Photographing Tuesday Morning’s Total Lunar Eclipse

This Tuesday morning (April 15) is the first of four total lunar eclipses that will be visible in North America during 2014 and 2015. Considering that I’ve been clouded out of the past four, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to photograph at least one of them. Unfortunately, the forecast in my backyard isn’t looking good for this one.

I’ve received a lot of questions about how to photograph a lunar eclipse. To tell the truth, I’m a little uncomfortable giving advice because I’ve never photographed one myself. Well, I did shoot a couple of eclipses many years ago before I became a night owl, but all of my recent ones were nothing but exercises in photographing clouds.

That said, I can tell you with confidence that photographing a lunar eclipse is not much different from shooting any other night event that includes the sky.

You can use a long lens and isolate the Moon or a wide-angle lens and include elements in the foreground. You can also use multiple exposures to show the eclipse at various stages. You’ve seen shots like this, where there is a line of Moons across the frame, with a totally eclipsed Moon in the center. In the film days, this was done by shooting in-camera multiple exposures, where you advanced the frame counter without actually advancing the film. With digital cameras, you can easily do the same thing with the multiple exposure function, or you could shoot separate exposures and blend them together in Photoshop.

Regardless of how you shoot multiple exposures, you’re going to have an issue with any bright stars or planets that are in the frame. Remember, they will show up in all of the exposures, so if you shoot 10 frames for the shot and bright Mars happens to be in the frame, you’ll end up with 10 pics of Mars in the final photo. You’re going to have to do some post-processing cleanup work to get nine of them out of there. For this reason, it’s much easier to shoot separate exposures. That way, you can simply use a black brush to wipe out everything from each frame except the Moon and leave one of the frames alone so the single stars and planets show up.

If you’re using a wide-angle lens and including an Earth-based foreground, you would approach it just as you would any other Earth-sky night photo. Just keep in mind that because the Moon will be eclipsed, it won’t throw out enough light to illuminate the foreground, so you’ll have to provide the light painting. Also, remember that the Moon is moving, so you won’t be able to shoot a long shutter speed without having the Moon blur.

Despite the hopes and expectations from some of the people who have contacted me, I’m sorry to report that there are no formulas or charts for determining the exposure for a lunar eclipse. You’re just going to have to make a few test shots. And while we’re on this subject, I’m going to jump on my soapbox for a second and say that you shouldn’t really be looking for charts and formulas to help you with your night photography. Your camera has the best charting device you could possibly need, built right into it. It’s called “Make a test shot and evaluate the LCD and histogram.”

For a wide-angle scene in which you are light painting a foreground, you can approach the exposure in two ways. One is to determine the correct exposure for the Moon and then do all of your light painting during that exposure. That way, you’re getting the photo in a single exposure, with no need for a lot of post-processing work. The problem with this approach is that you have no margin for error in your light painting. You have to get it right in that one shot.

For the most flexibility with the light painting, you can shoot multiple exposures. Shoot one shot for the Moon and sky, and then shoot as many shots as you like for the foreground, light painting to your heart’s content. Blend all of the foreground exposures together, using masks and brushing to get it looking just right, then blend the foreground with the Moon shot.

As with any night photo where you’re combining the night sky with a light-painted foreground, it will be much easier to get a seamless blend between the foreground and sky if you choose a scene that has a black separation between the foreground and sky—something like a line of trees or distant mountain range. You would light paint whatever is in the near foreground and let the tree line go black, giving you a seamless transition to work with in the blending process. If your light-painted foreground juts into the sky—a church steeple or bridge, for instance—you’re going to have a devil of a time blending this seamlessly with the Moon shot. This applies for all night subjects, not just the lunar eclipse.

Here’s a good article that provides the exact times of the eclipse phases for most U.S. time zones.

Good luck with your shots! I sure Hope your forecast is looking better than mine is.

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