Lunar eclipse 28 September 2015

Torn between astrophotography and sleep for this one!  Our walking holiday on the Amalfi coast had finished on Saturday with a beautifully long slow lunch among friends on the terrace at Leonardo’s in San Lazzaro, and our late flight out of Naples finally put us down at Gatwick at about 11.30pm.  Overnight hotel at the airport, train journey to have lunch with my mother-in-law (where we had left the car) then a five-hour drive home to Cumbria.  We arrived home in the early evening on Sunday, ready to drop.

The Moon was set to move into the Earth’s full shadow at about 2.15 Monday morning, so I set the alarm for 1.30, as you do.  The forecast was good, it had been improving steadily over the last couple of days, and I guessed that if I woke up and looked out just before the start of the action I would be able to decide whether it was worth setting up a session.

1.30 brought glorious clear sky and an added bonus: the Moon’s position meant that I could catch at least a couple of hours from my own back yard.  That was the deciding factor – just the trusty DSLR on a tripod with the 300mm telephoto lens.  This was the view at the start, reproduced actual size in the viewfinder:

2.06am. The shadow is just visible. Nikon D90 through Nikkor Nikon 300mm f/4 AF. 1/1250 sec f/8, ISO 800.

2.06am. The shadow is just visible.
Nikon D90 through Nikkor Nikon 300mm f/4 AF.
1/1250 sec f/8, ISO 800.

I decided to take one shot every 30 seconds, with the intention of stitching them together as a time-lapse video.  Of course the Moon drifted fairly quickly across the frame so the tripod had to be adjusted every few shots.

2.45am: 40 minutes into shadow.

2.45am: 40 minutes into shadow.

By the time the Moon was about to disappear behind the house, it was in full eclipse.

3.12am: increased exposure to see the illumination in full eclipse. 1 sec @f/5.6, ISO 1000.

3.12am: exposure increased to see the illumination in full eclipse.
1 sec @f/5.6, ISO 1000.

Noticeably very red to the naked eye – and the camera – it was somewhat of a disappointment in binoculars as the brightness dropped so significantly.  This could be because the Moon was almost at perigee (the so-called “supermoon”), closer to the Earth than normal and therefore deeper into the cone of the Earth’s shadow.  The air went a little murky too, so the final shots lost some definition.

Each frame had to be cropped and realigned to make the video run smoothly.  Stitched together and reduced from 4288 x 2848 to 1000 x 1000 pixels, these make a reasonable time-lapse.

Total lunar eclipse of December 2010

6am, Tuesday 21 December 2010, I arrive on Scout Scar.  Minus 15 degrees might have been optimistic.  Camera, lenses, tripod, everything I can wear, plus a flask of hot ribena. All you need to know about when and where to see an eclipse is available from the Mr Eclipse website maintained by Fred Espinak.  I am deeply indebted (as many amateur astronomers must be) to Mr Espinak for the solid, reliable information that he chooses to share with anyone who cares to go and look.  Here are the details he provided for the 21 December 2010 lunar eclipse.  Totality will be at sunrise in Cumbria, which means the Moon will disappear into shadow and into light at the same time.

Earth shadow

500mm f/8, ISO 400, 1/640 sec.

At 7.02, the Earth’s shadow is obscuring half the Moon.  Despite the rehearsal, I cannot find reliable focus at 1000mm, so have to be content with 500mm.

500mm f/8, ISO 400, 1/60sec.

500mm f/8, ISO 400, 1/60sec.

As the Earth’s shadow moves across the lunar surface, the remaining illuminated area moves into penumbra – partial shadow – and the exposure has to be increased to compensate.  Here the exposure is around ten times the previous photo.

500mm f/8, ISO 400 2 sec.

500mm f/8, ISO 400 2 sec.

A further increase, this time by a factor of 120, reveals the shadowed part to be illuminated by light that has passed through the Earth’s atmosphere, giving the Moon a red glow.

500mm f/8, ISO 400, 1/30 sec.

500mm f/8, ISO 400, 1/30 sec.

Approaching totality, the last sliver of illuminated surface is in penumbra and a further increase in exposure is required.

500mm f/8, ISO 400, 3 sec.

500mm f/8, ISO 400, 3 sec.

As the eclipse becomes total, the Sun is rising behind me.  The sky is getting lighter and the image is becoming flat, showing almost no contrast. With the extreme cold, the flat, dim lighting and the awkwardness of focusing the 500mm lens, I have enjoyed watching the eclipse more than I have enjoyed photographing it, to be honest. However…

105mm f/5.3 ISO 1600 1/2 sec.

105mm f/5.3 ISO 1600 1/2 sec.

… almost as a last resort, I switch to the Nikon 18-200mm zoom lens (and switch the D90 to “Auto”) in the hope of capturing something of the context for this morning’s efforts.  Once again, the D90 does exactly what I ask of it, and “Total lunar eclipse over the Langdales” has become one of my favourite shots of the Moon.  Just a tiny warm up and a little extra saturation in Photoshop.