How to Photograph the Lunar Eclipse


On the night of November 18/19 eclipse fans across North America can enjoy the sight of the Moon turning deep red. Here’s how to capture the scene.

Seeing and shooting this eclipse will demand staying up late or getting up very early. That’s the price to pay for an eclipse everyone on the continent can see.

Also, this is not a total eclipse of the Moon. But it’s the next best thing, a 97% partial eclipse – almost total! So the main attraction — a red Moon — will still be front and centre.

CLICK ON AN IMAGE to bring it up full screen for closer inspection.

NOT QUITE TOTAL

At mid-eclipse 97% of the disk of the Full Moon will be within Earth’s dark umbral shadow, and should appear a bright red colour to the eye and even more so to the camera. A sliver of the southern edge of the Moon will remain outside the umbra and will appear bright white, like a southern polar cap on the Moon. 

While some references will say the eclipse begins at 1:01 am EST, that’s when the Moon first enters the outer lighter penumbral shadow. Nothing unusual can be seen at that point, as the darkening of the Moon’s disk by the penumbra is so slight, you won’t notice any difference over the normally bright Full Moon. 

The extent of the umbra and penumbra at the October 2004 total lunar eclipse.

It isn’t until the Moon begins to enter the umbra that you can see a dark bite being taken out of the edge of the Moon. 

WHAT TO SEE

At mid-eclipse the Full Moon will look deep red or perhaps bright orange — the colours can vary from eclipse to eclipse, depending on the clarity of the Earth’s atmosphere through which the sunlight is passing to light the Moon. The red is the colour of all the sunsets and sunrises going on around the Earth during the eclipse.

The total lunar eclipse of August 2007. At the November 18 eclipse the bottom edge of the Moon, as it did here, will be bright, but brighter than it appears here.

The unique aspect of this eclipse is that for the 15 to 30 minutes around mid-eclipse we might see some unusual colour gradations at the edge of the umbral shadow, from sunlight passing through Earth’s upper atmosphere and ozone layer. This can tint the shadow edge blue or even green. 

Eclipse chart courtesy Fred Espenak / EclipseWise.com

WHERE CAN THE ECLIPSE BE SEEN?

The last lunar eclipse six months ago on the morning of May 26, 2021 (see my blog here) was visible during its total phase only from western North America, and then only just. However, this eclipse can be seen from coast to coast. 

Only from the very easternmost points in North America does the Moon set with the eclipse in progress, but during the inconsequential penumbral phase. All of the umbral phase is visible from the Eastern Seaboard, though the last stages will be in progress with the Moon low in the west in the pre-dawn hours. But that positioning can make for photogenic sight. 

The start, middle and end times of the umbral eclipse for Eastern and Pacific time zones. The background image is a simulation of the path of the November 18/19, 2021 eclipse when the Moon travels through the southern part of the umbra.

WHEN IS THE ECLIPSE?

The show really begins when the Moon begins to enter the umbra at 2:18 am EST (1:18 am CST, 12:18 am MST, 11:18 pm PST). 

But note, these times are for the night of November 18/19. If you go out on the evening of November 19 expecting to see the eclipse, you’ll be sadly disappointed as you will have missed it. It’s the night before! 

The eclipse effectively ends at 5:47 am EST (4:47 am CST, 3:47 am MST, 2:47 am PST) when the Moon leaves the umbra. That makes the eclipse 3 1/2 hours long, though the most photogenic part will be for the 15 to 30 minutes centred on mid-eclipse at 4:03 am EST (3:03 am CST, 2:03 am MST, 1:03 am PST). 

The sky at mid-eclipse from my home on Alberta, Canada (51° N)

WHERE WILL THE MOON BE?

The post-midnight timing places the Moon at mid-eclipse high in the south to southwest for most of North America, just west (right) of the winter Milky Way and below the distinctive Pleiades star cluster. 

The view from the West Coast.

The high altitude of the Moon (some 60º to 70º above the horizon) puts it well above haze and murk low in the sky, but makes it a challenge to capture in a frame that includes the landscape below for an eclipse nightscape. 

ASTRONOMY 101: The high altitude of the Moon is a function of both the eclipse timing in the middle of the night and its place on the ecliptic. The Full Moon is always 180° away from the Sun. So it sits where the Sun was six months earlier, in this case back in May, when the high Sun was bringing us warmer and longer days. Winter lunar eclipses are always high; summer lunar eclipses are always low, the opposite of what the Sun does. 

The view from the East Coast.

From eastern North America the Moon appears lower in the west at mid-eclipse, making it easier to frame above a landscape. For example from Boston the Moon is 30º up, lending itself to nightscape scenes. 

However, the sky will still be dark. To make use of the darkness to capture scenes which include the Milky Way, I suggest making the effort to travel away from urban light pollution to a dark sky site. That applies to all locations. Yes, that means a very long night!

