Gate Bridge, the lcd camera backs blinking in the pre-dawn darkness. The moon got redder as the earth’s shadow covered it, and by 6:05 am, we witnessed the reddish glow of a total lunar eclipse.

Well worth the 3 am alarm clock.

Missed this one? You’ll get another chance April, 2014. Maybe we’ll have a Camera West Photo Outing for that one!

6:15 am 130mm 320 ISO .8sec@f2.8
5:32 am 400mm 320 ISO 1/125 sec@f4
6:10 am 400mm 320 ISO 1/125@f2.8
A few facts on eclipses 

From NASA : “A lunar eclipse occurs when Earth is directly between the sun and the moon, blocking the sun’s rays and casting a shadow on the moon. As the moon moves deeper and deeper into Earth’s shadow, the moon changes color before your very eyes, turning from gray to an orange or deep shade of red. The moon takes on this new color because sunlight is still able to pass through Earth’s atmosphere and cast a glow on the moon. Our atmosphere filters out most of the blue colored light, leaving the red and orange hues that we see during a lunar eclipse.”

The Photographer’s Ephemeris
As I mentioned above, this is a must have app for anyone who wants to predict exactly where the sun or moon will be from any location in the world, at any time past, present or future. It works within Google maps and after a small learning curve, is easy to use. The desktop app is free, the iPhone, and iPad app is $8.99 and for the Android, $4.99. I find however that the phone apps can be difficult to navigate but that’s not the fault of TPE, but rather just the difficulty of using the small screen of a phone.

My Camera West Blog post of TPE (July, 2010) gives you an overview :

Download the Photographer’s Ephemeris here :

TPE shows me exactly where the moon will intercept the GG Bridge at 6:05 am
Tips for shooting the moon or night shooting in general

Focusing, exposure and keeping your camera steady are the three biggest challenges. Let’s take a look at each.

Depending on your camera this may be easy – if - your camera is on single-point auto focus. If it still cannot lock focus, just use live view mode and the magnify button if you have it and manually focus. At 10X magnification, manual focusing is a snap.

This is the tricky challenge. Unless you have a really long lens, light meters are useless for getting good exposures because even with a one-degree spot you can’t meter off just the moon — you’ll be reading both the moon and surrounding black sky which will fool the meter. Also keep in mind that you don’t want exposures that are too long, as the moon is moving and will blur. You can get away with 10-15 second exposures with a wide-angle lens, but with a telephoto you’ll need to keep exposure times to two seconds or less. Pushing the ISO up will help with your exposure times when you need it and of course fast aperture lenses will also help. Best tip on exposure? Bracket, bracket, bracket – the only way to nail exposure.

Keeping Steady
Use the heaviest tripod you can get your hands on and/or use weight attached to the center column. Also a heavy bean bag over your lens can help stabilize it. If shooting with long lenses that have tripod collars, use them as that will balance your rig better. To deal with the wind issue I had this morning, I took my oversize lens hoods off as they were catching the wind and also placed by body between the wind and my camera to help block the wind. Also, use a remote shutter release or if you don’t have one, use the self timer mode on the camera, This will eliminate any movement as you depress the shutter. And finally, lock the mirror up as a flopping mirror will cause the camera to move during long exposures. If your camera has a live view mode, use it as that keeps the mirror locked.

Last shooting tip – actually two – Shoot a lot and have fun!

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