Photos of an eclipsed Moon are very distinctive, and they can be very rewarding to capture. But shooting an eclipse, even a lunar eclipse, can be a little intimidating. Follow along with this tutorial and learn to stop worrying and to love photographing the lunar eclipse.
Even with previous experience photographing the Moon under regular conditions, a total lunar eclipse poses several issues:
- The contrast range during partial phases is large and will push your camera sensor to its limit.
- During totality, the Moon can be as much as 19 stops dimmer than when full meaning long shutter times.
- The motion of the Moon begs for tracking due to the long exposures needed during totality.
Viewers in the Western Hemisphere were treated to a Total Lunar Eclipse on January 20th – 21st, 2019. While not an exceedingly rare occurrence, a total lunar eclipse is still special enough you should to get out and enjoy it. If you missed that one, you will have to wait until May 15th – 16th, 2022 for your next chance to see one from the western hemisphere. (The next total lunar eclipse after this is on May 26th, 2021 but you’ll have to be in the Pacific and eastern Australia.)
Cover Photo: A Total Lunar Eclipse of the Moon. Photographed on 9 October 2014 with a 1260mm lens. Photo Credit: ©2018 Kirk D. Keyes
You don’t need a lot of camera gear to photograph a lunar eclipse. A camera with manual settings and a tripod are most important. A point-and-shoot camera with a “super-telephoto” lens will work. Even an iPhone or other cell phone camera can be used successfully if the camera has exposure controls.
Lens choice depends on the type of image you want so anything from a wide-angle to a telephoto can be used. That said, the classic photo of an eclipsed Moon is taken with a telephoto to get a closeup view.
An intervalometer or remote shutter release will also be helpful but is not required. And if you have one, a star tracker can be very helpful with following the Moon as it moves across the sky.
See below for an extensive discussion on lunar eclipse camera gear.
An Exceptional Eclipse
Also, the January 20th, 2019 eclipse was exceptional for several reasons. First, the Moon was well within the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow. Second, for observers in northern latitudes, it will be high in the night sky. For the photographer, it will take a little more work to incorporate totality into a landscape photo than last January’s total lunar eclipse. Finally, for viewers in the United States, it’s the Sunday night of a 3-day weekend.
Seeing a total lunar eclipse can be a very inspiring experience. Take a child you know out and share it. I think the first lunar eclipse I saw was a total eclipse in May of 1975. I was 12 at the time and it inspired me to learn more about the night sky as well as how to photograph it. Heck, take an adult you know!
When and Where
This total lunar eclipse happens on the night of January 20th to 21st, 2019. The entire eclipse will be visible to North and South America as well as the western edge of Europe. Partial phases can be seen during the morning hours of January 21st from the rest of Europe, Africa, Middle East, Central Asia, and the early evening hours of January 21, 2019 for Northern Japan and the western part of the Pacific.
Map of Eclipse Visibility by Location.
This map shows where the Moon will rise or set during each stage of the eclipse. See the section on “Stages of a Lunar Eclipse” to find out what the line designations mean. Graphics courtesy of F. Espenak, NASA.
What is a Lunar Eclipse?
As the Moon passes on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun, it sometimes passes through the Earth’s shadow. It usually misses. But sometimes it does contact the shadow, usually two or more times each year.
Since the Sun is larger than the Earth, the Earth’s shadow consists of a brighter outer ring and a darker inner ring. The outer ring is called the “penumbra” and the inner ring the “umbra”. It’s easy to remember what these words mean by looking at the Latin roots – first, “umbra” means “shadow”. Penumbra uses the word “paene” which means “nearly, almost”, so it means “almost shadow”. Just like penultimate is not quite as much as ultimate.
When looking towards the sun from inside the umbra, the sun is entirely obscured. When viewing from inside the penumbra, one edge of the sun is still visible. So, the penumbra is not as dark as the umbra.
The path of the Moon as it travels through the penumbra and umbra shadows. In a Penumbral Lunar Eclipse, the Moon will only enter the penumbra but never cross into the umbra.With a Partial Lunar Eclipse, the moon travels a bit north or south of the umbra and enter it, but never making it all the way in. And with a total lunar eclipse, the Moon is completely covered by the umbra. Graphics courtesy of F. Espenak, NASA.
Types of Lunar Eclipses
There are three types of lunar eclipses:
- Penumbral Lunar Eclipse – When the Moon passes into the Earth’s penumbral shadow but not into the umbra. This type of eclipse is sometimes not very noticeable and is often hard to see.
- Partial Lunar Eclipse – When the Moon passes into but not completely into the Earth’s umbral shadow. This type is easy to see, but it does not cover the entire Moon.
- Total Lunar Eclipse – When the Moon travels completely into the umbra and no direct sunlight falls on the Moon’s surface. This produces a much darker eclipse than a Partial or Penumbral Eclipse.
Stages of a Lunar Eclipse
To simplify discussing lunar eclipses, astronomers have notations for each stage. A lunar eclipse has six points in time when the Moon “contacts” a different part of the Earth’s shadow.
- P1 – Penumbral Eclipse Begins when the Moon contacts the Earth’s penumbra.
