Prospects looked bleak for seeing the January 31 total eclipse of the Moon. A little planning, a chase, and a lot of luck made it possible.
A mid-winter eclipse doesn’t bode well. Especially one in the cold dawn hours. Skies could be cloudy. Or, if they are clear, temperatures could be -25° C.
I managed to pull this one off, not just seeing the eclipse of the Moon, but getting a few photos.
The secret was in planning, using some helpful apps …
Because this eclipse was occurring before dawn for western North America the eclipsed Moon was going to be in the west, setting.
To plan any shoot the first app I turn to is the desktop planetarium program Starry Night™.
Shown above, the program simulates the eclipse with the correct timing, accurate appearance, and location in the sky at your site. You can set up indicators for the fields of various lenses, to help you pick a lens. The yellow box shows the field of view of a 50mm lens on my full-frame camera, essential information for framing the scene.
With that information in mind, the plan was to shoot the Moon over the Rocky Mountains, which lie along the western border of Alberta.
The original plan was a site in Banff on the Bow Valley Parkway looking west toward the peaks of the Divide.
But then the next critical information was the weather.
Not good! Home on the prairies was not an option. While Banff looked OK, the best prospects were from farther south in the Crowsnest Pass area of Alberta, as marked. So a chase was in order, involving a half-day drive south.
But what actual site was going to be useful? Where could I set up for the shot I wanted?
I needed a spot off a main highway but drivable to, and with no trees in the way. I did not know the area, but Allison Road looked like a possibility.
The TPE app shows the direction to the Sun and Moon to help plan images by day. And in its night mode it can show where the Milky Way is. Here, the thin blue line is showing the direction to the Moon during totality, showing it to the south of Mt. Tecumseh. I wanted the Moon over the mountains, but not behind a mountain!
With a possible site picked out, it was time to take a virtual drive with Google Earth.
The background map TPE uses is from Google Earth. But the actual Google Earth app also offers the option of a Street View for many locations.
Above is its view from along Allison Road, on the nice summer day when the Google camera car made the drive. But at least this confirms there are no obstructions or ugly elements to spoil the scene, or trees to block the view.
But there’s nothing like being there to be sure. It looks a little different in winter!
After driving down to the Crowsnest Pass the morning before, the first order of the day upon arrival was to go to the site before it got dark, to see if it was usable.
I used the mobile app Theodolite to take images (above) that superimpose the altitude and azimuth (direction) where the camera was aimed. It confirms the direction where the Moon will be is in open sky to the left of Tecumseh peak. And the on-site inspection shows I can park there!
There is one more new and very powerful app that provides another level of planning. From The Photographer’s Ephemeris, you can hand off your position to a companion mobile app (for iOS only) called TPE 3D …
It provides elevation maps and places you on site, with the actual skyline around you drawn in. And with the Moon and stars in the sky at their correct positions.
While it doesn’t simulate the actual eclipse, it sure shows an accurate sky … and what you’ll frame with your lens with the actual skyline in place.
Compare the simulation, above, to the real thing, below:
Zooming out with TPE 3D provides this preview of a panorama I hoped to take.
It shows Cassiopeia (the W of stars at right) over the iconic Crowsnest Mountain, and the stars of Gemini setting to the right of Tecumseh.
Here’s the real thing, in an even wider 180° view sweeping from south to north. Again, just as predicted!
Between the weather predictions – which proved spot on – and the geographical and astronomical planning apps – which were deadly accurate – we now have incredible tools to make it easier to plan the shot.
If only we could control the clouds! As it was, the Moon was in and out of clouds throughout the 70 minutes of totality. But I was happy to just get a look, let alone a photo.
The next total lunar eclipse is in six months, on July 27, 2018, but in an event visible only from the eastern hemisphere.
The next TLE for North America is a more convenient evening event on January 20, 2019. That will be another winter eclipse requiring careful planning!
New Year’s Day proved to be a busy one for sky sights from home in southern Alberta.
Clear skies and warming temperatures allowed me to capture a trio of sights on January 1: Mercury in the morning, a unique mirage called the Fata Morgana in the afternoon, and the rising Full Moon in the evening.
On January 1 elusive Mercury was at its greatest elongation away from the Sun in the morning sky. This placed it as high as it can get above the horizon, though that’s not high at all at the best of times.
I captured Mercury before dawn as a bright star in the colourful twilight, using a telephoto lens to frame the scene more closely.
At this time the temperature outside was still about -24° C, as a cold snap that had plunged the prairies into frigid air for the last week still held its grip.