PHOTO OPTIONS 1 — CAMERA ON A FIXED TRIPOD

With just a camera on a tripod, if you are on the East Coast (I show Boston here) it will be possible to frame the eclipsed Moon above a landscape with a 24mm lens (assuming a full frame camera; a cropped frame camera will require a 16mm lens). 

Framing the scene from the East Coast.

What exposure will be best will depend on the level of local light pollution at your site. But from a dark site, 30 seconds at ISO 1600 and f/2.8 should work well. But without tracking, you will see some star trailing at 30 seconds. Also try shorter exposures at a higher ISO. 

There’s lots of time, so take lots of shots. Include some short shots of just the Moon to blend in later, as the exposures best for picking up the Milky Way will still overexpose the Moon, even when it is darkest at mid-eclipse. 

Framing the scene from the West.

From western North America, including the landscape below will require wide lenses and a vertical format, with the Moon appearing quite small. But from a photogenic site, it might be worth the effort. 

Total eclipse of the Moon, December 20/21, 2010, taken from home with 15mm lens at f/3.2 and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600 for 1 minute single exposure, toward the end of totality.
Total eclipse of the Moon, December 20/21, 2010, taken from home with Canon 5D MKII and 24mm lens at f2.8 for stack of 4 x 2 minutes at ISO 800. Taken during totality..

However, as my images above from the December 2010 eclipse show, if there’s any haze, the Moon could turn into a reddish blob. 

You might be tempted to shoot with a long telephoto lens, but unless the camera is on a tracker, as below, the result will likely be a blurry mess. The sky moves enough during the long (over 1 second) exposures needed to pick up the reddened portion of the Moon that the image will smear when shot with long focal lengths. The solution is to use a sky tracker.

PHOTO OPTIONS 2 — CAMERA ON A TRACKER

Placing the camera on a motorized tracker that has been polar aligned to follow the motion of the stars opens up many more possibilities. 

Camera on a Star Adventurer tracker showing the field of a 24mm lens.

From a dark site, make use of the Moon’s position near the Milky Way to frame it and Orion and his fellow winter constellations. A 24mm lens will do the job nicely, in exposures up to 2 to 4 minutes long. But take short ones for just the Moon to layer in later. 

Showing the field of a 50mm lens.

A 50mm lens (again assuming a full frame camera) frames the Moon with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus. 

Showing the field of an 85mm lens,

Switching to an 85mm lens frames the clusters more tightly and makes the Moon’s disk a little larger. For me, this is the best shot to go for at this eclipse, as it tells the story of the eclipse and its unique position near the two star clusters. 

Showing the field of 200mm and 250mm lenses.

But going with a longer lens allows framing the red eclipsed Moon below the blue Pleiades cluster, a fine colour contrast. A 200mm lens will do the job nicely (or a 135mm on a cropped frame camera). 

Or, as I show here, the popular William Optics RedCat with its 250mm focal length will also work well. But such a lens must be on a polar-aligned tracker to get sharp shots. Use the Sidereal rate drive speed to ensure the sharpest stars over the 1 to 4 minutes needed to record lots of stars. 

Typical settings for tracker images, with an image of the January 2019 eclipse.

Take lots of exposures over a range of settings — long to bring out the deep sky detail and shorter to preserve detail in the reddened lunar disk. These can be layered and blended later in Photoshop, or in the layer-based image editing program of your choice, such as Affinity Photo or ON1 Photo RAW. 

PHOTO OPTIONS 3 — THROUGH A TELESCOPE

While I think the tracked wide-field options are some of the best for this eclipse, many photographers will want frame-filling close-ups of the red Moon. While a telescope will do the job, unless it has motors to track the sky, your options are limited.

Phone on a simple Dobsonian reflector.

A phone clamped to the eyepiece of a telescope can capture the shrinking bright part of the eclipsed Moon as the Moon enters more deeply into the umbra. Exposures for the bright part of the Moon are short enough a motor drive on the telescope is not essential. 

But if you haven’t shot the Moon with this gear before, eclipse night is not the time to learn. Practice on the Moon before the eclipse. 

DSLR on a beginner refractor telescope showing the adapter.

For shooting with a DSLR camera through a telescope you’ll need a special camera adapter nosepiece and T-ring for your camera. Again, if you don’t have the gear and the experience doing this, I would suggest not making the attempt at two in the morning on eclipse night! 

DSLR on a beginner reflector with an often necessary Barlow lens.

For example, owners of typical beginner reflectors are often surprised to find their cameras won’t even reach focus on their telescope. Many are simply not designed for photography. Adding a Barlow lens is required for the camera to reach focus, though without a drive, exposures will be limited to short (under 1/15s) shots of the bright part of the Moon.

An exposure composite of short and long exposures.

The challenge with this and all lunar eclipses is that the Moon presents a huge range of brightness. Short snapshots can capture the bright part of the Moon not in the umbra, but the dark umbral-shaded portion requires much longer exposures, usually over one second. 

Your eye can see the whole scene (as depicted above) but the camera cannot, not in one exposure. This example is a “high dynamic range” blend of several exposures. 