- U1 – Partial Eclipse Begins when the Moon contacts the Earth’s umbra.
- U2 – Total Eclipse Begins when the Moon fully enters the Earth’s umbra.
- Greatest Eclipse when the Moon is at the center point of its path through the umbra.
- U3 – Total Eclipse Ends when the Moon begins to leave the Earth’s umbra.
- U4 – Partial Eclipse Ends when the Moon begins to leave the penumbra.
- P4 – Penumbral Eclipse Ends when the Moon loses contact with the Earth’s penumbra.
The Earth’s penumbra will first appear on the eastern edge of the Moon. It will be seen as a faint darkening on the eastern side of the Moon and continue moving across the lunar surface towards the western edge. Since the penumbra is only slightly darker than the direct sunlight illuminating the rest of the Moon, it may take about 15 to 25 minutes after the eclipse begins (P1) before the penumbra becomes noticeable. The penumbra should be obvious by the time it has covered about one half of the Moon.
After a while, a darker shadow, the umbra, will appear to move across as well. The umbral shadow is easily seen. Even after the entire Moon is covered by the umbra during totality, one edge of the Moon will be brighter than the rest as the Moon rarely travels exactly through the center of the umbra. This brighter edge can appear on the northern or southern margin of the Moon’s surface. For the January 2019 eclipse, it will be along the northern edge of the Moon.
The type, length, and depth of a total lunar eclipse depends on just how perfectly the Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned. The more closely they are aligned, the more deeply the Moon moves into the Earth’s shadow. This affects how dark the Moon appears.
The color of the normally monochrome Moon during an eclipse is affected not only by how deeply it passes into the umbra but by the atmosphere of the Earth as well. Even though the umbra doesn’t contain any direct sunlight in it, it does have sunlight that has been refracted by the Earth’s atmosphere. Just as the Sun’s light is refracted at sunrise or sunset on Earth, the color of this refracted light is redder than sunlight. This reddish light turns the moon a coppery or reddish color. The red color can become more intense from the scattering of blue light in the Earth’s atmosphere. When the atmosphere contains more water, aerosols, or particulates like dust than normal, blue light will filter and scatter out of the atmosphere. A large volcanic eruption can put so much particulate into the Earth’s atmosphere that it will darken eclipses for several years. When this happens, the moon will have a deep red color and it’s sometimes called a “Blood Moon”.
Not Always a “Blood Moon”
Don’t be misled by the popular press into calling every total lunar eclipse a “blood moon”. Eclipses can have a wide range of shades. The alignment of the Earth, Sun, and Moon has a large effect on this. Brighter eclipses can have a distinctly blueish tinge to the rim of the Moon. Sometimes this brighter edge can make viewers question whether a total eclipse was truly total.
The Danjon Scale (devised in 1921 by French astronomer André-Louis Danjon) is used to measure the appearance and luminosity of the Moon during a lunar eclipse. The scale is denoted by the letter “L” and values from 0 to 4, with L0 representing the darkest and L4 the brightest.
The colors of the Danjon Scale can be divided as follows:
- L0 = Very Dark Eclipse. The Moon is almost invisible, especially at mid-totality.
- L1 = Dark Eclipse. Brownish or grey in coloration. Details on the lunar surface are difficult to distinguish.
- L2 = Deep Red or Rust-Colored Eclipse. The central shadow is very dark while the outer edge of the umbral shadow is still relatively bright.
- L3 = Brick-Red Eclipse. The umbral shadow is bright or yellow on the rim.
- L4 = Very Bright Copper Red or Orange Eclipse. The umbral shadow has a very bright or bluish rim.
Determining the “L” value for an eclipse is best done with the naked eye, small binoculars, or a small telescope during mid-totality. Also, compare its appearance with just before and just after mid-totality. Amateur observers are encouraged to make Danjon Scale observation reports to Sky and Telescope and to Dr. Richard Keen (firstname.lastname@example.org).
For this January’s eclipse, the Moon will pass to the north of the umbral center, so the northern edge of the Moon will probably be brighter than the rest. The lower part will be noticeably dimmer and probably redder. That said, many variables affect the color and darkness of the Moon and it can vary greatly.
Lunar Eclipse Timing
Lunar eclipses typically last a few hours with the maximum totality lasting up to 107 minutes. They may be seen from anywhere the Moon is above the horizon. They can even be seen before or after sunrise or sunset. Unlike solar eclipses, no special viewing precautions are needed to look at a lunar eclipse as they are dimmer than a full Moon.
For observers in the contiguous USA and Canada, the January 2019 eclipse will start after sunset with totality beginning before midnight. Be prepared for a late night on the eastern margin of the continent if you want to see the eclipse in its entirety, as it ends well after midnight there. Those on the west coast will have an early evening with the eclipse wrapping up shortly before midnight. Remember to dress warmly!
The entire eclipse (P1 to P4) will last 5 hours, 12 minutes, the umbral phase (U1 to U4) will last 3 hours 17 minutes, and totality (U2 – U3) will last 62 minutes. Once the totality phase ends, most people call the evening good with only the most die-hard of eclipse watchers lasting until the P4 stage.