But by the afternoon, warmer air was drifting in from the west, in a Chinook flow from the Rockies.
As evidence of the change, the air exhibited a form of mirage called the Fata Morgana, named after the sorceress Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend. The illusion of castles in the air was thought to be a spell cast by her to lure sailors to their doom.
The mirage produced the illusion of bodies of water in the distance, plus distorted, elongated forms of wind turbines and farm buildings on the horizon. The cause is the refraction of light by layers of warm air aloft, above cold air near the ground.
By evening the mirage effect was still in place, producing a wonderful moonrise with the Full Moon writhing and rippling as it rose through the temperature inversion.
As the lead image at top shows, at moments the top of the disk had a green rim (almost a distinct green flash), while the bottom was tinted red.
Here’s a short time-lapse video of the scene, shot through a small telescope. The lead image above and below is a composite of four of the frames from this movie.
This was also the largest and closest Full Moon of the year, what has become popularly called a “supermoon,” but more correctly called a perigean Full Moon.
A lunar cycle from now, at the next Full Moon, the Moon undergoes a total eclipse in the dawn hours of January 31 for western North America. This will be another misnamed Moon, a “blue Moon,” the label for the second Full Moon in a calendar month.
And some will also be calling it a “supermoon,” as it also occurs close to perigee – the closest point of the Moon to Earth in its monthly orbit – but not as close a perigee as it was at on January 1.
So it will be less than super, but it will nevertheless be spectacular as the Full “blue” Moon turns red as it travels through Earth’s shadow.
I could not have asked for a more perfect night for a lunar eclipse. It doesn’t get any better!
On Sunday, September 27, the Moon was eclipsed for the fourth time in two years, the last in a “tetrad” of total lunar eclipses that we’ve enjoyed at six-month intervals since April 2014. This was the best one by far.
The timing was perfect for me in Alberta, with the Moon rising in partial eclipse (above), itself a fine photogenic site.
In the top image you can see the rising Moon embedded in the blue band of Earth’s shadow on our atmosphere, and also entering Earth’s shadow on its lunar disk. This was a perfect alignment, as lunar eclipses must be.
For my earthly location I drove south to near the Montana border, to a favourite location, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, to view the eclipse over the sandstone formations of the Milk River.
More importantly, weather forecasts for the area called for perfectly clear skies, a relief from the clouds forecast – and which did materialize – at home to the north, and would have been a frustration to say the least. Better to drive 3 hours!
This was the second lunar eclipse I viewed from Writing-on-Stone, having chased clear skies to here in the middle of the night for the October 8, 2014 eclipse.
I shot with three cameras: one doing a time-lapse through the telescope, one doing a wide-angle time-lapse of the Moon rising, and the third for long-exposure tracked shots during totality, of the Moon and Milky Way.
That image is above. It shows the eclipsed Moon at left, with the Milky Way at right, over the Milk River valley and with the Sweetgrass Hills in the distance.
The sky was dark only during the time of totality. As the Moon emerged from Earth’s shadow the sky and landscape lit up again, a wonderful feature of lunar eclipses.
While in the above shot I did layer in a short exposure of the eclipsed Moon into the long exposure of the sky, it is still to accurate scale, unlike many dubious eclipse images I see where giant moons have been pasted into photos, sometimes at least in the right place, but often not.
Lunar eclipses bring out the worst in Photoshop techniques.
Above is a single closeup image taken through the telescope at mid-totality. I exposed for 8 seconds to bring out the colours of the shadow and the background stars, as faint as they were with the Moon in star-poor Pisces.
I shot a couple of thousand frames and processing of those into time-lapses will take a while longer, in particular registering and aligning the 700 I shot at 15-second intervals through the telescope. They show the Moon entering, passing through, then exiting the umbra, while it moves against the background stars.
On Sunday, September 27 the Moon undergoes a total eclipse, the last we’ll see until January 2018.
This is a sky event you don’t want to miss. Whether you photograph it or just enjoy the view, it will be a night to remember, as the Full Moon turns deep red during a total eclipse.
Note — For this article I’m giving times and sky directions for North America. For Europe the eclipse occurs early in the morning of September 28, as the Moon sets into the west. But for here in North America the timing could not be better. Totality occurs in the evening of Sunday, September 27 as the Moon rises into the east.
A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon — and it can only be Full — passes through the shadow cast into space by Earth. The Sun, Earth and Moon are in near-perfect alignment.
All total eclipses of the Moon consist of 3 main parts:
• The initial partial eclipse occurs as the Moon slowly enters the dark central portion of our planet’s shadow, the umbra. This lasts about an hour.
