Lori Carey Photography

Friday, December 17, 2010

Tips for Photographing a Lunar Eclipse

August 28, 2007 full lunar eclipse as seen from San Juan Capistrano, California, USA.

It's been almost three years since the last total lunar eclipse was visible in North America and the next total eclipse visible for the entire continent won't come until April 14-15, 2014 (the West Coast will only see part of the one that occurs in 2011). If you want to try photographing one don't miss out on the opportunity this Monday night/Tuesday morning! This one is especially exciting because it coincides with the solstice. Sad thing for me in Southern California is that right now the forecast is for heavy rain.

Assuming you don't do any astrophotography and don't have the ability to use a telescope, tracking equipment and don't want to be bothered with calculating things like azimuth and altitude, here are a few tips for photographing an eclipse that I used to make the above composite of the total eclipse in August 2007:

First the basics: I do hope you realize that it can get cold when you stand outside for hours in the middle of the night in winter and don't need to be warned to dress warmly. I always have to laugh when I see that tip. You should take a flashlight, preferably a red astronomer's flashlight that won't ruin your night vision, so you can easily see your camera controls. I have a headlamp with a red light that is perfect because it leaves both my hands free. A thermos of hot coffee or your favorite warm beverage isn't a bad idea either!

These tips are good for both film and digital photography, each has its own considerations. With film you need to be concerned about reciprocity failure at long exposure times; with digital you need to be concerned about noise levels at higher ISOs.

You really have two choices - go with a wide angle and plan to capture a series of photos showing the moon moving across the sky, or go with your biggest telephoto and capture a series of single moon images that you later arrange in editing software any way you want.

If you choose to go wide angle you will need to account for the location of the moon in the sky at the onset and conclusion of the eclipse. An rough way to do this without needing to calculate altitude and azimuth is to scout your location the night before, assuming you are up to spending back-to-back all nighters outdoors or are willing to set your alarm throughout the night. The moon will appear very small in a wide angle frame so it's best to find an interesting foreground to add interest and provide context.

The latter option is the easiest if you don't understand how (or want) to plot the course of the moon and plan for it in your final image but you need a long lens. It also gives you the option to arrange your sequence of images creatively later in editing software. 200mm is a bare minimum, 500mm even better. You can use a teleconverter but you need to account for it in your exposure calculations since a teleconverter cuts down on the amount of light entering your camera. A 2x converter means you'll lose two stops of light. The above images were shot with a 70-200mm lens with a 1.4x converter and a Canon APS-C sensor, yielding an effective focal length of 448mm and the images of the moon were still fairly small.

The size of the moon's image can be calculated using the formula:

Focal Length(mm)/109

So a 50mm lens yields a 0.5mm image of the moon, a 200mm lens yields a 1.8mm moon and a 500mm lens yields a 4.6mm image.

You need to expose manually otherwise your camera's exposure meter will probably be tricked by the amount of dark sky in the frame and overexpose your images, leaving you with a bright white circle for the moon. The Sunny 16 rules applies to the full moon, which simply means that the correct exposure for a sunlit object at f/16 is 1/ISO. If you are shooting at ISO400 a good starting exposure for a sunlit object is f/16 at 1/400. You won't see much of a difference in exposure when the moon is in the penumbra, but when you can see the visible shadow line of the umbra on the moon's surface that's when things get fun. As the moon gets darker you will need to increase your exposure accordingly and bracket, bracket, bracket. During totality the moon will be completely in the earth's shadow (the umbra) and you will need a long exposure. It's best to factor this into your early planning; use a tripod and shutter release throughout your shoot and choose an ISO high enough to keep your shutter speed below two seconds at totality to prevent blurring if you don't have tracking equipment (remember, the moon is constantly moving!) but not so high that noise becomes an issue. ISO 400 or 800 is usually good, higher depending on how your camera handles noise. I used ISO400 and my image at totality was shot at f/5.6 for 1.3 seconds.

Here are some good starting exposures (but don't forget to bracket, bracket, bracket!):

ISO 400
Full moon - f/16, 1/500
Moon in penumbra, shadow line of umbra visible - f/8, 1/125
Totality - f/2.8, one second

I hate coding tables :P and I won't copy work that someone else has already put together, so I will point you to an outstanding exposure guide put together by Fred Espanek - Mr Eclipse. It takes into account the magnitude and the Danjon value (brightness) of the eclipse.

L = 0     Very dark eclipse.
               Moon almost invisible, especially at mid-totality.
L = 1     Dark Eclipse, gray or brownish in coloration.
               Details distinguishable only with difficulty.
L = 2     Deep red or rust-colored eclipse.
               Very dark central shadow, while outer edge of umbra
               is relatively bright.
L = 3     Brick-red eclipse.
               Umbral shadow usually has a bright or yellow rim.
L = 4     Very bright copper-red or orange eclipse.
               Umbral shadow has a bluish, very bright rim.

Click here to learn more about the Danjon scale on NASA's website.