The Moon will be high in the sky for viewers in the USA. At mid-totality, the Moon will be about 83° above the horizon from Miami. That’s nearly straight overhead. It’s lower for viewers further north and further west. In Chicago, the Moon will be 65° up at mid-totality, a mere 52° for Salt Lake City, and Seattle gets off with 42°. If you’re lucky enough to be at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii, you’ll be treated to a Moon that’s an awesome 14° above the horizon at the point of the greatest eclipse!
Eclipse Stages by Time Zone
|Date of Eclipse||Jan 20-21||Jan 20-21||Jan 20-21||Jan 20-21||Jan 20||Jan 20|
|Moon Enters Penumbra|
|Partial Eclipse begins|
|Full Eclipse begins (U2)||12:41|
|Full Eclipse ends (U3)||1:43|
|Partial Eclipse ends|
|Moon Leaves Penumbra|
Planning Your Shoot
Planning is an important part of photographing a Lunar Eclipse. Even though a total lunar eclipse takes hours to complete, you don’t want to waste your time running around when you could be taking photos.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Get out a few days or even a week before the eclipse and test your camera set up. The Moon’s brightness a few days before full is very similar to its brightness at the start of the eclipse. Practice focus, reading exposure from your camera’s histogram, and adjusting your tripod or star tracker in the dark. Check your photos on a computer to see how you’ve done with all the settings before you shoot the eclipse.
Turn off image stabilization. It’s not needed when shooting on a tripod, and you risk it making your shots blurry even when they are on a tripod. Turn it off!
Double check your focusing – it can be the hardest part to get right. You will not want to use your camera’s autofocus as it will probably have a hard time locking on to the Moon. Don’t trust your lens’s “infinity” mark as that’s not always accurate.
Instead, switch your camera to use manual focus mode. Then use your viewfinder magnifier to enlarge the Moon as much as possible and then manually focus. Periodically check your camera focus as the night progresses. Temperature can affect your lens focus point so make sure it hasn’t drifted or been bumped.
Find the Moon’s Path
A phone app that shows the path of the Moon is a great help. Apps like Photographer’s Ephemeris, PhotoPills, PlanIt! for Photographers, or Stellarium can all show you where the path of the Moon will be at any time. I’ve used all these apps and they all have different advantages so make sure you try a couple out before the eclipse. There are great videos online to help you learn these apps.
Use your app to determine how high the Moon will be for your location as the eclipse progresses. If you are planning on doing a shot with a wide-angle lens, think about any interesting landmarks that you may be able to incorporate into your photograph. Perhaps there’s a tree, building, tower, silo, windmill, or lighthouse that would be interesting along with the Moon in your photo. And if you are planning on shooting with a telephoto, you might want to avoid any of those tall structures near the Moon’s path for your view!
Check the Weather
Living in the Pacific Northwest, I can attest to troubles with the weather! The entire region can be cloudy for days on end. But in a lot of places, people will have the option of driving some distance to avoid clouds. Thick, heavy cloud cover will obstruct your view of the eclipse and you’ll definitely want to avoid them. Even high clouds or hazy air can cause problems. Don’t worry too much about scattered clouds, as they can often make an image more interesting.
After checking for cloud cover, check the predicted temperature for your chosen location. Bring warm clothes! Even if you’re lucky enough to experience this eclipse from a location with a warm climate, you’ll want to bring something as the night’s temps drop. You want to have an enjoyable evening and you’ll need to dress appropriately. Hand warmer packs can be great to have for shooting during cold nights too.
Sitting on the Job
A lawn or camp chair can help with passing the hours. Experiencing a 5-hour eclipse while standing is going to be memorable – in a bad way. Think about setting your tripod up so you can sit and see your camera’s LCD display comfortably. You might even want a sleeping bag to help keep warm as you sit.
If it’s cold or cool where you’ll be, bring something warm to drink.
Sunglasses at Night
When the Moon is high in the sky at the start of an eclipse, it can be hard to see the Earth’s shadow starting to move across the lunar surface. A trick some experienced lunar eclipse viewers use is to wear sunglasses. Yes, wear your sunglasses at night! (Apologies to those that are now having a flashback to 1984 and mentally hearing Corey Hart singing “Sunglasses at Night”.)
Sunglasses can help with reducing visual glare from the Moon and make the encroaching shadow more easily visible. After a bit, it will be obvious where the Earth’s shadow is as it advances across the Moon and you can take the sunglasses off.
RAW or JPG?
If your camera has a “RAW” file format setting, use it. The RAW file format records all the image data from your camera sensor. This allows you to make more adjustments and create higher quality images when you get to editing your photos. JPG files compress the image data in a way that’s not reversible when editing them. Photos taken as JPG may look OK, but they do not contain as much information and will give lesser quality than when starting from a RAW file.
One of the things a JPG loses is dynamic range, the ability to record the difference between bright and dark parts of the image. Perhaps the hardest part of lunar eclipse photography is capturing the brightest and darkest parts of the Moon in the same image. Images taken as RAW will better record this difference.