• Totality begins as the entire disk of the Moon is within the umbra. For this eclipse, totality lasts a generous 72 minutes.
• Totality ends as the Moon emerges from the umbra to begin the final partial eclipse lasting another hour.
WHERE TO SEE IT
All of North America, indeed most of the western hemisphere, can see this eclipse. In North America, the farther east you live on the continent the later in your evening the eclipse occurs and the higher the Moon appears in the southeast.
For example, in the Eastern time zone, totality begins at 10:11 p.m. EDT and ends at 11:23 p.m. EDT, with mid-totality is at 10:47 p.m. EDT with the Moon about 35 degrees up, placing it high in the southeast sky for southern Ontario, for example.
For me in the Mountain time zone, the total eclipse begins at 8:11 p.m. MDT and ends at 9:23 p.m. MDT, with mid-totality is at 8:47 p.m. MDT, with the Moon just 13 degrees up in the east from here in southern Alberta. From my time zone, and from most location in the Rocky Mountain regions, the Moon rises with the initial partial phases in progress.
For locations on the west coast viewers miss most of the partial eclipse phase before totality. Instead, the Moon rises as totality begins, making for a more challenging observation. Viewers on the coast will need clear skies and a low horizon to the east, but the reward could be a beautiful sight and images of a red Moon rising.
This eclipse of the Moon is the last in a series of four total lunar eclipses that occurred at six-month intervals over the last two years. We won’t enjoy another such “tetrad” of total lunar eclipses until 2032-33.
But this eclipse is unique in that it also coincides with the annual Harvest Moon, the Full Moon closest to the autumnal equinox. Harvest Moons are known for their orange tint as they rise into what is sometimes a dusty autumn evening.
But what is making internet headlines is that this Full Moon is also the year’s “supermoon,” the Full Moon of 2015 that comes closest to Earth. In recent years these “perigee” Full Moons have been dubbed “supermoons.”
Call it what you will, it does make this Full Moon a little larger than usual, though the difference is virtually impossible to detect by eye. And it makes little difference to the circumstances or appearance of the eclipse itself.
HOW TO SEE IT
Just look up! You can enjoy the eclipse with the unaided eye, and even from within city limits.
Unlike eclipses of the Sun, the eclipsed Moon is perfectly safe to look at with whatever you wish to use to enhance the view. The best views are with binoculars or a telescope at low power.
Look for subtle variations in the red colouring across the disk of the Moon, and even tints of green or blue along the dark edge of the Earth’s advancing or retreating shadow during the partial phases.
If you can, travel to a dark site to enjoy the view of the stars and Milky Way brightening into view as the Full Moon reddens and the night turns dark.
HOW TO SHOOT IT
1. On A Tripod
The easiest method is to use a camera on a tripod, with a remote release to fire the shutter and prevent vibration from blurring the image. What lens you use will depend on how you wish to frame the scene and how high the Moon is in your sky.
From eastern North America you’ll need a wide-angle lens (14mm to 24mm) to frame the eclipsed Moon and the ground below. The Moon will appear as a small red dot.
While you can shoot the Moon with longer focal lengths it takes quite a long lens (>300mm) to really make it worthwhile shooting just the Moon itself isolated in empty sky. Better to include a landscape to put the Moon in context, even if the Moon is small.
From western North America the lower altitude of the Moon allows it to be framed above a scenic landscape with a longer 35mm to 50mm lens, yielding a larger lunar disk.
From the west coast you could use a telephoto lens (135mm to 200mm) to frame the horizon and the eclipsed Moon as it rises for a dramatic photo.
Use Live View (and zoom in at 10x magnification) to manually focus on the horizon, distant lights, or bright stars. The Moon itself my be tough to focus on.
Exposures will depend on how bright your sky is. Use ISO 400 to 800 and try metering the scene as a starting point if your sky is still lit by twilight. Use wide lens apertures (f/4 to f/2) if you can, to keep exposures times as a short as possible.
The apparent motion of the Moon as the sky turns from east to west will blur the image of the Moon in exposures lasting more than a few seconds, especially ones taken with telephoto lenses.
The maximum exposure you can use before trailing sets in is roughly 500 / lens focal length.
2. On a Tracker or Equatorial Mount
If you can track the sky using a motorized tracker or telescope mount, you can take exposures up to a minute or more, to record the red Moon amid a starry sky.