A series of the September 27, 2015 total lunar eclipse to demonstrate an exposure sequence from partial to total phase.

Plus as the eclipse progresses, longer and longer exposures are needed to capture the sequence as the Moon is engulfed by more of the umbra. 

After mid-eclipse, the exposures must get progressively shorter again in reverse order. So attempting to capture an entire sequence requires a lot of exposure adjustments. 

TIP: Bracket a lot! Take lots of frames at each burst of images shot every minute, or however often you wish to capture the progress of the eclipse for a final set. Unlike total solar eclipses, lunar eclipses provide lots of time to take lots of images. 

PHOTO OPTIONS 4 — THROUGH A TRACKING TELESCOPE

If you want close-ups of the eclipsed red Moon, you will need to use a mount equipped with a tracking motor, such as an equatorial mount shown here. But for use with telephoto lenses and short telescopes, a polar-aligned sky tracker, as above, will work. 

A small apo refractor on an equatorial mount with typical settings for mid-eclipse.

Exposures can now be several seconds long, and at a lower ISO speed for less noise, allowing the Moon to be captured in sharp detail and with great colour. Long exposures will even pick up stars near the Moon. 

However, when shooting close-ups, use the Lunar drive rate (if your mount offers that choice) to follow the Moon itself, as it has a motion of its own against the background stars. It’s that orbital motion that takes it from west to east (right to left) through the Earth’s shadow. 

The fields of view and size of the Moon’s disk with typical telescope focal lengths.

Filling the camera frame with the Moon requires a surprising amount of focal length. The Moon appears big to our eyes, but is only 1/2º across. 

Even with 800mm of focal length, the Moon fills only a third of a full frame camera field. Using a cropped frame camera has the advantage of tightening the field of view, but it still takes 1200mm to 1500mm of focal length to fill the frame. 

But I wouldn’t worry about doing so, as longer focal lengths typically also come with slower f-ratios, requiring longer exposure times or higher ISOs, both of which can blur detail. 

A camera on an alt-azimuth GoTo Schmidt-Cassegrain.

For close-ups, a polar-aligned equatorial mount is best. But if your telescope is a GoTo telescope on an alt-azimuth mount (such as a Schmidt-Cassegrain shown here), you should be able to get good shots.

The field of view will slowly rotate during the eclipse, making it more difficult to later accurately assemble a series of shots documenting the entire sequence. 

But any one shot should be fine, though it might be best to keep exposures shorter by using a higher ISO speed. As always, take lots of shots at different settings. 

You won’t be able to tell which is sharpest until you inspect them later at the computer.

TIP: People worry about exposures, but the flaw that ruins many eclipse shots is poor focus. Use Live View to focus carefully on the sharp edge of the bright part of the Moon. Or better yet, focus on a bright star nearby. Zoom up to 10x to make it easier to see when the star is in sharpest focus. It can be a good idea to refocus through the night as the changing temperature can shift the focus point of long lenses and telescopes. That might take moving the scope over to a bright star, which won’t be possible if you need to preserve the framing for a composite. 

PHOTO OPTIONS 5 — HDR COMPOSITES

Using an equatorial mount tracking at the lunar rate keeps the Moon stationary. This opens up the possibility of taking a series of shots over the wide range of exposures needed to capture the Moon from bright to dark, to assemble later in processing. Take 5 to 7 shots in quick succession. 

An HDR composite from the December 2010 eclipse.

High dynamic range software can blend the images, or use luminosity masks created by extension panels for Photoshop such as Lumenzia, TK8 or Raya Pro. Either technique can create a final image that looks like what your eye saw. The key is making sure all the images are aligned. HDR software likely won’t align them for you very well.

The January 2019 eclipse layered and blended in Photoshop.

Blending multiple exposures will also be needed to properly capture the eclipsed Moon below the Pleiades, similar to what I show here (and below) from the January 2019 eclipse when the Moon appeared near the Beehive star cluster. 

PHOTO OPTIONS 6 — ECLIPSE TRACK COMPOSITES

Another popular form of eclipse image (though also one rife for laughably inaccurate fakes) is capturing the entire path of the Moon across the sky over the duration of the eclipse from start to end. 

The track of the September 2015 eclipse, accurately assembled to correct scale.

It can be done with a fixed camera on a tripod but requires a wide (14mm to 20mm) and properly framed lens, to capture the sequence as it actually appeared to proper scale, and not created by just pasting over-sized moons onto a sky to “simulate” the scene, usually badly. By the end of the day on November 19 the internet will be filled with such ugly fakes. 

You could set the camera at one exposure setting (one best for when the Moon and sky are darkest at mid-eclipse) and let the camera run, shooting frames every 5 seconds or so. The result might work well as a time-lapse sequence, showing the bright sky darkening, then brightening again. 

But chances are the frames taken at the start and end when the sky is lit by full moonlight will be blown out. It will still take some manual camera adjustments through the eclipse. 