If you’ve never shot with RAW before or are nervous about it, or don’t have software to edit RAW files, then set your camera to shoot in RAW + JPG mode. That way you can come back later and process them when you want.
Decide what type of eclipse photos you want. There are generally four types you can take:
- Wide-Angle – Gives a large view of the sky but with a small Moon.
- Telephoto – Gives a close-up view of the Moon
- Multiple Exposures – Usually taken with a wide-angle lens showing the progression of the eclipse in a single image.
- Star Trails – Also usually taken with a wide-angle lens showing the Moon and stars as streaks across the frame.
Using a wide-angle is the simplest way to take a photo of the lunar eclipse. It gives a large view of the sky and lets you incorporate a foreground into your photo. Try to find a place that doesn’t have a lot of nearby bright lights in your field of view. They can create glare that may interfere with your photos. But something like a distant cityscape can be a perfect companion to the Moon.
Use a lens that’s about 24 mm to 35 mm for a full frame format camera or a 16 mm to 24 mm lens for APS-C. If you want to shoot a star trail photo use the wider of the ranges just given. If you have a point and shoot or cell phone, set it to its widest setting. Even a normal lens could work here depending on framing for some photos, as it will appear like a wide-angle lens when compared to a telephoto.
Even with a wide-angle, you’ll want to take exposures up to five or so seconds, so a solid tripod is needed. Use a remote trigger or your camera self-timer so you don’t create any vibrations while taking photos.
A telephoto lens will give the “classic” big Moon photo. It also records more detail on the face of the Moon. Do not use your cameras “digital zoom” if it has that feature.
To get some detail in the face of the Moon, you’ll want to use at least a 200 mm lens for full frame and 135 mm for a crop sensor. To fill the viewfinder of a full frame camera, you’ll need a lens that’s about 2000 mm in focal length. An APS-C camera needs about 1200 mm, and a Micro 4/3 camera will need about 1000 mm.
Teleconverters are not Recommended
A teleconverter can be used to increase the focal length of your lens. However, there are a couple issues to be aware of when using teleconverters for eclipse photography. They decrease the effective f-stop of the lens which makes exposure times slower. They can also create internal reflections which will interfere with the image of the Moon. And unless it is a top-quality teleconverter, it will probably decrease the apparent sharpness of the image. Considering these two factors, I do not recommend using one. Crop the image in post processing to get a larger Moon if desired.
You Don’t Need the Biggest Lens on the Block…
A 300 mm or 400 mm lens can look great. If you have a crop sensor, even a 200 mm will look cool! They have enough magnification to easily see surface features on the Moon but also give enough space around the Moon that you don’t have to constantly re-aim your camera. Stars can even show up in the longer exposures needed for totality.
If you have a 3-way geared tripod head, this is a great time to use it. You can make fine adjustments to where the camera is pointed so it will be easier to track the Moon.
A series of photos are taken, with a wide-angle or telephoto lens, showing the progression of the eclipse in a single image. After the eclipse is over, use Photoshop or another image editing program, to combine the exposures into one single image.
Use your planning app and determine the path of the Moon across the sky. If using a wide-angle lens, frame the image so the Moon starts on the right side of the frame. Plan on leaving the camera pointing in the same direction for the entire night.
With a wide-angle lens, you may want to focus the lens at the hyperfocal distance, so that your foreground subject will be in focus. Since you’ll be opening the f-stop as the eclipse progresses, calculate the hyperfocal distance using f/5.6 or even f/4. That way you will not lose good foreground focus during mid-totality when the lens will be open widest.
If using a telephoto, focus on the Moon directly.
Expose a Series
Make a series of exposures taking one photo every 1, 2, or 5 minutes. More photos are always better than less as you can decide how many you really want after the eclipse is over.
You also have the option to make a time lapse if you shoot enough frames. Shooting one per minute for the duration of the eclipse would give 315 shots. That would make a time-lapse film that would last about 10 seconds long.
Start taking photos a bit before the eclipse starts for best effect. An intervalometer will help with this immensely! You may want to adjust your camera to track the Moon if needed as it moves across the sky.
When it’s time to make your composite, keep your image natural looking. Nothing breaks the feeling of a well-done image more than a poorly executed composite. Remember that it’s easy for people to spot a faked “supermoon” especially when there are more than one in the shot!
A “star trail” photo of a lunar eclipse shows the Moon and stars streaking across the frame, like a traditional star trail photo. The motion of the Earth’s rotation will cause the Moon and stars to move giving the image a sense of motion and time. This type of photo is an easy way to incorporate the landscape into the image.
To capture a star trail photo of the lunar eclipse, put the camera on a sturdy tripod with a wide-angle lens and aim the lens so that it will capture the Moon’s path during the entire eclipse. Use the app you used for planning your shooting location to figure out the Moon’s path across the sky. Usually, the Moon is placed near one corner of the frame to give it room to move. Remember that its path will be curved as it moves across the sky unless the camera is pointed due east or west.