For this type of shot, you’ll need to be at a dark site away from urban light pollution. But during totality the sky will be dark enough that the Milky Way will appear overhead. Use a wide-angle lens to capture the red Moon to the east of the summer Milky Way.
3. Through a Telescope
The most dramatic closeups of the eclipsed red Moon require attaching your camera body (with its lens removed) to a telescope. The telescope becomes the lens, providing a focal length of 600mm or more, far longer than any telephoto lens most of us own.
You’ll need the appropriate “prime focus” camera adapter and, to be blunt, if you don’t have one now, and have never shot the Moon though your telescope then plan on shooting with another method.
But even if you have experience shooting the Moon through your telescope, capturing sharp images of the dim red Moon demand special attention.
The telescope must be on a motorized mount tracking the sky, preferably at the “lunar,” not sidereal, drive rate. Focus on the Moon during the partial phases when it is easier to focus on the bright edge of the Moon.
Exposures during totality typically need to be 5 to 30 seconds at ISO 800 to 3200, depending on the focal ratio of your telescope. Take lots of exposures at various shutter speeds. You have over an hour to get it right!
I’d suggest attempting time-lapses only if you have lots of experience with lunar eclipses.
Exposures can vary tremendously over the partial phases and then into totality. Any time-lapse taken through a telescope, or even with a wide-angle lens, will require a lot of manual attention to ensure each frame is well-exposed as the sky and Moon darken.
However, even if you do not get a complete set of frames suitable for a smooth, continuous time-lapse, selected frames taken every 5 to 10 minutes may work well in creating a multiple-exposure composite (as above), by layering exposures later in Photoshop.
Whatever method – or methods — you use, don’t get so wrapped up in fussing with cameras you forget to simply enjoy the eclipse for the beautiful sight it is.
This is the last total eclipse of the Moon anyone on Earth will see until January 31, 2018. So enjoy the view of the deep red Moon in the autumn sky.
Nothing demonstrates the power of the sky to affect the Earth better than the daily ebb and flow of the tides.
For a few days earlier this week I was fortunate to visit Nova Scotia, to speak at the annual Nova East Star Party.
I took advantage of my visit to Canada’s east coast to shoot time-lapses of one of nature’s most amazing phenomena, the daily pulse of the tides.
The coastal regions around the Bay of Fundy, particularly on the Nova Scotia shore, and around the Minas Basin, experience the highest tides in the world. The range can be as much as 16 metres. Only remote Leaf Basin on Ungava Bay in northern Québec matches the Minas Basin for tidal range.
The reason is not, as is sometimes stated, the funnel shape of the Bay of Fundy, but rather its length. It takes about 12 hours and 25 minutes for an ocean wave to traverse the length of the Bay, equal to the time between successive high tides. This creates a resonance, with the incoming and outgoing waves building upon each other and increasing the height of the twice-a-day tides.
The amount of water moving back and forth is mind-boggling: some 9 to 16 billion tonnes of water flows daily into and out of the Minas Basin alone, enough to tilt the land.
For the time-lapse videos I shot at two locations:
Evangeline Beach on Minas Basin, with vast tidal flats that are engulfed twice a day.
And Halls Harbour on the Fundy shore, a great spot for watching boats go from grounded to afloat in just an hour or so.
I timed my arrival at both sites to be there near lowest tide and shoot for about 3 hours as the tide came in, then stop shooting at about high tide.
Luckily, high tide on both days was about 3 p.m. making for convenient shoots on a summer afternoon. Being just after New Moon, the tides were near their highest.
Earth experiences two tides a day, at an interval of about 12 hours and 25 minutes, with the extra 25 minutes coming from the motion of the Moon around the Earth during that half-day interval. It takes another 25 minutes for us to line up with the Moon again.
But why two tides a day? If the Moon pulls at our water why isn’t there just one high tide, when the Moon is highest in our sky?
The Moon doesn’t pull on just the water. It pulls on everything.
And it isn’t the Moon’s gravity per se that raises the tides, it is the difference in the strength of that gravitational pull across an object.
The side of the Earth closest to the Moon feels the strongest pull, raising the tides on the side facing the Moon. But the Earth itself is also pulled toward the Moon, but to a lesser extent because the centre of our planet lies farther from the Moon.
In effect, the Moon pulls the Earth away from the water on the far side of the Earth, the side away from the Moon. This raises a bulge of water on the other side of our planet, the side that feels the least gravitational pull from the Moon because it is farthest from the Moon.
So as Earth rotates we pass through two tidal bulges, one facing the Moon and one facing away from the Moon.
