Last Sunday night was a rarity: Not because the moon was full; Not because its path trended close to Earth, making it appear nearly 15% larger than normal; Not because an eclipse bent the sun's light around the Earth, turning the moon a deep magenta color. No...the real rarity Sunday night was that while I was out shooting all of this, the clouds (which seem to delight in plaguing me every time I try to photograph a celestial scene) were nowhere to be found. They must not have gotten the memo instructing them to flow in and obscure my view whenever I aim a camera towards the sky.
Shooting a picture of the moon itself isn't a particularly difficult endeavor. A long (telephoto) lens is a must, otherwise the moon, which looks so spectacular to the naked eye, will appear as a mere dot of light in the sky...a disappointing result experienced by the droves of people I saw shooting it with their smart phones. A tripod is a good idea as well, helping to steady the camera and avoid blurring the image from camera shake. Finally if at all possible, manually setting the camera's exposure is the surest path to a moon image with detail. Cameras set to automatic exposure average everything in the frame which will often cause a boost in exposure level to compensate for the dark sky, in turn blowing out the moon to little more than a bright white orb.
I had two goals last Sunday: (1) Get a picture of the moon in context, that is to say, an image that gives it a sense of location (my mind of course went right to the capital building), and (2) Try for a time lapse piece showing the transition from full moon, to eclipsed to red.
It became apparent pretty quickly that a time lapse piece wasn't going to work out. Using a long lens meant limited space in the frame and during the time it took for the eclipse to go through all of its phases, it simply moved too far....way too far. I started my sequence with the moon in the lower left corner of my frame at 8:11 pm. By 8:38 pm, it had already moved through the entire frame and exited the other side. I knew it was a bust, so I concentrated on still images. I'd set up at the top of Wisconsin Avenue where it meets Langdon at the newly rebuilt Edgewater Hotel. A crowd of people had gathered to watch the phenomenon and the atmosphere was positively festive. I talked to others, showed them the images on my view screen, coached a young photography student through exposing the scene correctly, and handed out business cards to those who were anxious to see the finished product. The night had the feel of Mallory Square during a Key West sunset.
As the moon began to shift to a reddish orange color, I had an all too familiar realization: I was in the wrong spot to get the shot I needed. The telephoto lens created a very narrow scene and to get the capital and the moon in the same shot wasn't going to work from my position. I quickly gathered up the cameras, raced to my car and miraculously found a parking spot right next to the capital square. From here I could get the moon as well as the "Golden Lady" statue atop the capital dome. To accomplish this, I needed to aim my camera upwards, focused on the moon. The resulting composition gave the illusion of the moon being much lower in the sky than it actually was.
The shot had its own set of challenges, exposure in particular. A proper exposure for the moon was far different than that needed to get the illuminated white capital dome. This was easily solved by shooting a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image. I set my camera to shoot 9 images: four over-exposed, four under-exposed, and one that the camera's light meter assumed was right on. By doing this, I could tone map them together, bringing out the darker moon and avoiding a dome that was blown out. The result is the image above.
This was an exciting shoot for one very simple reason: It won't happen again until 2033. The next time I have a shot at this, my three year old son Luc will be 21 and I will be comfortably into my sixties. It makes you think....If you're a photographer, get out and shoot these things and if you're not, make the time to watch it. I must have talked to a dozen people that night who remembered what they were doing when they saw the last blood moon. It's a conversation I hope to be having during the next one in eighteen years.
What an amazing night.