The most complicated part of this type of shot is allowing space in the frame for the Moon to move during the eclipse. The January 2019 total lunar eclipse will last about 5 ¼ hours. During that time, the Moon will move nearly 80° across the sky. That’s just a bit more than the diagonal view of a 24mm lens on full frame or 16mm on a crop sensor camera. If you want the Moon to move horizontally across the frame, a 20mm will be needed for full frame and 14mm for a crop sensor. You can use this website to determine the angle of view for your camera/lens combination.
Maybe Just a Little
Keep in mind you don’t need to capture the entire duration of the eclipse for a star trail shot. See the example photo on the following page. It looks like it is a partial eclipse and captures more of the Moon before totality than after it. Be creative with your location and the motion of the Moon for your photo.
You may want to focus the lens at the hyperfocal distance so that your foreground subject will be in focus. Since you’ll be opening the f-stop as the eclipse progresses, calculate the hyperfocal distance using f/5.6 or even f/4. Set the lens at the hyperfocal distance for your widest planned f-stop. That way you will not lose good foreground focus during mid-totality when the lens will be open widest.
Test Your Exposure
Before the eclipse begins, try a few test shots. Start with the camera at ISO 400 and the lens at f/8 or f/11. Set the shutter to the longest setting the camera can do, typically 30 seconds. Some intervalometer/remote releases can be programmed to allow exposures longer than 30 seconds – try 60 or even 120 seconds.
Don’t try to shoot the entire star trail shot with a digital camera with one exposure. You’ll run out of battery and the noise from your sensor will ruin the shot.
If the test images are overexposed, either stop the lens down one half or one stop. If the sky is too noisy, decrease the time the shutter is open or the ISO. Try a few variations to see what works best for your camera.
Once you’ve picked your starting exposure and have your camera lined up for the path you want the Moon to take, turn on your intervalometer and start taking photos. Remember to leave a couple seconds between exposures for your camera to store the shot to the memory card. But you do want to take photos one right after the other.
Follow the Darkness
The Moon’s brightness will decrease as totality approaches, open the lens f-stop by a half or one stop periodically. This allows the Moon to streak across the frame without getting too dark to see in the image. You’ll probably end up exposing at f/5.6 during totality. Remember to stop the lens down again as the totality ends and the Moon returns to full. Check your histogram quickly in between shots to keep an eye on your exposure.
If you don’t have a lot of time or don’t want to stand around too long after totality, try to use this technique for the hour of totality. The Moon and the stars will move a good distance during that one hour.
Use an image processing program like Photoshop to combine the images to make the star trails. There are many excellent videos online that demonstrate this technique.
Traditionally, a film camera was used for these shots as the shutter could be held open for several hours. If you have an old film camera that’s itching to be used, this is a great use for them if they have a cable release and can take an hours-long photo without any battery dying.
Atmospheric Distortion and Magnification
Try to keep your shutter speed high as the Moon moves a noticeable amount when magnification increases. In addition to the Moon moving, the air between you and the Moon moves and can cause a considerable amount of distortion when using longer lenses. Try to keep shutter speeds faster than one second. It will be tough as the eclipse reaches totality, so be prepared to raise your ISO to 1600 or even 3200.
I shot some video of the Moon which shows atmospheric distortion of the Moon’s image. It was filmed at nearly 4300 ft of elevation which is above more than 13% of the atmosphere when compared to sea level. The Moon was a bit more than 50° above the horizon and it was tracked. Even though surface winds were calm that night you can see just how much distortion there is from the air. Here’s the video on YouTube: Moon at 1260mm 2014 10 08
Time to Head Out!
The big night is finally here. You’ve probably read this guide a couple of times to become familiar with what you want to do. So here we go!
This is always a great goal, but sometimes it’s difficult to achieve. Leave for your shooting location early so you can have extra time to finalize your spot. Especially if you are using a tracker, it’s nice to have some extra time to get it all set up and to dial in the tracker alignment.
Photo Gear to Bring
Like most photo shoots, you’ll want to bring the basics and a few extras:
- Sturdy Tripod
- Charged Battery plus spare
- Formatted Memory Cards.
- Remote release or intervalometer
- Dew shield and/or Lens Warmer (recommended)
- Star Tracker (optional)
Camera and Lenses
If you have two cameras, you might want to use one with a telephoto and the other with a wide angle. The one with the wide-angle lens can either shoot a star trail or time-lapse of the Moon or the landscape during the eclipse. Try to put your gear to use, but remember you’ll need to focus on your camera with the telephoto way more than the others.
Make your lens selection and go for it! Also, if you have any filters on your lens, remove them. When the Moon is so much brighter than the surrounding sky, it’s common to get either lens flare or even an internal reflection between the lens and the filter. This will look like an upside-down image of the Moon. It’s most obvious if the Moon is off-center of the frame and the reflection will show up on the mirror-imaged side of the frame from the Moon.
A tripod is required. A sturdy tripod is a must. If you’re using a telephoto lens, a geared tripod head is helpful in situations like this where frequent small adjustments need to be made.
