This article is about how this time slice shot of a lunar eclipse was made. Its focus is mainly on the planning that went into it, even before the first shutter click. Hopefully by sharing what I did, I can prepare you for creating your own lunar eclipse photo.
Let us start off by getting some key details of the event. There are several web sites that provide details on the astro events (like Space, SpaceDex, TimeAndDate, EclipseWise to name a few) and social channels. I used these to find an eclipse that would be visible in Chicago, where I live.
Though the complete eclipse I shot wasn’t visible, it turned out to be an advantage. As the moon was setting, it appeared to be dissolving into the the horizon.
Above is the initial sketch I made on a napkin. Create a vision in the mind’s eye as how you want to capture the event. This might not sound crucial, but does drastically increases the success rate of the final shot.
It all starts with the vision. It is the vision that drives the planning, which drives the execution. I have seen this to be true, not just for photography, but in other areas of life too. There are a multitude of ways to capture the lunar eclipse. It can be just focused around getting the different phases of the eclipse or it can be getting a lovely composition of the landscape along with the blood red moon. It can even be a composite of the foreground along with the lovely moon set as depicted above !
Often the final shot is NOT going to be a result of just a random snapshot. It is something that starts with the vision, evolves as you go through the different phases of planning, and culminates in the final shot. Have the planning phase fluid enough and accommodate changes as needed.
Location Location Location
If you are planning to capture the lunar eclipse along with the landscape, the location is very critical. The foreground element generally adds a lot to the shot. It not only defines the foreground composition, but also aids in perspective by the size of the moon. The planning in this case becomes even more significant, as the path of the moon is not static even for a given landscape. Below are some of the tools that aid in zeroing down on that particular spot and identifying when and how the moon would rise for the identified landscape.
Yeah the same application that you use to get driving directions has lot more data that can be used for photo shoot pre-planning. From Street View to the photos in a given location, it is very handy. The first use of the tool is for virtual scouting of any given location. It has amazing amounts of data that can literally help you get a feel for the area without being anywhere close to it. Google Maps is almost always my go to tool for scouting.
Play around with the Street View and Earth View as you look around the environment. Street View helps to visually see how the foreground is laid out, where that one tree is located, or if you have an open corn field toward your right. And while you are there check out the photos of the key spots on the bottom bar. This is not as great as Flickr, but does provide details on the surroundings.
In case of remote locations or the countryside, the Street View might not be available. In those cases the Earth View and the photos listed provide the required contextual information. It is really handy to see if a road leads to a particular river bank or if there is a path way to get to a particular spot that you can set up the tripod.
Flickr usually has an amazing number of images for any given location. I generally search in Flickr with the location details (try the maps view) to get a feel for what kind of shots and views are possible for the given spot. Don’t forget to check out the EXIF information. This can provide valuable inputs on the zoom, giving a hint on where the shot might have been composed from. If I am not able to get any hits, I fall back to Google Images.
Google History… Nothing beats it being there in person. But not every place has a fixed address. There might be a tree – that you remember from a drive that you took 3 months, that might make a great foreground , but not sure of its exact location. Fear not, Google comes to the rescue again. If you have not explicitly disabled, all your location history is saved in your account (visible only to you). This is very handy to get back to a specific date & time and reverse look up in the Street View to get the location of that scene you want to get back to.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris
The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) helps plan landscape and urban scenes. It’s a map-centric sun and moon calculator: allows to see the the path the sun or moon, direction of light for any location on earth. Of course there is an app for that.
Stellarium — especially the desktop version — is very handy for pre-planning. One can easily see the stars and galaxies that would be prominent for any given coordinates and time. You can even download the landscape for prominent locations or create custom skyline for your particular location. In addition you can also look for specific galaxies, planets, or even check if International Space Station (ISS) will be crossing the frame when you are shooting. In our case just search for moon and they play around with the date and time to see how the position of the same changes.
Weather Weather Weather
Lately, had found Accuweather handy for checking the extended forecast for more than a month ahead. Check out the trend and forecast maps for high level planning. Once you finalize the location you can drill down to location specific extended forecast for up to 45 days.
Clear Dark Skies
Clear Dark Sky allows you to get details about the humidity, transparency, temperature etc. along with the cloud cover for the given location. If you are not geeky, just use the tool and ensure to have dark blue and black forecast under Cloud Cover for better visibility. You can use the website for planning on desktop or get it as an app to for use in the field.
Dark Sky Finder is not as important as the previous tool for shooting a lunar eclipse, but again, it all depends on what you want to shoot. If location is more important, then this takes a back seat. But if you would like to shoot the eclipse against the stars, this is a good tool. Basically in this tool, you need to look for a location that is under green or dark blue, to be able to view and shoot the stars (and Milky Way) in the night sky.
Settling on a Final Plan
We’ve now covered a range of tools, options, and technologies that can help us. I’d also like to briefly share about the actual planning that I did earlier this year. My process of finalizing the spot could help in your planning for subsequent events.
I was planning for the lunar eclipse in April 2015, and the event was on the early morning of April 4th. The moon would be setting towards the west as it was getting into full eclipse over the horizon.
Living near to Chicago, and wanting a open horizon view to the west, I zeroed on the west coastal side of the Michigan lake. This has the highest potential of having a open horizon view in the early morning, when the eclipse was occurring. I looked at couple of light houses from the area. Further planning was driven by weather.
In addition to the clear skies, for the image to really make an impact, the size of the moon against the lighthouse plays an important role. This is achieved by something called as compression effect. For this ideally I would need to be more than 1,500+ feet from the foreground element. This would help me capture the eclipse alongside the lighthouse.
The Final Shot
I just love it when a plan comes together. The details are at a high level, but you’ll get a hold of it once you start using each of these tools, apps and services.
The next big lunar eclipse is this Sunday, September 27th, 2015. Best of luck with your planning!
About the author: Sathya Narayanan is a photographer based in Chicago, Illinois. You can connect with him and find more of his work on his website, Facebook, and Twitter. This article was also published here.