Since these are just recommended exposures and based on your judgement of the L value, at totality you will want to bracket as much as 2-3 stops over and under the recommended exposure.

The entire eclipse will last approximately 4.5 hours. You can see the timing of the various stages in your time zone on the chart at Sky & Telescope here.
You'll probably want to take bracketed exposures every 10-15 minutes or so throughout the eclipse so make sure you have a big enough card (or enough cards). Just as a guide, I took 283 shots when I shot the one in 2007. Nothing would be worse than running out of data storage before the eclipse is over after spending several hours out in the cold!

We don't often have a chance to view or photograph a total lunar eclipse, so here's hoping for clear skies and if you are one of the lucky ones who can spend the night outdoors Monday please feel free to post links of your images here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

It's not too late...

...to order a gift of original artwork in time for Christmas, and to make your last minute shopping even easier I'm offering a 15% discount on the price of all prints and merchandise from December 10 to January 10. Just enter the coupon code Holiday2010 at checkout.

Ready to hang wrapped canvas giclee prints, Thin-Wrapped metallic prints with a satin finish and float-mounted metal prints make especially stunning gifts. Mounting and framing of standard prints is available; please contact me to discuss options or if you don't see what you're looking for. All of my prints are done at my pro lab Bay Photo and come with a 100% satisfaction guarantee...I will reprint or refund your money if you are not happy for any reason.

Last day to order if you want to receive in time for Christmas if your chosen shipping method is:

6-10 business days: December 11th
3-5 business days:   December 15th
2 business days:       December 20th
1 business day:         December 21st

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"I didn't know the desert got that cold" - Cuddeback 2

Water tank on its side at Cuddeback Dry Lake in the Mojave desert, California, USA

That's what my Dad said when I was telling him about our plans for the weekend. It's a common misconception with people who haven't spent a winter night in the desert, but the desert is a land of extremes and when the sun goes down the temperature drops like a rock. The warmer, lower Colorado desert in the far southern end of California never seems as bad, but the high desert of the Mojave can be brutal at night.

I forgot to mention in my last post about the new trick I learned Friday night in camp - the hot butt! I cannot believe that in all the years I've been camping and all of the friends I've camped with I have never learned about a hot butt before. A hot butt consists of a guy taking a small (very small!) shovelful of embers from the campfire, walking up to a girl sitting on a chair and telling her to "Spread 'em!" so he can place the hot embers on the ground beneath her chair. Oooooh, is that warm and cozy! It only takes a tiny bit of embers and it completely eliminates the need to play rotisserie. Okay, so gender doesn't really matter but I think the guys have so much fun telling girls to spread their legs that they are willing to keep our butts warm all night!

Since the forecast was calling for temperatures in the low 20s and that would be the coldest we had ever spent in a tent (27 was the lowest temp we noted so far), we had braved the Black Friday crowds to pick up a catalytic tent heater at a sporting goods store on the way to camp in the morning and that night we were really glad we finally wussed out and got one. Set atop the wooden block we keep in the jeep for a jack stand so it wouldn't accidentally come in contact with our sleeping bags and running on low all night (I need to note that you should NEVER run a heater in your tent while you're sleeping. We are foolish idiots, don't do what I do!), while the temperature inside our tent never got above freezing (my baby wipes inside my backpack were a frozen solid block the next morning) I can honestly say we were comfortable and had spent many nights when we were much more miserable.

It was 14 degrees when we woke up just before daybreak and the only thing on our minds was coffee and fire. Our jerry can of water was frozen solid so we checked the cooler and found two bottles of plain water (the rest was flavored vitamin water). Bill started pouring one into the coffee pot and the water froze the instant it hit the air, creating a solid waterfall. It was hysterical and I wish I had the presence of mind to take a photo but my brain doesn't function without coffee, especially in 14 degree weather! It finally clicked that we should have the pot sitting on a flame on the camp stove as we poured the water. There must've been ice in the line for the stove because after a few minutes flames starting shooting out the dial on the front. Without blinking an eye Bill extinguished the fire, checked the lines, and restarted the stove. Minor crisis averted and soon enough a life-saving cup of hot coffee was in my hands and a fire was blazing thanks to a duraflame log (essential for morning camp fires if your brain doesn't function well enough to build a real fire). Bill put the jerry can practically in the fire to melt the water. How cold is fourteen degrees? Two hours later the chunks of ice he had blown out of the siphon hose that landed six inches from the fire were still solid and had not shown any signs of melting. We were laughing hysterically about how crazy we were to camp out in this weather but we both agreed that it wasn't too bad and we were going to spend another night. The difference between an adventure and an ordeal is all in your attitude and I love that my husband has finally become comfortable enough in the outdoor to have a great attitude no matter what the obstacle we face.

For the first time ever we were in no rush to break camp and we spent a leisurely morning socializing with our friends and pouring over trail maps planning our day. One of the guys told us that the trail we wanted to take across the lake was closed at the gate and recommended another route over the mountains that he said was some great wheeling and would take us to where we wanted to go. "Just head that way," he said as he pointed "and when you get near the base of the mountains stay right until you find the trail that goes up and over". And we threw the cooler, backpacks and camera gear in the jeep and 'head that way'.

