How to view and photograph the Super Blood Moon
Yes, another "Blood Moon" is on the horizon. On the 27th of September, to be specific, and if the weather stays clear, stargazers around the globe are in for a treat.
Although the term "Blood Moon" has become a common expression, it’s actually a lunar eclipse that’s taking place. That is, the Sun, Earth and Moon are aligning and the Earth’s shadow will block the Sun from hitting the Moon's surface for a brief period. And because of the dust, pollutants and other particle matter floating about our atmosphere, it’s more than likely to appear red through our earthly atmosphere. Maybe even "blood red".
The great thing about a lunar eclipse is that the only thing you need to view it is a half decent set of eyes. It’s a spectacular sight. Binoculars will also reveal a beautiful view of this semi-rare event, as will a low powered telescope. And this is no normal moon. No. On top of the eclipse, it happens to be a "Super Moon". This is a full or new moon at it’s closest point to the Earth, which makes it about 13 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than when it's at its most distant point.
This "Supermoon Lunar Eclipse" or "Super Blood Moon" has only happened five times since 1900 and if you miss out, you'll have to wait until 2033 for another chance to see it.
But if you want to photograph it, you’ll need to do a bit of planning. And thinking.
Firstly, if you’re hoping to get what you see with your own eyes on a smartphone, think again. A wide shot where the Moon is all but a small speck of light is the best most smartphones could manage. That doesn’t mean you can’t get some good pictures with it, just not a nice close up or detailed image. Capturing that red color might also be a challenge. Just be sure to keep it in perspective – that is, make sure you have something significant in the foreground. Otherwise, it might just look like a spec of light on a black background. The Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, Big Ben, a local building … you get the idea.
This composite is of the August 2007 eclipse and taken through an old Canon 10d attached to a 2000 mm Meade lens and focal reducer. Exposure times were between half a second and 8 seconds and images were processed and complied in Photoshop.
If you want to get a little closer to the action like the images above, you’re going to need some basic equipment. Starting with a decent tripod and shutter release cable (or remote).
At some point in your shooting assignment, if not throughout, your exposures are simply going to be too long for even the steadiest hand to keep the lens still enough for a sharp image. And the effect of any wobbles and shakes will be magnified because you’re also likely to have a higher than normal powered lens on. Same goes for pressing the shutter. Even on a tripod, this action is likely to introduce a minute amount of shake and wobble. If you don’t have a cable or remote, consider using the timer so you have time to press the shutter, move your hand and let the camera settle on the tripod before it takes the image.
For a camera, ideally you're going to want an SLR with a lens greater than a couple of hundred millimeters. Indeed, a lens of up to 1000 mm should still capture all of the Moon in one frame, but even a 200 mm lens will get a good shot. Anything stronger and you’ll be cropping some of it out. And while an SLR is possibly the best device, don't be deterred if all you have is a point and shoot camera. You’ll still need to take heed of the advice about tripods and exposure times etc., but there’s no reason your camera isn’t capable of capturing some nice, red lunar landscapes.
So, you have a camera, lens, tripod and shutter release – what about camera settings? Well, the great thing about the instant results from digital is that you can experiment. But, you can also start with some basic rules of thumb. Such as ISO, exposure and white balance settings.
White balance settings are probably best set to "sunny" or "daytime". You are, after all, taking a picture of the sun reflecting off the Moon. In most cases, an automatic white balance setting will do the trick.
Exposure times and ISO will largely depend on which phase of the eclipse you’re shooting. An eclipse has two basic phases (technically 7, but for purposes of simplicity we’ll stick with two). A partial eclipse, and totality. A partial eclipse is when the Moon is disappearing into, and emerging from, the shadow. And totality is when it is completely immersed.
Before totality, the Moon will be quite bright so you should be able to get by with relatively short exposure settings and relatively low ISO settings. When totality strikes, there is a lot less light, so exposure times need to increase significantly. At this point, consider dialling up your ISO setting as well. This will make your camera more sensitive to light so you can cut your exposure times a little. Most cameras will still shoot reasonably good quality images with an ISO of 400-800. All cameras deal with light differently though, so don’t push your ISO too far. As well as increasing sensitivity, a higher ISO also increases noise in an image. And noise can be even more obvious in dark pictures, so proceed with caution.
The reason you want to try have as short exposure times as possible is to reduce the chance of camera shake. But it’s also to freeze the Moon itself in orbit. Don’t forget, the Moon is whizzing by, even more so when magnified by a lens, so if you leave your shutter open too long you’ll get blurry pictures as it moves through the frame.
Finally, it may sound counter intuitive, but because of the way lens stabilizers work, it’s also a good idea to switch those off completely during long exposure photography. They risk moving the image around when the shutter is open and collecting light.
This is by no means an exhaustive guide to shooting an eclipse, but should provide a starting point for experimentation. And it’s through experimentation, and taking lots and lots and lots of images, that the best and most surprising images can emerge.
The eclipse is visible mainly in the Northern hemisphere, with parts of Europe and the USA being treated to the entire event. You can find out if you will be able to see it here.
If cloudy weather spoils the show from your vantage point, you can always watch the live stream on NASA TV.
Ed's note: We'd included some of our readers' photographic efforts in our photo gallery.