For a still-image composite, you should instead expose properly for the Moon’s disk at all times, a setting that will change every few minutes, then take a long exposure at mid-eclipse to pick up the stars and Milky Way. The short Moon shots are then blended into the base-layer sky image later in processing. 

Framing the eclipse path for the start of the sequence.
Framing the path so the Moon ends up at a desired location on the frame.

If the camera has been well-framed and was not moved over the 3.5 hours of the eclipse, the result is an accurate and authentic record of the Moon’s path and passage into the shadow, and not a faked atrocity! 

But creating a real image requires a lot of work at the camera, and at the computer. 

TIP: Shooting for composites is not work I would recommend attempting while also running other cameras. Focus on one type of image and get it right, rather than trying to do too many and doing them all poorly. 

PHOTO OPTION 7 — ECLIPSE SHADOW COMPOSITE

One of the most striking types of lunar eclipse images is a close-up composite showing the Moon passing through the Earth’s umbral shadow, with the arc of the shadow edge on the Moon defining the extent of the shadow, which is about three times larger than the Moon.

Such a composite can be re-created later by placing individual exposures accurately on a wider canvas, using screen shots from planetarium software as a template guide. 

A composite of the Moon moving through the umbra.

But to create an image that is more accurate, it is possible to do it “in camera.” Unlike in the film days, we don’t have to do it with multiple exposures onto one piece of film. 

We take lots of separate frames with a telescope or lens wide enough to contain the entire path of the Moon through the umbra. A polar-aligned equatorial mount tracking at the sidereal rate is essential. That way the scope follows the stars, not the Moon, and so the Moon travels across the frame from right to left. 

Framing for a shadow composite.

Start such a sequence with the Moon at lower right if you are framing just the path through the shadow. Use planetarium software (I used Starry Night™ to create the star charts for this blog) to plan the framing for your camera, lens and site, so the Moon ends up in the middle of the frame at mid-eclipse. This is not a technique for the faint of heart!  

A shadow-defining composite from January 2019, with the Moon near the Beehive cluster.

An interesting variation would be using a 200mm to 250mm lens to frame the Moon’s shadow passage below the Pleiades, to create an image as above. That will be unique. Again, an accurately aligned tracker turning at the sidereal rate will be essential.

Acquiring the frames for any composite takes constantly adjusting the exposure during the length of eclipse, which can try your patience and gear during the wee hours of the morning. 

I’ll be happy just to get a good set of images at mid-eclipse to make a single composite of the red Moon below the Pleiades. 

TIP: It could be cold and lenses can frost over. A battery-powered heater coil on the optics might be essential. And spare warm batteries.

The 4-day-old waxing crescent Moon on April 8, 2019 in a blend of 7 exposures from 1/30 second to 2 seconds, blended with luminosity masks in Photoshop.

PRACTICE!

To test your equipment and your skills at focusing, you can use the waning crescent Moon in the dawn hours on the mornings of October 29 to November 2 or, after New Moon on November 4, the waxing crescent Moon on the evenings of November 6 to 10. While the crescent Moon isn’t as bright as the Full Moon, it will be a good stand in for the bright part of the eclipsed Moon when it is deep in the umbra. 

Even better, the dark part of the crescent Moon lit by Earthshine is a good stand-in for the part of the Moon in the umbra. Like the eclipsed Moon, the crescent Moon’s bright and dark parts can’t be captured in one exposure. So it’s a good test for the range of exposures you’ll need for the eclipse, for practising changing settings on your camera, and for checking your tracking system.  

The crescent Moon is also useful to test your manual focusing, though the sharp detail along the terminator (the line dividing the bright crescent from the earthlit dark part of the Moon) is much easier to focus on than the flat, low contrast Full Moon.

A selfie of me looking up at the total eclipse of the Moon on January 20, 2019, using binoculars to enjoy the view.

DON’T FORGET TO LOOK!

Amid all the effort needed to shoot this or any eclipse, lunar or solar, don’t forget to just look at it. No photo can ever quite capture the glowing nature of the eclipsed Moon set against the stars. 

A selfie of the successful eclipse chaser bagging his trophy, the total lunar eclipse of January 20, 2019.

I wish you clear skies and good luck with your lunar eclipse photography. If you miss it, we have two more visible from North America next year, both total eclipses, on May 15/16 and November 8, 2022. 

— Alan, www.amazingsky.com 

How to Photograph the Great Conjunction


On December 21 we have a chance to see and shoot a celestial event that no one has seen since the year 1226. 

As Jupiter and Saturn each orbit the Sun, Jupiter catches up to slower moving Saturn and passes it every 20 years. For a few days the two giant planets appear close together in our sky. The last time this happened was in 2000, but with the planets too close to the Sun to see. 

Back on February 18, 1961 the two planets appeared within 14 arc minutes or 0.23° (degrees) of each other low in the dawn sky. 

But on December 21 they will pass each other only 6 arc minutes apart. To find a conjunction that close and visible in a darkened sky you have to go all the way back to March 5, 1226 when Jupiter passed only 3 arc minutes above Saturn at dawn. Thus the media headlines of a “Christmas Star” no one has seen for 800 years! 