It wasn’t until Isaac Newton came along in the mid-17th century that we had an explanation for and an ability to predict the tides accurately. Even Galileo got it wrong. It was Newton’s mathematical explanation of how gravity fell off with increasing distance that led to an accurate theory of the tides. See Wikipedia for much more detail.
The tree above is a direct descendent of the famous “Newton’s Apple” tree that inspired his theory of universal gravitation. It is an apple tree on the picturesque grounds of Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and was grown from a cutting from the famous apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor where Newton grew up and took refuge during the outbreak of plague in the cities.
It was during this retreat that, story has it – a story told by Newton himself – that an apple falling on his head inspired him to wonder if the same force that was causing the apple to fall was also keeping the Moon in perpetual orbit around the Earth.
Today, we can turn the pull of the Moon into power, as here at Annapolis Royal where Nova Scotia Power operates the only tidal power station in North America, driven by water pouring into and out of the Annapolis River. The pull of the Moon here generates 20 megawatts of electricity.
New submerged turbines are now being tested in the Minas Basin, using a variety of technologies. A previous underwater turbine at the same site was ripped to pieces by the force of the water. Harnessing the tides is not so easy.
Tide watchers take note: The Full “supermoon” of September 27 (when there is also a total eclipse of the Moon) will be especially close. Favourable geometry will raise the highest tides in 18 years in the two days that follow the Full Moon.
The Moon truly has the power to move the waters and the Earth.
The Full Moon of March 5 will be the smallest and most distant Full Moon of 2015.
In recent years there’s been a huge ado about “supermoons,” the largest and closest Full Moons of the year. This year the biggest Full Moon occurs on September 27.
Photographers wishing to capture a comparison of the biggest Full Moon with the smallest will need to shoot the Moon this week, on March 5. That’s the date for 2015’s most distant and smallest Full Moon – the “mini-moon” of March.
On March 5 the Moon reaches its “apogee” – the most distant point in its monthly elliptical orbit around Earth about 10 hours before it reaches the moment of full phase at mid-day on March 5 for North America. On March 5 the Moon’s maximum distance will be 406,384 kilometres from Earth (measured from the centre of Earth to the centre of the Moon).
By nightfall on March 5 the Moon will be a little closer than that but not by much. Seven Full Moons later, on September 27, the Moon will reach its monthly “perigee” point closest to Earth less than an hour before full phase, at a distance of 356,877 kilometres.
That will be the much-publicized “supermoon” of 2015. Shoot both Full Moons with the same optical system (preferably a telescope with a focal length of at least 600mm to make the Moon large enough on the camera frame) and you’ll have a pair of real images comparing the minimum and maximum apparent sizes of the Moon, much like the simulations above.
You’ll certainly be out shooting the September 27 Full Moon, as that night it also undergoes a total eclipse. The Full Moon will turn deep red in the early evening for North America. But wait until the umbral phase is over, and you’ll have a normal looking Full Moon to create the comparison pair.
There’s also a total lunar eclipse next month, on the morning of April 4, six Full Moons before the September “supermoon” eclipse.
However, that’s not the smallest Full Moon of 2015. On April 4 the Full Moon comes three days after the Moon’s monthly apogee point, putting it a little closer than this week’s Full “mini-Moon” of March. The difference between the two extreme Moons is only about 12 percent, between a lunar disk 30 arc minutes across (1/2 degree) at apogee and one 34 arc minutes across at perigee.
The difference is impossible to detect to the eye, not without two Moons side-by-side in the sky, something we’ll never see. But by taking photos of the March and September moons with the same optics you can create a matched two-moon comparison.
A much-publicized “super moon” rises over Mt. Rundle and Banff townsite.
I joined a small crowd of moon watchers at the Mt. Norquay viewpoint last night, Sunday, August 10, to view the rising of the super moon, the closest Full Moon of 2014.
Of course, no one could possibly detect that this moon was any bigger or brighter than any other moon. Nevertheless, everyone saw an impressive sight and went away happy.
I shot this image at the end of a 700-frame time-lapse, at about 10:15 p.m. This is an HDR “high-dynamic-range” stack of 8 exposures, from dark and underexposed (to capture the bright sky around the Moon) to bright and overexposed (to capture the foreground and dark trees).
Yes, I have cranked up the HDR effect a little, to beyond “natural.” But I think the result looks striking and brings out the structure in the clouds that hid the Moon at first.
Think what you will of “super moons,” they get people outside, looking up and marvelling. In this case, the PR prompted a moonwatch party on a fine summer Sunday evening in one of the most scenic places on the planet.