A few pre-read notes:
This post was originally published on a blog from my college days, on April 15, 2014.
I’ve learned a few things about lunar photography since the days of this post, for instance my ISO doesn’t need to be so ridiculously high and I could stand to up my shutter speed to a faster rate – but overall my past self had a pretty decent grip on how things worked!
I was hoping this morning, January 31, 2018, that I’d get some great shots from Grand Haven, Michigan of the super, blue, blood red, lunar eclipse moon setting over Lake Michigan – but no such plans were in my fate as there was nearly 100% cloud coverage. However, it didn’t stop me from having a ‘fun time’ getting up at 3:45 AM and sitting in a beach parking lot for an hour with a bunch of other very hopeful strangers that maybe the clouds would clear? Here’s to hoping for better weather for the January 21, 2019 total lunar eclipse.
How to Photograph a Lunar Eclipse
Photographing a lunar eclipse can be a little difficult to figure out for the first time, so I wanted to write about my process to help other people be able to take great photos. The next lunar eclipse visible in North America is October 8, 2014, and I’m marking my calendar!
- Nikon D5200 Digital SLR camera
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G
- Polaroid Shutter Release Timer Remote Control For Nikon
- 2 memory cards
- Extra camera batteries
- Sweater to wrap around my camera while I was shooting, it was 32 degrees that night
- Timer (I used my phone timer)
Setup and Process:
I was lucky enough that my apartment deck had a perfect view of the lunar eclipse. Ideally, I would have liked to go further out of town away from light pollution, but it was too cold to do so this time. Less light pollution would have allowed me to get more pictures of the stars, but the moon was still perfectly visible in small town Kirksville.
A tripod is absolutely essential for taking photos of the lunar eclipse. When I am zoomed in to 300mm any shake will make the photo blurry. That being said the use of a shutter release is extremely helpful because even pressing the shutter button on the camera will cause shake. Another option besides using a shutter release is to use a 2 second self timer built into the camera. I prefer the shutter release because I can plug it into my camera and take my pictures with the remote and without touching my camera. This allows me to have crisp focused photos.
It was about 32 degrees last night, which meant I didn’t stay out for long periods of time. I would head outside every 5-10 minutes (used my timer to set alarms in case I got distracted), snap a few photos, then head back inside. While outside, I kept my camera wrapped in a sweater to help maintain temperature. If I stayed outside too long, when I walked back in the lens would get foggy, which isn’t the greatest for the camera. I tried to avoid this by only being outside for short amounts of time and being as efficient as possibly while outside. I left my tripod on the deck the whole night, but kept the plate of the tripod screwed into the bottom of my camera so that I could snap the plate into the tripod quickly, focus my camera, adjust my shutter speed or aperture, and shoot a few photos. Ideally I would be outside for about a minute at a time. When the moon turned blood red at the peak though, I did stay outside a little while longer!
I prefer shooting in manual almost always, because it gives me exact control over the photo. I was using my Nikon D5200 and a 55-300mm lens. I kept my focal length at about 300mm the entire night so that I could get as many details of the moon’s surface as possible. Of course, every camera and lens is different, but the settings that worked well for me were keeping my ISO at 3200, F22, and adjusting my shutter speed according to how much light the moon was putting off. I started with 1/800 when the moon was full, and slowly lengthened my shutter speed as the eclipse happened, then took 1 second exposures of the blood red moon. Then I worked my way slowly back up to 1/800 as the moon became full again and the eclipse ended.
Here are a few of my camera settings at certain points during the eclipse. Basically the way I think about is, if the moon looks too shiny and I can’t see details of the surface, then I’m letting in too much light and need a shorter shutter speed.
I used 2 memory cards because about halfway through the eclipse I switched cards, so that I could download the photos and start arranging them into a composite image. 2 memory cards isn’t entirely necessary, I just thought it made things easier on myself so that I wouldn’t miss an interval because photos were copying off the card.
Making the Composite:
I always suggest shooting in RAW files if the option is available. I like to be able to open my RAW files in the Photoshop RAW editor and have the option of adjusting exposure or any other setting I may have messed up. Fortunately for these moon photos, my settings were set just about right so there was very minimal editing, if any, to these photos. Mainly in the raw editor I cropped the photos down, picked which ones I wanted to use, and saved them out into the same format in a file where they were all numbered nicely for me. Then I started my composite. I wanted the viewer to be able to clearly see the beginning, middle, and end of the eclipse so I made those stages larger moons. I created my composite in Photoshop CC, with a goal of showing each stage of the eclipse.