Photographing the conjunction will be a challenge precisely because the planets will be so close to each other. Here are several methods I can suggest, in order of increasing complexity and demands for specialized gear. 


Easy — Shooting Nightscapes with Wide Lenses

This shows the field of view of various lenses on full-frame cameras (red outlines) and a 200mm lens with 1.4x tele-extender on a cropped frame camera (blue outline). The date is December 17 when the waxing crescent Moon also appears near the planet pair for a bonus element in a nightscape image.

Conjunctions of planets in the dusk or dawn twilight are usually easy to capture. Use a wide-angle (24mm) to short telephoto (85mm) lens to frame the scene and exposures of no more than a few seconds at ISO 200 to 400 with the lens at f/2.8 to f/4. 

The sky and horizon might be bright enough to allow a camera’s autoexposure and autofocus systems to work. 

Indeed, in the evenings leading up to and following the closest approach date of December 21 that’s a good method to use. Capture the planet pair over a scenic landscape or urban skyline to place them in context. 

For most locations the planets will appear no higher than about 15° to 20° above the southwestern horizon as it gets dark enough to see and shoot them, at about 5 p.m. local time. A 50mm lens on a full-frame camera (or a 35mm lens on a cropped frame camera) will frame the scene well. 

This was Jupiter and Saturn on December 3, 2020 from the Elbow Falls area on the Elbow River in the Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary. This is a blend of 4 untracked images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 30 seconds each, and one untracked image for the bright sky for 15 seconds to preserve colours and highlights, all with the 24mm Sigma lens and Canon EOS Ra at ISO 200.

NIGHTSCAPE TIP — Use planetarium software such as Stellarium (free), SkySafari, or StarryNight (what I used here) to simulate the framing with your lens and camera. Use that software to determine where the planets will be in azimuth, then use a photo planning app such as PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan where to be to place the planets over the scene you want at that azimuth (they’ll be at about 220° to 230° — in the southwest — for northern latitude sites). 

My ebook linked to at right has pages of tips and techniques for shooting nightscapes and time-lapses. 

This was Jupiter and Saturn on December 10, 2020 from Red Deer River valley, north of Drumheller, Alberta. This is a blend of 4 images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 20 seconds each at f/5.6, and a single image for the sky for 5 seconds at f/2.8, all with the 35mm Canon lens and Canon EOS Ra at ISO 400. All untracked.

Harder — Shooting With Longer Lenses

The planet pair will sink lower and closer to the horizon, to set about 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. local time each night. 

As the sky darkens and the planet altitude decreases you can switch to ever-longer lenses to zoom in on the scene and still frame the planets above a carefully-chosen horizon, assuming you have very clear skies free of haze and cloud. 

For example, by 6 p.m. they will be low enough to allow a 135mm telephoto to frame the planets and still have the horizon in the frame. Using a longer lens has the benefit or resolving the two planets better, showing them as two distinct objects, which will become more of a challenge the closer you are to December 21. 

On December 21 wide-angle and even short telephoto lenses will likely show the two planets as an unresolved point of light, no brighter than Jupiter on its own.

On closest approach day the planets will be so close that using a wide-angle or even a normal lens might only show them as an unresolved blob of light. You’ll need more focal length to split the planets well into two objects. 

However, using longer focal lengths introduces a challenge — the motion of the sky will cause the planets to trail during long exposures, turning them from points into streaks. That trailing will get more noticeable more quickly the longer the lens you use. 

A rule-of-thumb says the longest exposure you can employ before trailing becomes apparent is 500 / the focal length of the lens. So for a 200mm lens, maximum exposure is 500 / 200 = 2.5 seconds. 

To be conservative, a “300 Rule” might be better, restricting exposures with a 200mm telephoto to 300 / 200 = 1.5 seconds. Now, 1.5 seconds might be long enough for the scene, especially if you use a fast lens wide open at f/2.8 or f/2 and a faster ISO such as 400 or 800. 

This shows the motion of Jupiter relative to Saturn from December 17 to 25, with the outer frame representing the field of view of a 200mm lens and 1.4x tele-extender on a cropped frame camera. The smaller frame shows the field of a telescope with an effective focal length of 1,200mm.

TELEPHOTO TIP — Be sure to focus carefully using Live View to manually focus on a magnified image of the planets. And refocus through an evening of shooting. While people fuss about getting the one “correct” exposure, it is poor focus that ruins more astrophotos. 


Even More Demanding — Tracking Longer Lenses 

This one popular sky tracker, the iOptron SkyGuider Pro, here with a telephoto lens. It and other trackers such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer seen in the opening image, can be used with lenses and telescopes up to about 300mm focal length, if they are balanced well. Even longer lenses might work for the short exposures needed for the planets, but vibration and wind can blur images.

