Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lunar Eclipse

This past lunar eclipse was special for a variety of reasons: it was happening almost simultaneously with the December solstice when the sun will be southernmost for this year (which apparently won't happen again for a long time), I'd never shot one before, and I had the chance to hang out with my younger brother (whose new hobby just happens to be astronomy).

First of all, since everyone always wants to know, here are some details on the setup. I was shooting with the Nikon d300s and a 300mm f/4 with TC-301 2x teleconverter (this meant manual focus only). All of this was mounted on a Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod and Giottos MH1301 ball-head (which made it easy to adjust the view angle as the moon moved through the sky).

Doing a little research went a long way. At first I was only interested in capturing the total eclipse portion of the night, but then thought it would be interesting to make a poster-sized print out of all the phases. After googling for a bit, I found that the partial eclipse began at 1:33 am. Then the total eclipse would start at 2:41 am and end at 3:53 am. Finally, the partial eclipse would culminate right at 5:01 am. The plan was to take a series of images between 1:00 and 5:30 (that's 270 minutes!). I decided that 20 minute intervals would give me enough time to shoot outside, go inside to load the images (and warm up), possibly go to the bathroom, and then head back outside to shoot some more.

The first image was going to be easy. I'd set up for moon shots plenty of times and knew that the the moon moved through the sky deceptively fast. I also knew the moon was deceptively bright. I set the camera to manual exposure and dialed in 1/250 sec at f/8 ISO 200. Not bad! Then I realized I'd forgotten my remote trigger and I was causing vibrations every time I pressed the shutter. This translated directly into blurry images. I decided to bump up the ISO to 400 and up the shutter speed to 1/640. Results looked good! In retrospect, I could have used a timer delay to get rid of the transients of the camera shake, but I think I was just a little too impatient to do so.

Focusing was a bit more of an issue than I thought it would be. I couldn't really tell from the viewfinder if I was truly in focus, and we all know that everything looks tack sharp in the LCD (even when you zoom in). So, I decided to take an image and then turn the focus ring "just a little bit" and then take another image. I repeated until I knew that I was definitely out of focus ... and then I would turn the ring the other way and take another series of pictures (hey, one of those had to be in focus, right?). 

Here is an image from the first set straight out of the camera. No cropping, no adjustments. Just a tad bright, but nothing that the 'blacks' slider in Lightroom won't fix

The rest of the partial eclipse went the same way, I would take images for 5 minutes, and then headed back to upload and look through them.  I did find that I liked the result much better if I overexposed just a tad and then brought some contrast into the image by using the clarity slider (which I bumped up to 100%) and the blacks slider (which would make the sky pitch black and brought out some of details in the craters).

Finally at 2:45 I headed back out to capture the full eclipse. Thanks to my buddy Steve (who, 1 - thought I was "nuts" for staying up all night and 2 - has taken some pretty sweet moon shots himself ... here and here), I was ready to change the exposure settings to correctly expose for the moon. Let's think about the new exposure settings ... during the eclipse, the earth is between the sun and the moon, which means we lose some light. 1 stop? 2 stops? nahhhh ... how about 9 stops of light?!? Crap! I had to shoot at 1/4 sec, f/5.6 (I had switched to the 1.4x tele to get a stop back) ISO 800. I was worried that the images would be blurry, and while they certainly weren't 'tack sharp', I was plenty happy with the results. Since I couldn't really tell on my LCD, I also tried shooting at ISO 3200, which brought the shutter speed up two stops for the same exposure ... no good, just noise.

I was stuck with shooting with the 1.4x tele until the full eclipse had finished. While this gave me smaller images of the moon, it did mean I had another stop of light and I could auto-focus! I took full advantage of that. Also, for these images I had remembered to bring the remote to release the shutter. However, every single time the shutter released, I noticed a shake in the camera. Crap. I then remembered that the d300s has a "Quiet" shutter mode, so I gave that a shot. It sounded really weird, but it worked out perfectly! I also could have used the "mirror up" mode, but again, I was a little impatient.

Here is one of the shots from the total eclipse. Notice that the moon is a little smaller in the frame (switched from the 2x to 1.4x tele). The little bright sliver on the right is what I would have gotten if I had shot at 1/640 f/8 ISO 400. I tried that out, but it wasn't much to look at. The rest of the night was pretty uneventful. Same drill ... shoot, import, edit, pee (I didn't do this every time, but quite a bit), and go back to shoot some more.

The last shot of the night (morning?) was taken at 5:20. By then, I had gone back to the 2x tele and had the technique down pretty well.

All in all, I had 14 sets of images ... a total of 300 photos. I'd say that my "keeper" rate was about 25% for the early sets, but went to about 80% after I had gotten the technique down. Now, I'm just estimating those percentages, it could have been 20% and 75%, but you get the idea. After deleting all of the blurry images, I still had about 120-140 images. That's quite a lot of pictures of the moon, so I went through them all and deleted about 60% of those. My goal was to have 4 or less per set. After painfully deleting some nice images (it's OK, I had 3 others that look almost exactly the same), I decided to call it a night - I'd get to the processing the next day.

Boom ... it's next day. I had an idea of what I wanted to have as a final image of the night - a 10" x 20" print showing all of the phases in an arc-type layout. My subscription to KelbyTraining has never paid of more than it did when I was setting this up in Photoshop. I was able to make quick adjustments with tons of keyboard shortcuts and the whole thing was done in under 30 minutes. My original layout idea was a little bland, so I decided to add a full moon image (the one taken before the eclipse started) right in the middle. I also added the time of capture for each image so I would have a reference to look back at later.

All in all, I'd say it was a great experience! I learned quite a bit in a relatively short period of time and had a wonderful time with my brother. He's shown at the here holding the shutter release remote with is iPod in ear. I dare to say he had a fun time too.

If I could do it all over again though, I would probably do the following:
  • Not take so many pictures! What a pain it was to decide which one of the three identical pictures I wanted to keep and which other two I could delete.
  • Have the shutter release remote with me at all times.
  • Try an HDR ... Steve's suggestion. That may have been pretty cool and wouldn't have taken more than a minute to set up.
  • Bring some gloves! I knew about this, but I live in FL and don't own a pair (that changes this Christmas though!).

Also, if I had another camera, it would have been nice to go to an open space and take a time lapse photo of the moon moving across the sky. I would have to figure out the proper exposure for each image before the fact (I have that information now), but I think it would be a pretty sweet shot to have!

1 comment:

  1. Amazing composite image!

    I can only image the selection process at the end with so many pictures to choose from....

    Looking forward to seeing and reading more!