Improvising a Lunar Eclipse Sequence

In the early morning hours of April 4th, 2015, the west coast had a front row seat to an unusually quick lunar eclipse on Easter weekend. Lunar eclipses occur when the full moon, opposite the sun, enters into the earth’s shadow. This particular eclipse was only 3 ½ hours long, but the total eclipse lasted only 5 minutes.
It’s rare enough to witness a lunar eclipse, much less one that occurs on a weekend! And lunar eclipses are dramatically easier to photograph than solar eclipses, which I have not attempted yet. Nor, for that matter, had I photographed a lunar eclipse, either, so I set out to correct that.

Around 3am the morning of the eclipse, I set up my camera, with my 24-105mm lens, mounted firmly on a tripod with the intention of capturing a lunar eclipse sequence within a wide angle composition with something interesting in the foreground, such as a building, boulders, or as I settled on, an oak tree. Using the iPhone app, Photopills, I knew the eclipse would be occurring in the west-southwest, at an elevation approximately 20 degrees above the horizon. I’m new at attempting this, so I settled on a location away from the bright city lights using a simple oak tree as my foreground, to give the photo a feeling of the ephemeral in a natural setting. I didn’t want a lot of light pollution in my image to distract from the main subject. And, how cool would it be to light-paint that tree with a flashlight just enough to illuminate it for the composition? I figured darker is better, right?
Maybe not. What I discovered at 3 in the morning was once I got all set up, with my camera settings to achieve the proper exposure, and turned on live view to compose my image, was…complete blackness. Almost as if I had the lens cap on (which believe me, I did not). There was not enough ambient light for me to even compose the image using live view or looking through the viewfinder. Even shining a Maglite brand flashlight on the scene did nothing to illuminate the view in front of me.
I’m starting to panic a little as the eclipse was already well underway. So I removed the wide angle, affixed my 300mm telephoto lens and zoomed in on just the moon itself, taking photos at approximately 5 – 10 minute intervals.
You typically do not want to take exposures longer than 8 seconds of the moon itself, as it will move within the frame during that timeframe and come out blurry. Using a constant aperture of f/11, and ISO 200, I adjusted the shutter speed depending on how much moon was visible: 1/30 of a second for up to a quarter of the moon visible, to 8 seconds at the total eclipse.
When the eclipse was complete, and I was thoroughly cold from the windy conditions and not wearing a warm enough jacket, I took a few wide angle, long exposure (30 second) photographs with the flashlight-lit foreground, in the hopes I could create a composite image in Photoshop later.
Using a video and written tutorial from Shutter Muse. I created the following images in Photoshop, using pre-adjustments made in Adobe Lightroom. My original intent was not to “photoshop in the moon” but rather layer the wide angle compositions of various intervals of the eclipse into a single image using only Lightroom. But, I couldn’t let this rare opportunity pass me by and I had to improvise!

I learned a lot this particular morning: bring a warmer jacket than you think you need as photographing an eclipse event in the dead of night for hours on end will tend to make you a little cold. Invest in a powerful LED flashlight. Accept a little light pollution or ambient light if you’re not experienced in shooting this particular subject. Bring a camp chair and a thermos with a warm beverage!
I am hoping to get the opportunity to retry my attempt at the next lunar eclipse visible in the west coast in September 2015!

My name is Beth Young, and I'm a licensed architect specializing in healthcare facilities, with a strong passion for capturing the beauty of the natural world through photography. Please feel free to browse or comment. If you wish, prints are available using long lasting and high quality photographic paper or museum quality canvas using archival inks at my website:

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