However, longer exposures might be needed later in the evening when the sky is darker, to set the planets into a starry background. After December 17 we will have a waxing Moon in the evening sky to light the sky and foreground, so the sky will not be dark, even from a rural site. 

Even so, to ensure untrailed images with long telephotos — and certainly with telescopes — you will need to employ a sky tracker, a device to automatically turn the camera to follow the sky. If you don’t have one, it’s probably too late to get one and learn how to use it! But if you have one, here’s a great opportunity to put it to use. 

Polar align it (you’ll have to wait for it to get dark enough to see the North Star) and then use it to take telephoto close-up images of the planets with exposure times that can now be as long as you like, though they likely won’t need to be more than 10 to 20 seconds. 

You can now also use a slower ISO speed for less noise. 

TRACKER TIP — Use a telephoto to frame just the planets, or include some foreground content such as a hilltop, if it can be made to fit in the frame. Keep in mind that the foreground will now blur from the tracking, which might not be an issue. If it is, take exposures of the foreground with the tracker motor off, to blend in later in processing. 


The Most Difficult Method — Using a Telescope

An alt-azimuth mounted GoTo scope like this Celestron SE6 can work for short exposures of the planets, provided it is aligned and is tracking properly. Good focus will be critical.

Capturing the rare sight of the planets as two distinct disks (not just dots of light) accompanied by their moons, all together in the same frame, is possible anytime between now and the end of the year. 

But … resolving the disks of the planets takes focal length — a lot of focal length! And that means using a telescope on a mount that can track the stars. 

While a sky tracker might work, they are not designed to handle long and heavy lenses and telescopes. You’d need a telescope on a solid mount, though it could be a “GoTo” telescope on an alt-azimuth mount. Such a mount, while normally not suited for long-exposure deep-sky imaging, will be fine for the short exposures needed for the planets.

You will need to attach your camera to the telescope using a camera adapter, so the scope becomes the lens. If you have never done this, to shoot closeups of the Moon for example, and don’t have the right adapters and T-rings, then this isn’t the time to learn how to do it.

A simulation of the view with a 1,200mm focal length telescope on December 21. Even with such a focal length the planet disks still appear small.

TELESCOPE TIP — As an alternative, it might be possible to shoot the planets using a phone camera clamped to the low-power eyepiece of a telescope, but focusing and setting the exposure can be tough. It might not be worth the fuss in the brief time you have in twilight, perhaps on the one clear night you get! Just use your telescope to look and enjoy the view! 

But if you have experience shooting the Moon through your telescope with your DSLR or mirrorless camera, then you should be all set, as the gear and techniques to shoot the planets are the same. 

This is the setup I might use for a portable rig best for a last-minute chase to clear skies. It’s a Sky-Watcher EQM-35 mount with a 105mm apo refractor (the long-discontinued Astro-Physics Traveler), and here with a 2x Barlow to double the effective focal length to 1,200mm.

However, once again the challenge is just how close the planets are going to get to each other. Even a telescope with a focal length of 1200mm (typical for a small scope) still gives a field of view 1° wide using a cropped frame camera. That’s 60 arc minutes, ten times the 6 arc minute separation of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21! 

TELESCOPE TIP — Use a 2x or 3x Barlow lens if needed to increase the effective focal length of the scope. Beware that introducing a Barlow into the light path usually requires racking the focus out and/or adding extension tubes to reach focus. Test your configuration as soon as possible to make sure you can focus it. 

TELESCOPE TIP — With such long focal lengths shoot lots of exposures. Some will be sharper than others. 

TELESCOPE TIP — But be sure to focus precisely, and refocus over the hour or so you might be shooting, as changing temperatures will shift the focus. You can’t fix bad focus! 

Jupiter and Saturn in the same telescope field on December 5, 2020. Some of the moons are visible in this exposure taken in twilight before the planets got too low in the southwest. This is a single exposure with a 130mm Astro-Physics apo refractor at f/6 (so 780mm focal length) for 4 seconds at ISO 200 with the Canon 6D MkII. The disks of the planets are overexposed to bring out the moons.

Short exposures under one second might be needed to keep the planet disks from overexposing. Capturing the moons of Jupiter (it has four bright moons) and Saturn (it has two, Titan and Rhea, that are bright) will require exposures of several seconds. Going even longer will pick up background stars.

Or … with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, try shooting HD or 4K movies. They will likely demand a high and noisy ISO, but might capture the view more like you saw and remember it. 

FINAL TIP — Whatever combination of gear you decide to use, test it! Don’t wait until December 21 to see if it works, nor ask me if I think such-and-such a mount, telescope or technique will work. Test for yourself to find out.

Jupiter and Saturn taken in the deep twilight on December 3, 2020 from the Allen Bill flats area on the Elbow River in the Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary, Alberta. This is a blend of 4 untracked images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 2 minutes each at ISO 400, and two tracked images for the sky (and untrailed stars) for 30 seconds each at ISO 400, all with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon EOS Ra. The tracker was the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i.

Don’t Fret or Compete. Enjoy! 

