Last Sunday night I was feeling pretty mellow and lazy. I didn’t really feel like packing up my kit and heading out to photograph the lunar eclipse but given that the next one isn’t schedule to occur until 2033, I grabbed my gear anyway – and I wasn’t disappointed. It was pretty cool to watch and I ended up coming home with some nice photos to show for my time. I only shared one image but it was easily one of the most popular photos I’d posted on social media in quite some time. I had a number of people ask me how I made that shot so I thought I’d write about my experience for today’s post.
To begin, I think there are a few reasons why this image was popular. First, I posted the image at the right time using the right hashtag. In recent years Facebook has changed the way that posts are shared with other Facebook users (even if they like my page) so my overall views are way down compared to where they were a few years ago. Mostly I don’t use hashtags on Facebook even though I do on other social media sites and perhaps this image should serve as an example of why I need to be using hashtags on Facebook too. Another part of the popularity I think is that my photo included stars in the shot which was relatively uncommon in all of the moon photos I saw of the night. The biggest reason that I think it was popular though is that it is a well exposed, sharp image – that in and of itself made this photo more the exception than the rule.
To be fair, I don’t make a lot of photos of the night sky so it did take a bit of trial and error before I dialed in settings that I was happy with for the photo I shared online. The photo above is a good example – I was trying to show a bit of foreground with the moon so the moon was relatively small in the frame and unfortunately, it was blurry.
If you were able to see the moon on Sunday, then you’d know that part of the problem is that the moon was fairly dim when it was in that blood moon stage. If you’ve been reading along for a while, you might remember that in my tips for night photography I suggested keeping the ISO low (I used ISO 100 for most of the images in that post) and I suggested using a tripod. Those are great tips for maximizing image quality for things that are firmly attached to the ground like buildings but as you can see by the above photo, there is sometimes more to the story.
One of the things that higher end cameras can do is to lock up the mirror that diverts the light from the lens to the eyepiece. This can be a handy tool because sometimes even that slap of the mirror can cause a bit of a vibration. I turned that feature on for my camera because I was using a 600 mm lens and even the slightest movement can introduce a bit of blur to an image. I did that and the above image was the result. Can you guess what my problem was?
Of course after getting the blurry shot, my first thought was that I must have bumped the camera so I made another photo taking care to be absolutely still and the above shot was the result. My exposure was a bit longer in this image so I was able to realize where I was going wrong (see those long star trails?).
As I said, I don’t make many images of the night sky so I was definitely a bit rusty when I headed out which was compounded by the fact that I was tired after having a busy day which included a ten mile run. Heading out, I had the idea that 15 seconds or less generally gives a fairly sharp rendering of the stars but I hadn’t really given any thought to the math behind that guideline. The thing is, that might be a perfectly appropriate number for a wide angle lens but I was using telephoto lenses and I didn’t take into consideration that with the higher resolution, I had to keep my exposure times relatively shorter. The solution then was to increase my ISO (I was already using the widest aperture possible) so that I could decrease my shutter speed. Once I increased my ISO setting, I was able to capture a sharp image of the moon using 5 second exposures. Even that could have been decreased a bit because the stars had a bit of trailing but it was a fair trade off between shutter speed and the increased noise of the higher ISO. The final settings for that first photo were f/6.3 (aperture), 4.8 seconds, ISO 4000, and a focal length of 600 mm.
I think there are a few take home messages for me from this experience. First, pushing past the inertia and getting out to shoot can lead to nice images and pleasant experiences. Second, it’s good to try new ways of doing things from time to time to see if existing practices can be improved (I’ll see how it goes with other Facebook hashtags). And third, it is important to take a step back and evaluate all of the variables when things don’t go as expected. I’ll leave you today with a couple more of my favorites from Sunday night’s eclipse.