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
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
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
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
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
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. Credit : Bob King
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
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
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
* SLOOH 

Clear skies!

Take a Peek Inside Curiosity’s Shell

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Take a look around Curiosity’s cozy cabin! Ok, there’s really not much to see (she didn’t get a window seat) but when the image above was taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on April 20, the spacecraft she’s tucked into was just over 120 million km (74 million miles) from Earth, en route to Mars. In other words, just past those blurry components and outside that dark shell is real outer space… that’s cool!

This color image was planned by the MSL team, used to confirm that MAHLI is operating as it should. The two green dots are reflections of the camera’s LED lights, and the rusty-orange out-of-focus parts are cables. The silver thing is a bracket holding said cables.

So why is this fancy camera taking blurry pictures (and the folks at NASA are happy about it?) Since MAHLI is designed to take both close-up images of rocks on Mars as well as landscape shots, it has a focusing motor. But when it’s not in use — such as during its current 11-month-long cruise to Mars — the motor puts the focusing lens into a safe position to protect it from damage during launch, entry and landing.

Where is Curiosity now?

Positioned this way, MAHLI can only focus on objects 2 cm (less than an inch) away from its lens, and there simply aren’t any inside the capsule.

Of course, once Curiosity arrives at Mars and completes her exciting landing at Gale Crater, MAHLI will have plenty of things to take pictures of! Until then we’ll be patient, it can take a rest and we can rest assured that it’s working just fine.

Keep up with the latest news from the Mars Science Laboratory team here.

Labeled parts of the MSL rover (NASA/Kim Shiflett; cropping/annotation by Malin Space Science Systems)

San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) built and operates the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) aboard the Curiosity Mars rover. MSSS also built and operates the rover’s Mastcams and Mars Descent Imager. Read more about their contributions to Curiosity’s exploration mission here.

Apollo Astronaut Returns “Stolen” Camera

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In a follow-up to a recent Universe Today article, Apollo astronaut and sixth-man-on-the-moon Ed Mitchell has agreed to return a lunar Data Acquisition Camera (DAC) that he kept from the Apollo 14 mission, rather than face a court date next year over a suit filed by NASA in June.

The 16mm camera was “rescued” from the Apollo 14 landing module by Mitchell as it was about to be released from the orbiter after the astronauts’ visit to the Moon in February 1971. The lander – with everything remaining in it – would later crash onto the Moon’s surface.

Not only did Mitchell consider it a waste of a valuable piece of historic equipment, but there was a then-standing policy that astronauts could keep certain items from their missions as mementos.

This Data Acquisition Camera (DAC) was one of two 16mm cameras on the Apollo 14 lunar module "Antares" when it landed on the moon on Feb, 5, 1971. Credit: FLSD

Mitchell had had the DAC until May 2010, when he put it and other items up for auction at New York’s Bonhams auction house as a part of their “Space History Sale”. It was at that time that NASA filed a suit against the 80-year-old Mitchell, claiming that he had no rightful ownership of the camera. Mitchell’s attempt to get the case dismissed was denied by a Florida district court judge earlier this month, who stated that there was no statute or jurisdiction on such cases, being filed by a federally-run organization.

Rather than go to court in October 2012, Mitchell agreed in district court this past Thursday to “relinquish all claims of ownership, legal title, or dominion” over the camera.

Mitchell and the federal prosecutors will each be responsible for their own legal fees.

Read the original Universe Today story here, and for more details see the article on collectSpace.com.

America vs. Astronaut: The Case of the Lifted Lunar Camera

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Imagine you’re an astronaut. You have what it takes to be selected to fly a mission to the Moon. You train, make the trip, and become one of literally a handful of humans ever to have walked on the lunar surface. And when you leave the desolate beauty of the Moon behind in your Landing Module, and are just about to re-enter the Lunar Orbiter and head for home, you see one of the cameras that you used on the surface. If you leave it where it is it’s going to be lost forever, crashing into the lunar surface with the rest of the lander. If you take it, you’ll be going against standard NASA operating procedure since you hadn’t filled out the proper paperwork beforehand for official mission items appropriated by astronauts. Leave a piece of history behind to be destroyed or salvage it as a souvenir… what do you do?

Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell decided to bring the camera back, and now, 40 years later, his decision is going to land him in court.

Last June, the U.S. government brought a case against the 81-year-old moonwalker after he offered the 16-millimeter Data Acquisition Camera (DAC) up for sale at New York’s Bonhams auction house as part of their May “Space History Sale”. While it was common for Apollo astronauts to be able to keep various pieces of equipment and space suits as mementos after their missions, certain paperwork had to be filled out beforehand… it’s just the NASA way.

The late Donald “Deke” Slayton, head of the astronaut corps in 1971, mentioned this during an interview with the Tuscon Daily Citizen in 1972.

“They give me a list of things they’re going to bring back,” Slayton said. “I give it to the program office and they bring ’em back.”

This Data Acquisition Camera (DAC) was one of two 16mm cameras on the Apollo 14 lunar module "Antares" when it landed on the moon on Feb, 5, 1971. Credit: Bonhams.

The DAC, it seems, was not on any lists handed in by Mitchell. Yet it was never intended to be on the ride back to Earth, either. Rather its destination was to be in the bottom of a crater made by the landing module when it crashed back onto the Moon.

Must have seemed a rather wasteful end for a historic – and valuable – piece of equipment. Were it to go to auction it could have fetched between $60,000 to $80,000.

“We had an agreement with NASA management, that small items that didn’t exceed our weight limitations, we could bring back.”

– Edgar Mitchell to WPTV

Regardless of its value – sentimental or otherwise – NASA’s lawyer claims that Mitchell was contacted several times about returning the camera but never responded. Mitchell’s attorney, on the other hand, argues that too many years have passed for NASA to now claim the camera as stolen property.

When it was brought before a Florida district court judge to have the case dismissed, however, the judge had no option but to side with the government.

“‘It is well settled that the United States is not bound by state statutes of limitation or subject to the defense of laches in enforcing its rights,'” quoted Judge Daniel Hurley of an appeals court ruling. “Defendant’s allegations that NASA intended the camera to be destroyed after the mission or that it routinely awarded used mission equipment to astronauts do not preclude as a matter of law Plaintiff’s contrary allegation that Defendant impermissibly converted the camera.”

Bottom line: the case goes in front of a jury in October 2012.

Read more about this on collectSPACE.com.