The finest images will come from experienced planetary imagers using high-frame-rate video cameras to shoot movies, from which software extracts and stacks the sharpest frames. Again, if you have no experience with doing that (I don’t!), this is not the time to learn! 

And even the pros will have a tough time getting sharp images due to the planets’ low altitude, even from the southern hemisphere, where some pro imagers have big telescopes at their disposal, to get images no one else in the world can compete with!

In short, use the gear you have and techniques you know to capture this unique event as best you can. And if stuff fails, just enjoy the view! 

Jupiter and Saturn taken December 3, 2020 from the Allen Bill flats area on the Elbow River in the Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary, Alberta. This is a blend of 4 untracked images for the dark ground, stacked to smooth noise, for 2 minutes each at ISO 400, and two tracked images for the sky for 30 seconds at ISO 1600, all with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon EOS Ra. The tracker was the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i.

If you miss closest approach day due to cloud, don’t worry. 

Even when shooting with telephoto lenses the photo ops will be better in the week leading up to and following December 21, when the greater separation of the planets will make it easier to capture a dramatic image of the strikingly close pairing of planets over an Earthly scene. 

Clear skies! 

— Alan, © 2020 AmazingSky.com 

How to Photograph the Geminid Meteor Shower


The annual Geminid meteor shower peaks under ideal conditions this year, providing a great photo opportunity. 

The Geminids is the best meteor shower of the year, under ideal conditions capable of producing rates of 80 to 120 meteors an hour, higher than the more widely observed Perseids in August. And this year conditions are ideal! 

The Perseids get better PR because they occur in summer. For most northern observers the Geminids demand greater dedication and warm clothing to withstand the cool, if not bitterly cold night. 

A Good Year for Geminids

While the Geminids occur every year, many years are beset by a bright Moon or poor timing. This year conditions couldn’t be better:

• The shower peaks on the night of December 13-14 right at New Moon, so there’s no interference from moonlight at any time on peak night.

• The shower peaks in the early evening of December 13 for North America, about 8 p.m. EST (5 p.m. PST). This produces a richer shower than if it peaked in the daytime hours, as it can in some years. 

The two factors make this the best year for the Geminids since 2017 when I shot all the images here. 

A composite of the 2017 Geminid meteor shower looking east to the radiant point. This is a stack of 40 images, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. The images are the 40 frames with meteors out of 357 taken over 3.25 hours. The ground is a stack of 8 images, mean combined to smooth noise. The background base-image sky is from one exposure. The camera was on a fixed tripod, not tracking the sky. I rotated and moved each image in relation to the base image and around Polaris at upper left, in order to place each meteor at approximately the correct position in relation to the background stars, to preserve the effect of the meteors streaking from the radiant near Castor at centre.

What Settings to Use?

To capture the Geminids, as is true of any meteor shower, you need:

  • A good DSLR or mirrorless camera set to ISO 1600 to 6400.
  • A fast, wide-angle lens (14mm to 24mm) set to f/2.8 or wider, perhaps f/2. Slow f/4 to f/.6 kit zooms are not very suitable.
  • Exposures of 30 to 60 seconds each.
  • An intervalometer to fire the shutter automatically with no more than 1 second between exposures. As soon as one exposure ends and the shutter closes, the next exposure begins. 
  • Take hundreds of images over as long a time period as you can on peak night.
Use an intervalometer to control the shutter speed, with the camera on Bulb. Set the interval to one second to minimize the time the shutter is closed.

Out of hundreds of images, a dozen or more should contain a meteor! You increase your chances by using:

  • A high ISO, so the meteor records in the brief second or two it appears.
  • A wide aperture, to again increase the light-gathering ability of the lens for those fainter meteors.
  • A wide-angle lens so you capture as much area of sky as possible. 
  • Running two or more cameras aimed at different spots, perhaps to the east and south to maximize sky coverage.
  • A minimum interval between exposures. Increase the interval to more than a second and you know it’s during that “dark time” when the shutter is closed that the brightest meteor of the night will occur. Keep the shutter open as much as possible.
This sky chart looking east for December 13, 2020 shows the position of the radiant and the constellation of Gemini at about 7 p.m. local time. Orion is just rising in the east.

When to Shoot?

The radiant point of the shower meteors in Gemini rises in the early evening, so you might see some long, slow Earth-grazing meteors early in the night, streaking out of the east.

For Europe the peak of the shower occurs in the middle of the night of December 13/14. 

For North America, despite the peak occurring in the early evening hours, meteors will be visible all night and will likely be best after your local midnight.

So wherever you are, start shooting as the night begins and keep shooting for as long as you and your camera can withstand the cold! 

A single bright meteor from the Geminid meteor shower of December 2017, dropping toward the horizon in Ursa Major. Gemini itself and the radiant of the shower is at top centre. It is one frame from a 700-frame sequence for stacking and time-lapses. The ground is a mean stack of 8 frames to smooth noise. Exposures were 30 seconds at ISO 6400 with the Rokinon 14mm lens at f/2.5 and Canon 6D MkII.