Make sure your tripod head can point high enough into the sky to aim at the Moon. I’ve had some 3-way heads that can’t point very high upwards – one of the adjustment handles hits the yoke of the tripod. My solution was to mount the camera pointing “backwards” on the head and then tip the tripod head so the handle goes up and not down to where it hits the tripod. An easy solution, but maybe not one that would be anticipated with normal tripod use.
A star tracker set to the lunar tracking speed will help keep you from having to readjust your tripod head.
Bring extra batteries. Especially when it’s cold. Cold temps can suck the life from your batteries faster than an Energy Vampire. Some cameras, like many Sony mirrorless cameras, can be powered from a USB connector. Some cameras can use a “dummy battery” that replaces the real battery in your camera and then plugs into an AC adaptor or a USB battery. Several types are available, check and see what will work with your camera.
If it’s cold, keep your spare batteries in an inside coat pocket so they stay warm from your body heat. If the battery in your camera seems to be dying quickly, swap it out with a warm spare and but put the “dead” one in your warm pocket. It may revive after it’s been warmed up by your body.
At the least, have your batteries fully charged before heading out for the night.
Bring a minimum of 2 memory cards, at least 32GB each. You should be able to store at least 500 RAW images with a 32GB card. Have at least 2 in case there is a problem with one of the cards (it gets lost, broken, malfunctioning…)
Remote Release / Intervalometer
While you can use your camera’s built-in self-timer to reduce camera shake, it is more immediate to use a remote release/intervalometer. Having an intervalometer also allows cameras without a built-in intervalometer to make time-lapse sequences. A good choice is the Pixel Wireless Shutter Remote as there is no cable hanging from your camera to the remote. Make sure you select the Pixel model that has the correct adaptor for your camera. (The link above is an Amazon affiliate link for PhotogAdventures.com) I have one for Sony cameras and I love it.
Do the Dew Shield
Use a dew shield or lens warmer. Especially on colder nights. A dew shield is like a lens hood that extends several inches and wraps all the way around the lens. It helps keep dew from landing on the front element of your lens. In a pinch, you can make one out of some black plastic sheeting or even card stock. You can tape it to your telephoto’s lens hood to secure it to your camera. You will not be able to use a dew shield with a wide-angle lens, but for a telephoto lens, it’s good insurance against losing photos due to moisture condensing on your lens.
For wide-angle or even telephoto lenses use a lens warmer. You can make one simply by taking some chemical hand warmers, like hunter’s use, put a couple into a sock. Then wrap and tie the sock securely around the front of your lens.
Or you can buy an electrical lens warmer. They typically need 12V DC or USB for power. They are easy to use, work well, and super convenient compared to chemical hand warmers. I can recommend the Protage Lens Heater. (This an Amazon affiliate link for PhotogAdventures.com) I have one and it works well.
While you don’t need a star tracker to photograph a lunar eclipse, it certainly can make the job easier. The rotation of the Earth causes the Moon to move a distance equal to its own width in just over 2 minutes. This motion is apparent when using telephoto lenses, especially when framing up close.
A star tracker is a mechanical device that lets your camera follow the motion of the stars. The tracker mounts on a standard tripod and sits between the tripod head and camera. A ball or 3-way head is usually mounted on the tracker to allow the camera to be pointed anywhere in the sky.
Align with the Earth
Trackers do need to be aligned with the Earth’s axis of rotation in order to work. This is called “polar alignment” and there are several different ways to achieve it. Polar alignment can be difficult when taking the minute-long exposures needed for deep-sky astrophotography photos, but that level of accuracy is not truly needed for lunar eclipse photographs. An alignment that’s good enough to keep the Moon where you want in the frame for 10 or even 15 minutes still keeps you from having to adjust the framing every minute.
The Moon moves at a slightly slower rate than the stars, so some trackers have a setting for the Moon as well as stars.
I have a SkyWatcher Star Adventurer and it’s a great choice for a tracker. It will cost around $400 to get it and the accessories needed to track the Moon. Other popular trackers are the Vixen Polarie, iOptron Skytracker, SkyWatcher Star Adventurer Mini, or the SLIK Astro Tracker. (These are Amazon affiliate links for PhotogAdventures.com) These trackers all vary in size and features, so compare them and see what’s going to work the best for you.
Now that you’re out in the field, there are just a few things to take care of.
Polar Alignment for Star Trackers
Use the extra time you have since you arrived early to get your tracker dialed in. It’s going to pay off in the long run since you’ll spend less time messing around with reframing your shots.
Switch to Manual Focus
Even though modern autofocus systems can do a great job focusing on a full Moon, I recommend you switch your camera to manual focus mode. Also turn off image stabilization. Use a remote shutter release or self-timer to minimize camera blur. If you have a mirrorless camera, use “electronic front-curtain shutter”. For a DSLR, use mirror lock-up if your camera has it.
Focusing your Lens
Switch to Live View if your camera has it and turn up the magnification on the viewfinder. Then manually adjust the focus of your lens. Some people recommend not touching focus after that point, but I suggest you review your images occasionally to make sure you are maintaining good focus. It’s disappointing to spend the entire evening out taking photos only to find you lost focus 10 minutes into it.
