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How to Photograph the Lunar Eclipse

December 13th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments
Vancouver Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse, Vancouver, August 27-28, 2007

I’m looking forward to the total lunar eclipse that will be visible from North America on the night of December 20-21, 2010.ย  The moon will travel through the earth’s shadow, and during the total eclipse it will become very dim, taking on a beautiful coppery red to orange colour depending on the atmospheric conditions. It’s pretty easy to get some great photos of the lunar eclipse as long as the weather cooperates and it’s not too cloudy. I’m hoping for a clear winter night!

Here are some tips and advice for photographing the lunar eclipse. The advice applies mainly to DSLR cameras, but the more advanced digital compact cameras should work well too.

Exposure settings

The brightness of the moon during the total eclipse can vary quite a lot, so it’s best to let the camera’s built-in light meter determine the exposure for you. Use the point metering mode (instead of an average reading), pointing the camera at the moon.

Use manual mode to set the aperture and shutter speed to give the correct exposure for the moon, which typically, will be 2 to 4 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 100.

If you prefer to use aperture priority mode instead of manual mode, choose the maximum aperture for your lens to give you the fastest shutter speed at ISO 100. I don’t recommend a longer shutter speed than 2-4 seconds because the moon will become blurry due to the movement caused by the earth’s rotation. I was surprised how much movement takes place in a few seconds! Another way to further reduce the blurring caused by the long exposure is to increase the ISO. For most modern DSLR’s you should be able to go to ISO 400 with no problem, and some will be fine at ISO 800 and higher, depending on the camera.

Tripod

Use a tripod because the exposures will be a few seconds, make it impossible to hand-hold the camera without blurring the image. If you do not have a tripod, you can find a stable place to set the camera, although it will be trickier to frame the moon in the viewfinder. For maximum flexibility, you could use a telescope mount that slowly moves the camera to compensate for the earth’s rotation, allowing you to have much longer exposure times.

Cable release

To prevent camera shake, use a cable release instead of pressing the shutter release by hand. If you do not have a cable release, you can use the self-timer so that the shutter will activate a few seconds after you press the button.

Turn off image stabilization

Image stabilization is not necessary when using a tripod. I use an Olympus E-510, which has image stabilization in the camera body, but for long exposures, the gyro mechanism actually increases the motion blur.

Turn off noise reduction

I usually turn it off and use Adobe Lightroom’s noise reduction feature. Noise reduction increases the time for the camera to process and save images to the memory card, so I prefer to turn it off.

Lenses

One of the amazing things about the total lunar eclipse is the beautiful three dimensional spherical appearance of the moon. It is much more apparent than during the full moon, when it looks more like a two dimensional disk. I prefer to use the longest lens that I have in order to get as much detail at the highest resolution I can. Even with my 200 mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter, there’s still a lot of empty space in the frame! If you have a longer lens, congratulations, and I hope you get some great shots!

If you are in a location with some interesting foreground or landscape features, then you might want to use a wide angle lens to capture everything in one shot. In this case, you will have the additional complication of setting the exposure for the moon as well as the other parts of the photograph. For the foreground, you could use the on-camera flash (or an external flash if you have one). For the background landscape, it may not be feasible to use the same exposure for both the eclipse and the background. Also, the moon will look disappointingly small when you use a wide angle lens. For the Vancouver lunar eclipse shown above, I used Photoshop to combine the lunar eclipse photo with the cityscape shot the same night. You could also do a double exposure if your camera has the capability. One of the nice things about the double exposure method (or Photoshop) is that you can use the large moon image (shot with the the longer lens) to create a more dramatic looking photo.

Time lapse

Some of the most beautiful lunar eclipse images that I have seen show the moon going through the entire eclipse by using time lapse photography. The images can then be combined in Photoshop, or they can be made into a video. I have not tried doing a time lapse, and I’m planning do this for the Dec 20-21 lunar eclipse!

Bring a flashlight and gloves

It will be dark and probably very cold!

Good luck with you photos and feel free to share your results by posting a link in the comments section.

Lunar Eclipse Through the Clouds

Lunar Eclipse Through the Clouds, Vancouver, February 20, 2008

Related links

How to Photograph a Lunar Eclipse

Double Exposure Photography of the Moon

  1. Laurie Doering
    December 21st, 2010 at 08:18 | #1

    Well, I woke up at 3:00 am to take the lunar eclipse picture. And it was cold. -8C felt like -80 in PJs! I have shot the moon several times before with no trouble. Canon 7D, 400mm, tripod, self-timer etc. But my shots were a touch blurry upon magnification. After about five shots I was now awake enough to conclude that the moon was moving too much for my exposure times between 5-10 seconds. As I decreased the time, they were sharper.
    After an hour of trying various settings, I jumped back into bed like a frozen block of ice. Just a touch disappointing!
    Doing a search this morning revealed that the even within a 10 second exposure the moon will move 1/12 of it’s diameter. This value seems a little high, but it definitely moves within a few seconds and especially noticeable with a zoom lens.
    I’ll pull my shots up on the computer to see what is descent ….. sigh!

  2. December 21st, 2010 at 09:18 | #2

    It was too cloudy in Vancouver so I didn’t have the opportunity to photograph the eclipse :( In my previous attempts, I had the same problem that you did – the mooon moves significantly in a few seconds. I found that I could get decent shots by increasing the ISO to 400. What ISO were you using?

  3. December 21st, 2010 at 19:41 | #3

    Hi,
    My ISO was 320. I’ve managed to salvage a couple of them. I also think I was dealing with some atmospheric haze making crispness next to impossible. I think if it wasn’t so cold I would have played around with a couple of more settings. Looks like the next lunar eclipse is June 15, 2011. My tripod was on my back deck and I also think there may have been a touch of inherent vibration. All in all, I may have been very close to as good as it gets in a couple of shots despite the conditions and settings. Photo is on my Flickr page.

  1. December 13th, 2010 at 16:53 | #1
  2. December 14th, 2010 at 00:02 | #2
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