Where to Go?

To take advantage of the moonless night, get away from urban light pollution to as dark a sky as you can. Preferably, put the major urban skyglow to the west or north. 

While from brightly lit locations the very brightest meteors will show up, they are the rarest, so you’d be fortunate to capture one in a night of shooting from a city or town. 

From a dark site, you can use longer exposures, wider apertures and higher ISOs to boost your chances of capturing more and fainter meteors. Plus the Milky Way will show up. 

The Geminid meteor shower of December 13, 2017 in a view framing the winter Milky Way from Auriga (at top) to Puppis (at bottom) with Gemini itself, the radiant of the shower at left, and Orion at right. The view is looking southeast. This is a composite stack of one base image with the brightest meteor, then 20 other images layered in each with a meteor. The camera was not tracking the sky, so I rotated and moved each of the layered-in frames so that their stars mroe or less aligned with the base layer. The images for this composite were taken over 107 minutes, with 22 images containing meteors picked from 196 images in total over that time. Each exposure was 30 seconds with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens at f/2.5 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400.

Where to Aim?

You can aim a camera any direction, even to the west. 

But aiming east to frame the constellation of Gemini (marked by the twin stars Castor and Pollux) will include the radiant point, perhaps capturing the effect of meteors streaking away from that point, especially if you stack multiple images into one composite, as most of my images here are. 

The Star Adventurer star tracker, on its optional equatorial wedge to aid precise polar alignment of its motorized rotation axis.

Using a Tracker

Using a star tracker such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer shown here, makes it possible to obtain images with stars that remain untrailed even in 1- or 2-minute exposures. The sky remains framed the same through hours of shooting, making it much easier to align and stack the images for a multi-meteor composite. 

A tracked composite showing the 2017 Geminid meteors streaking from the radiant point in Gemini at upper left. This is a stack of 43 exposures, each 1-minute with the 24mm Canon lens at f/2.5 and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera at ISO 6400, set fast to pick up the fainter meteors. These were 43 exposures with meteors (some with 2 or 3 per frame) out of 455 taken over 5 hours. The background sky comes from just one of the exposures. All the other frames are masked to show just the meteor.

However, a tracker requires accurate polar alignment of its rotation axis (check its instruction manual to learn how to do this) or else the images will gradually shift out of alignment through a long shoot. Using Photoshop’s Auto-Align feature or specialized stacking programs can bring frames back into registration. But good polar alignment is still necessary. 

If you aim east you can frame a tracked set so the first images include the ground. The camera frame will move away from the ground as it tracks the rising sky. 

A composite of the 2017 Geminid meteor shower, from the peak night of December 13, with the radiant in Gemini, at top, high overhead. So meteors appear to be raining down to the horizon. This was certainly the visual impression. This is a stack of 24 images, some with 2 or 3 meteors per frame, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the Rokinon 14mm SP lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 6400. The images are the 24 frames with meteors out of 171 taken over 94 minutes. The ground is a stack of 8 images, mean combined to smooth noise. The background base-image sky is from one exposure. The camera was on a fixed tripod, not tracking the sky.

Using a Tripod and Untracked Camera

The simpler method for shooting is to just use a camera (or two!) on a fixed tripod, and keep exposures under about 30 seconds to minimize star trailing. That might mean using a higher ISO than with tracked images, especially with slower lenses. 

The work comes in post-processing, as stacking untracked images will produce a result with meteors streaking in many different orientation and locations, ruining the effect of meteors bursting from a single radiant. 

To make it easier to stack untracked images, try to include Polaris in the field of the wide-angle lens, perhaps in the upper left corner. The sky rotates around Polaris, so it will form the easy-to-identify point around which you can manually rotate images in editing to bring them back into at least rough alignment.

Covering the steps to composite tracked and untracked meteor shower images is beyond the purview of this blog. 

But I cover the process in multi-step tutorials in my How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook, linked to above. 

The images shown here were layered, masked and blended with those steps and are used as examples in the book’s tutorials. 

A trio of Geminid meteors over the Chiricahua Mountains in southeast Arizona, with Orion and the winter stars setting. I shot this at the end of the night of December 13/14, 2017 with the rising waxing crescent Moon providing some ground illumination. This is a stack of one image for the ground and two fainter meteors, and another image with the bright meteor. The camera was on a Star Adventurer Mini tracker so the stars are not trailed, though the ground will be slightly blurred. All were 30-second exposures at f/2.8 with the 24mm Canon lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 5000.

Keeping Warm

Keeping yourself warm is important. But your camera is going to get cold. It should work fine but its battery will die sooner than it would on a warm night. Check it every hour, and have spare, warm batteries ready to swap in when needed.

Lenses can frost up. The only way to prevent this is with low-voltage heater coils, such as the DewDestroyer from David Lane. It works very well. Other types are available on Amazon. 

Good luck and happy meteor hunting!

— Alan, December 2, 2020 / © 2020 AmazingSky.com 

 

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