Do not simply set your lens at the “infinity” or “∞” mark on the lens barrel. The accuracy of these marks is often questionable. You’ll get much better focus using your camera’s LCD screen.
A focus loupe can be helpful – it helps magnify the rear camera screen so you can be certain your lens is at the proper focus point. I can recommend the Carson LumiLoupe. It is inexpensive, has a 10X magnification, and works great. Here’s a link for the Carson LumiLoupe. (This an Amazon affiliate link for PhotogAdventures.com)
Secure your Focus
If you’re using a zoom lens where the zoom is adjusted by sliding the focus collar back and forth while the focus is made by rotating the same collar, you might want to just set that lens to the focal length with the collar closest to the camera body. With time these collars can slip downwards, and you may lose focus when that happens.
Regardless of lens choice, the initial stages of the eclipse can be photographed using standard full moon settings – try using the “Looney 11 Rule”. It’s a variant of the “Sunny 16” rule for daylight exposure. For Looney 11, set the ISO to whatever you want, say 100. Then set your lens to f/11 and finally your shutter speed to the same value you set the ISO. So, if the ISO is at 100, then set the shutter speed to 1/100 or 1/125 second, depending on your camera.
You probably don’t need or want to use f/11 when photographing the full Moon, so open the lens up a stop or two and select a shutter speed that maintains the Looney 11 rule relationship. ISO 100, f/5.6, and 1/400 second would be a great starting place.
Stop Down Your Lens
If possible don’t use the widest aperture on your lens. Nearly all lenses are sharper when stopped down a bit from wide open. Stop your lens down 1 or even 2 stops from its widest aperture. So, if you have an f/4 lens stop it down to f/5.6 or maybe even f/8.
During the transition from penumbral to umbral eclipse, it may be worthwhile to bracket exposures. The difference in brightness between the light and dark portions of the lunar surface will exceed the contrast range of many cameras. Try using a two-stop bracket (-2, 0, +2) during this phase. You can combine these in post-processing to bring the contrast range down.
It’s going to be a tradeoff between ISO, f/stop, and shutter speed, but be mindful about each of these while choosing your exposure settings. Remember to try and keep your shutter speeds as fast as you can to combat not only the rotation of the Earth but also atmospheric distortion.
Eclipse Exposure Calculator
A great site for planning eclipse photography exposures is by Xavier Jubier. He’s an engineer with a passion for both solar and lunar eclipses. He’s got an excellent interactive exposure calculator online that’s well worth checking out. Not only does it have an exposure calculator, but it can also show the size of the moon or sun for your camera and lens combination. Jubier’s exposure calculator can also tell you what the slowest shutter speed is to prevent any motion blur of the Moon with untracked photos. Make sure you check out his photo galleries for lots of amazing eclipse photos.
If you’re going to be somewhere without internet service, or like to always be prepared, Fred Espenak, aka Mr. Eclipse, has a handy exposure table you can print or download to take into the field. It covers all phases of the lunar eclipse and has settings for various combinations of ISO and f/stop. Here is his Lunar Eclipse Exposure Guide.
Histograms are Your Friend
Some photographers simply use a Sunny 16 exposure to start. Regardless of how you start your exposure, remember that your histogram is your friend. It will probably have just one big peak in it at the start of the eclipse and that’s going to be the Moon. Keep it in the middle-right half of your histogram to avoid under or over exposure. As the penumbra starts to move across the Moon, the histogram will flatten out somewhat, but keep any peaks you have on the middle-right half of your histogram plot. Don’t let them touch the far-right edge of the histogram.
Full to Penumbra to Umbra. Strike That, Reverse It!
There are two parts of the Earth’s shadow that the Moon will pass through during this eclipse. The Moon first enters the penumbra, which is the lighter shadow. The Moon then enters the umbra, where totality occurs. It will reverse this order and reenter the penumbra, passing through it again until the eclipse ends. The umbra appears much darker compared to the penumbra. This transition is the hardest part of a total lunar eclipse to photograph. In addition, it’s impossible to predict exposures as the darkness of the umbra depends on the condition of the Earth’s atmosphere and how far the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow.
The difference in brightness between the Moon’s surface as the umbra moves across will push the limits of your camera sensor latitude. Once more than half of the Moon is covered by the umbra, the contrast range will start to decrease. Give enough exposure to the darker part of the Moon to preserve its color. Try not to blow out the highlights of the Moon. Remember to bump up your ISO as the eclipse progresses to totality so your shutter speeds don’t get too slow. Try to keep them shorter than one second.
My God, It’s Full of Stars…
Another effect of a total eclipse is that more stars will be visible than on a regular moon-lit night. Way more stars! The brightness of the sky will change dramatically from start to midpoint and then back to finish.
If you have a second camera, set it up for a time-lapse and point it at an interesting landscape feature. Remember to adjust the exposure/ISO as the eclipse proceeds. I’ve done this and it’s interesting to see the brightness of the land change as the stars come out. The land will also reflect the color of the Moon during the eclipse. Try incorporating the Winter Milky Way in the frame if possible.
