How to Take Great Photos of the Lunar Eclipse

Ready for Wednesday’s morning lunar eclipse Some people – and I envy them at times – treat an eclipse more casually. They enjoy the show with no desire to set up a telescope or take a photo. For those of us can’t part with our cameras, here’s a little guide to help you get better pictures.

From Philadelphia and other eastern U.S. cities the partial phases of the eclipse will take place with the moon well up in the western sky. By the start of totality, the moon will have dropped to within about 6º of the horizon as shown here. Source: Stellarium

If you’re also into photography and would like to grab a few shots, here are a few tips on what equipment you’ll need and camera settings. This eclipse offers unique opportunities especially for the eastern half of the country because the eclipsed moon will be low in the western sky near the start of and during morning twilight.

In the Midwest at the start of the hour-long totality, the red moon will be about 20º (two fists) above the western horizon. From the East Coast the moon slips into total eclipse only a half hour before sunrise 6-7º high. So if you live in the eastern half of the country, find a site with a good view to the west.

Seen from Denver, total eclipse begins with the moon 30º high (three fists). All of totality and all partial phases of the eclipse will be visible from western Midwest west to Hawaii and Alaska. Source: Stellarium

A low moon means easier framing with a pleasing foreground like a grove of fall trees, a church or distant line of mountain peaks. And the lower it drops, the longer the telephoto lens you can use to enlarge the moon relative to the foreground. When the moon is high in the sky it’s more difficult to find a suitable foreground.

Sometimes it’s nice to have a foreground object to add character to your eclipse photos. Last April’s totally eclipsed moon joins the old Central High School clock tower in downtown Duluth, Minn. Mars at upper right. Details: 80mm lens, f/5, 1.6-second exposure at ISO 400 on a tripod. Credit: Bob King

As the scene brightens during twilight, balancing the light of the dim moon, your photos will get even more interesting. Textures and details in foreground objects will stand out instead of appearing as silhouettes.

Use the table below to plan when to watch depending on your time zone. The blanks mean the moon will have set by the time of the event.

Eclipse Events                                                EDT                 CDT                MDT                 PDT

Penumbra first visible 4:45 a.m. 3:45 a.m. 2:45 a.m. 1:45 a.m.
Partial eclipse begins 5:15 a.m. 4:15 a.m. 3:15 a.m. 2:15 a.m.
Total eclipse begins 6:25 a.m. 5:25 a.m. 4:25 a.m. 3:25 a.m.
Mid-eclipse 6:55 a.m. 5:55 a.m. 4:55 a.m. 3:55 a.m.
Total eclipse ends 7:24 a.m. 6:24 a.m. 5:24 a.m. 4:24 a.m.
Partial eclipse ends ——— 7:34 a.m. 6:34 a.m. 5:34 a.m.
Penumbra last visible ——— ——— 7:05 a.m. 6:05 a.m.


Exposures and lens settings

Partial phase during the April 14-15 eclipse this year. Details: Telescope (=1300mm telephoto lens) at f/11, 1/250 second at ISO 400. Credit: Bob King

The full moon and even the partially eclipsed moon (up to about half) are so bright you can shoot a handheld photo without resorting to a tripod. Exposures at ISO 400 are in the neighborhood of f/8 at 1/250-1/500 second. Only thing is, all you’ll get is the moon surrounded by blackness. These exposures are so brief almost nothing will show in your foreground except for possibly moonlit clouds. That’s usually fine for the early partial phases.

Once the moon is more than half smothered by shadow, open up your lens to a wider setting – f/2.8 to f/4 – or increase the exposure. Let the back of the camera be your guide. If the images look too bright, dial back. If too dim, increase exposure or open the lens to a wider aperture.

To capture the encroaching shadow during partial phases you’ll need to overexpose the sunlit part of the moon. Details: f/11, 2-second exposure at ISO 400. Credit: Bob King

While you can continue to shoot the partially eclipsed moon at f/8 from 1/30-1/125 second, you’ll miss the best part – the portion filling up with Earth’s red shadow. To capture that, break out the tripod, open the lens all the way up – f/2.8-f/4 – and expose at ISO 400 between 1/4 and 1 second.

You can also shoot at ISO 800 and cut those times in half, important if you’re using a longish telephoto lens. Remember, Earth’s rotation means the moon’s on the move and will show trailing if you expose longer than a few seconds. On the other hand, this won’t be a problem if you’re shooting with a wide angle lens though they have their limits, too.

The moon completely immersed in Earth’s umbra during totality. Details: f/11, 6-second exposure, ISO 400. To prevent trailing I used a motorized mount to track the moon. Credit : Bob King

During totality, expose anywhere from 1/2 to 5 seconds at f/2.8-4.5 at ISO 400. Let’s say you want to include both scenic foreground and stars in the picture using a wide angle or standard lens. Dial up the ISO to 800, open your lens wide and expose between 6-10 seconds. On the 6-second end you’ll catch only the brightest stars, but the moon won’t show trailing; on the longer end you’ll get lots more stars with some overexposure of the eclipsed moon.

Of course, you can go to even higher ISOs and shorten exposure times considerably. But in all but the newest, high-end cameras that comes at the price of increased graininess and less color saturation.

Wide scene from April’s total eclipse with Spica below the moon and Mars to the right. Details: 24mm lens at f/2.8, 8-second exposure at ISO 800. The moon was deliberately overexposed to show it in a field of stars. You can vary the exposure to your taste but the shorter it is, the fewer stars. Longer exposures will show trailing. Credit: Bob King

Where parts of the eclipse happen in twilight, even mobile phones may suffice. There should be enough light to capture a pretty scene with the moon just emerging from total eclipse and during the ensuing partial phases.

The partial lunar eclipse of June 4, 2012, pre-dawn at moonset, from home in southern Alberta. This is a single exposure with the Canon 60Da and 18-200mm Sigma lens at 115mm and at f/5.6 for 0.4 sec at ISO 160. Copyright: Alan Dyer

If you’re clouded out or on the wrong side of the planet for the eclipse, you can catch live webcasts from the following sites:

* Gianluca Masi’s Virtual Telescope
* Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles

Clear skies!

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

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