Thursday, 1 February 2018

Photographing the Super Blue Red Moon (Lunar Eclipse)

The Moon before the eclipse. Tokina 200mm f/3.5 film era lens on an Olympus E-M1 Mark 1 with film era Komura Telemore II 2x magnification teleconvertor.  ISO 200 1/250 (f/8 on the lens, I think)

We've had a fun time trying to shoot the moon.  Some people make the activity look unbelievably easy, others encounter all kinds of difficulties that puzzle them. Here's a retrospective on my technique.
  1. Separate the process of aiming vs focussing vs exposure - I use a mirrorless Liveview camera and these modern cameras excel at general photography but shooting the moon is a non standard activity. If you don't separate these concepts in your mind, you end up with a blurry white disc in an expanse of black sky.
  2. Put the camera on a tripod. You will be waiting for the moon and taking several shots. I was around for from 11 pm to nearly 2 am so that's a long time to spend holding a heavy long lens pointing up in the sky.  For some gear, turn off image stabilisation if you trust your tripod is very steady and your tripod head to camera mount is rock steady. Some cameras automatically understand they don't need image stabilisation.
  3. Use Manual Focus and Manual Exposure and Fixed ISO. See point 1


Liveview cameras are usually set to emulate the scene and the exposure - if the exposure is very bright, the liveview will be bright and vice versa if dark. This presents a problem with shooting only the moon (it's different if you want the moon as part of a nightscape). If the camera thinks there is a lot of dark (i.e. the black sky) it will brighten the liveview to the extent that the moon in liveview will be like a blurry, white washed out disc. You don't want that, you can't assess the clarity of focus or anything.

Tip: Set the exposure metering of the camera to spot area. Point the spot at a lit portion of the moon. The camera will attempt to make liveview display that area as 18% grey, suitable for eye judgement and assessment.


Now that you can see the moon clearly (see Aiming, above), you can manually focus. If the moon is very small because you do not have a high power telephoto / zoom, you might need to magnify which Liveview cameras often easily do. Toggle Focus Peaking (I like red outlines) - you can outline the edges of the moon with focus peaking colour. Focus Peaking sometimes does not represent perfect focus in general use but the moon is a bright disc in the black sky, it works well.

The moon is not a racing car or a sports player. It does move but not at the speed of lightning. And its distance from you does not change - it traverses the night sky, it doesn't run away or toward you. Once you have achieved focus, except for gear accidents, touching the lens etc... you do not need to change focus. It's essentially at infinity.


First to appreciate the significance, read through these B & H articles (highlighted by +Margaret Wong)
The moon will be bright before eclipse. Rule of thumb is the Looney 11
All you need is a ballpark figure to set the fixed ISO / shutter speed / aperture on your camera. Remember you are using a digital camera - you can shoot and review exposure almost immediately, then adjust the setting. Of course, you need to know which way on those scales is brighter or darker. But within a few seconds, you can home in on the relevant exposure.

When the moon enters eclipse, the brightness changes a lot because now, the light from the sun is being blocked by the earth. (It's the lunar eclipse, duh!).  In this case, it will be a lot dimmer. You might have to go to ISO 1600 as opposed to Looney 16 when you used ISO 200. You might be down to 1/2 sec exposure time as opposed to 1/200th sec exposure during Looney 16.

Tokina 200mm 1/25sec with stacked Komura TCON X2 and Vivitar TCON X2  ISO 200 (f/3.5 I think) on Olympus E-M1 Mark 1

Be awake to that. It takes like forever to eclipse, then it's suddenly dark and remains dark for 10 or more minutes. If you are not awake to that, you would have left your manual exposure setting on Looney 11.

Tokina 200mm 1/4sec with stacked Komura TCON X2 Vivitar TCON X2  ISO 3200 (f/3.5 I think) on Olympus E-M1 Mark 1
When you figure out that your settings for exposure need brightening, you have to reconcile whether you want to increase ISO (which implies more image noise) or lengthen shutter speed (which risks blur from camera/tripod/moon movement)

Tokina 200mm 1/2sec with stacked Komura TCON X2 Vivitar TCON X2  ISO 3200 (f/3.5 I think) on Olympus E-M1 Mark 1

Then, you wait around until the eclipse clears and it's back to Looney 11

Tokina 200mm 1/15 sec with stacked Komura TCON X2 Vivitar TCON X2  ISO 400 (f/8 I think) on Olympus E-M1 Mark 1


Under Looney 11 conditions, you may not need much care in holding the camera steady or triggering. You could even hand hold the camera and lens if you could hold your aim steady enough at such a high magnification. However, when shutter speeds lengthen, you want camera motion to be the least of your worries. You could use a remote control mechanism (wired remote control or camera phone app or tether) or you could just use the 12 second timer built into most cameras. If you are worried about shutter shock or you want even more time for the camera and nervous tripod to reach static state, use the vibration reduction delay built into the camera.


If you are shooting raw, you can adjust colour easily during post processing. However, you have to remember the colour of the moon. Why not shoot JPEG + Raw so you can easily have a reference. And set the White Balance in the camera to Sunny. Not Auto White Balance which will fade the colours to pale (the camera does not know what colour the moon should be)

But my photo isn't as sharp as I expect - I'm not seeing enough detail

The tips above are to give you a head start, a ballpark result where the moon does not look like a blurred white disc in the sky. If your photo isn't as sharp or as detailed as you expect or some trolls egg you on about, consider:

  • How was the atmospheric haze/cloud cover during your shot?
  • Have you got the best quality lenses for this type of work - what is their usual sharpness resolving power and micro contrast. What's the next level up in performance and cost? Do you want to pay that for this pursuit? Or maybe you could rent?
  • Have you got enough magnification? Speaking in terms of "full frame" sensor, 800mm equivalent focal length is nice to have.
  • Have you got enough image light/brightness. An f/2.8 lens would be nice. It does not stay as f/2.8 brightness if you stack on one or two optical teleconverters
  • Have you got a really steady tripod/camera/lens combination that does not wobble at the slightest breeze?
  • Have you got a sensor that will have low enough noise at ISO 3200?
  • If you are using specialised 2000mm mirror lenses which are high magnifying power and suffer from thermal expansion/contraction that affects the focus point, you should be checking your focus more frequently.
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