Learning from the Past
For the total lunar eclipse on September 27th – 28th, 2015, I used a tracked telescope at 1260 mm and f/6.3. For the start of the eclipse, I used ISO 100 at 1/160 sec and dropped it to 3 seconds and ISO 200 for totality. The Moon traveled a similar depth into the Earth’s shadow during that eclipse as it will be for this eclipse. At that exposure, the brightest part of the Moon was near overexposure while the darkest part was near black. I should have bumped up the ISO to get shorter exposures for this eclipse, as the Moon was low in the sky and the atmosphere blurred the shots more than I wanted. Lesson learned – use a faster ISO to keep the shutter speeds higher.
For the October 8th, 2014 total lunar eclipse, with the same tracked telescope at 1260 mm and f/6.3, I started the night out with ISO 800 at 1/2000 second. (See the Lightroom screenshot above.) Notice the peak on the right half of the histogram. It’s not touching the right edge, but it is to the right and well placed to get a good exposure for the Moon.
Partial Phase Settings
By the time the umbra covered about 50% the Moon, I had lowered the shutter speed to only 1/1600 second. (See the Lightroom screenshot below.) Notice the histogram in this image. As the Moon has darkened, the peak that was on the right half of the histogram has flattened out. I kept the brightest pixels towards the right side and again made sure they were not touching the right edge of the histogram.
I then slowly stepped the exposure up by decreasing the shutter speeds as the umbra continued across the lunar surface. All this time the brighter part of the moon (still in the penumbra) was held at the same apparent brightness in the exposures. The part in the umbra was near black – it ended up looking rather like a normal crescent moon, but the transition area was much softer than on a crescent.
Notice how the large peak that was in the previous histogram example has now flattened out and stretches from the middle of the right side all the down to the left edge. During this umbral phase of the eclipse you’ll want to keep that flattened peak towards the right side again, but do not let it get touch the edge.
Nearing Totality Settings
By the time 90% of the Moon was covered by the umbra, I was at ISO 800, f/6.3, and 1/10th second. Some color was starting to come out in the dark part of the Moon while the part still in the penumbra was overexposed.
When totality started, I used 1.6 seconds, still at f/6.3 and ISO 800. This gave a nice-looking shot with the brightest part of the Moon nearly overexposed and the darkest part showing a deep red color.
I continued to use settings around this exposure for the rest of totality. In hindsight, they are a little dark and could have used bumping the ISO up to 1600.
In the above photo, totality has just begun. The Moon is now fully covered by the umbra at this point during the October 8th, 2014 eclipse. The “1:30 o’clock” point of the Moon is much brighter than the rest of the lunar surface.
Aim for Shorter Exposures
This exposure is at ISO 800 at f/6.3 and 1.6 seconds. I probably should have raised the ISO to 1600 and cut the shutter speed to try and get a sharper photograph.
Notice how the peak that was stretched across the histogram in the previous example has now moved even more towards the left edge. Like the Moon itself, the histogram has even gained some color! As can be seen from the histogram, the brightest part of the Moon is still not overexposed but it is getting very close. The darkest part of the Moon is not completely black, but it is very close as well. As with the other phases of the eclipse, you’ll want to keep that flattened peak towards the right side again, but do not let it touch the edge.
Lunar eclipses are relatively slow events. The Moon is big and the distance from the Earth to the Moon is way bigger. (If a flat-earther tries to convince you otherwise, ask them for proof of their claims!)
Even though the Earth is moving around the Sun at 66,600 mph (30 km/s) and the Moon orbits the Earth at 0.635 miles/sec (1.02 km/s), the Moon only moves about its own diameter each hour. The umbra is about 900,000 miles (1.4 million km) in length. That’s about 3.7 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. But the umbra is only about 5600 miles across (9000 km) at the distance to the Moon. That’s about 2.6 times the diameter of the Moon, which is 2,159 mi (3474 km).
It’s NOT going to be a mad rush, like a total solar eclipse. So, don’t panic! And if you do, know where your towel is.
Get out There and Have Fun!
Keep in mind that it is rather difficult to get tack-sharp images of the Moon. Lunar eclipse photography is one of the more difficult types of photography that most people attempt. The distortion of the atmosphere along with all the motion of the Earth and optical issues with telephoto lenses or telescopes make this tough!
Don’t be disappointed if your shots aren’t as crisp as you hoped for – it’s part of the nature of shooting through the entire Earth’s atmosphere. Remember that nature is working against you!
And there is certainly a learning curve to lunar eclipse photography. But hopefully this tutorial has helped you learn to stop worrying and love the lunar eclipse!
Oh, and if anyone asks why you’re wearing sunglasses while photographing the lunar eclipse, just tell them, “Don’t be afraid of the guy in shades, oh no! I wear my sunglasses at night…” Then repeat the last line a few times and walk away. Sorry, I just had to work in a couple lyrics from that Corey Hart song.
NASA has a single page datasheet with timing for this eclipse can be found here: https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/LEplot/LEplot2001/LE2019Jan21T.pdf
If you find this guide helpful, please share and enjoy.
And if you find any info that needs clarification or correction, please email me at email@example.com.
Bonus points go to anyone that can identify all the movie references in this tutorial.