...I'm learning that if I don't hit "Publish" when I need to stop writing it may be days before I get back to a post, so I'm going to hit "Publish" now and get back to the story as soon as I can.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Appears to be an old blank signpost standing tall on three legs near the old gunnery range at Cuddeback Lake in the Mojave Desert, California.

It's tradition with many families in this part of southern California to head to the desert for the Thanksgiving holiday, so when we were invited to spend the long weekend with Bill's friend John and his family "somewhere in the Mojave north of Barstow" where they had been spending Thanksgiving for the past twenty years we eagerly accepted despite the weather forecast that was calling for record low temperatures. I was even more excited when I found out (24 hours before we were due to leave) that we'd be at Cuddeback Lake, a six-mile long, two and half mile wide dry lake bed that is a favorite spot for filming car commercials. Surrounded by the Almond Mountains, Red Mountain, the Lava Mountains, the Black Hills, the Gravel Hills, Rand Mountains, Fremont Peak, two wilderness areas - Golden Valley and Grass Valley, plenty of old mine sites, and old gunnery range and landing strip, there is plenty to explore in this area.

Cuddeback Lake is managed by the BLM and is probably best known to the OHV crowd. Its proximity to Spangler Hills and the Rand Management Area make for endless miles of trails through various terrain and Cuddeback is a great location for families to set up base camp with the motorhomes and trailers. I know, doesn't sound like my typical location, but despite the large number of people there it didn't feel the least bit crowded and it was nice to share camp with John and his extended family (I think we had 8 motorhomes at our camp). Base camps were well spread out and although the main trails get a lot of motorcycle and ATV traffic, especially during the Thanksgiving holiday, once we were off the beaten path we felt like the only ones out there.

After setting up and camp and going on a short get-acquainted with the entire group of trucks, bikes and ATVs to a nearby smaller dry lake bed, Bill and I set out for the opposite of Cuddeback to explore Grass Valley and pay our respects at the Husky Memorial. Originally a memorial for Jim Ericksen created by his family who buried his bike and scattered his ashes to the wind in this remote location, it now contains memorials for many who have died riding in the desert and is a sacred place for desert riders. We didn't see many people on the trail so we were surprised to see how many people had made the pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere to pay their respects. It made sense once we realized that most of them were the family and friends of the people memorialized, spending Thanksgiving in the desert like they always do.

Thanksgiving weekend crowd at the Jim Erickson Husky Memorial in the Cuddeback area of the Mojave desert, California

While we there we met the widow of Phillip Dunn, one of the men memorialized who died while riding with family Memorial Day weekend 2006. She told us that his was the second one placed and how much it means to her that others have followed suit, and to see all of the people coming out to pay their respects. Some of the memorials really are works of art but it was tough to get any photos because it was wall to wall people. This site has a lot of info.

After more exploring and dinner back at camp, someone got the idea to do a night run up Fremont Peak to the Monarch Rand Gold Mine and the adults packed into the vehicles. The moon wasn't up yet and racing across a dry lake bed in the pitch dark for the first time is a surreal experience but our friends knew the area well and soon we were climbing up Fremont Peak. There is a parking area for 2WD vehicles, but 4WD can continue right up to the mine shaft. When we reached the top we watched the most beautiful red three quarter waning moon rise and we all stood in silence watching. I debated setting up my tripod and camera for half a second, but I knew that by the time I had everything set up the moment would be over, and some moments are meant to just be experienced.

Grabbing flashlights we entered the tunnel in the side of the mountain (watch your head!) and I had only a momentary flash of wondering if there were bats inside. Way back in the tunnel the mine shaft is a wide opening that goes straight down 2500 feet (or so I've read). Hold on tightly to the little ones because there is nothing to keep you safe here except common sense. One of the guys told us about the time he came up to find a couple stuck in the hole in the wall behind us. They had thought that was the best approach, got stuck and scared with that deep gaping hole in front of them, and had to wait for hours until someone came to help them out.

We took a more technical route back to camp and I don't know how we found a steeper, rougher climb when we were supposed to be going back down, but there was one spot on the trail that had John thinking twice. He eventually decided to tackle it and it wasn't as bad as it looked. That night run was an awesome experience and the highlight of the trip for me.

Cuddeback Lake, a dry lake bed in the western Mojave desert, is a favorite location for the filming of car commercials because it is surrounded by several mountain ranges. These are the Almond Mountains, which lie within the Golden Valley Wilderness Area.

Back at camp Bill announced that our thermometer read 19 degrees. Thanks Bill, I wasn't cold until you said that! Everyone had to confirm for themselves and sure enough, 19 degrees across the board. After a few warming drinks, our friends settled in to their warm sturdy motorhomes while the two idiots with the only tent for miles around (us!) settled in for what would be the coldest night of camping we've ever experienced so far.

That's all for now, gotta run...more later!