Lessons Learned for Your Next Eclipse Outing

Lessons Learned for Your Next Eclipse Outing

I got through the Sunday eclipse and helped a couple of friends with their first time try at eclipse imaging. It got me thinking about what I've learned over the years that might save you some time when the next one comes along. 

Cameras, Equipment, People

Almost any decent camera will do, but you are ahead of the game with a DSLR and a pretty long lens. I do most of my eclipse photography with a 75-300mm ƒ5.6 zoom. Not ideal, a prime lens would be better, and even a lens with a tighter image, like a 400 or 500mm lens, but as your image gets tighter the requirements for a really steady tripod escalate. 

I'm using the Canon lens with an MC-11 Mount Converter on a Sony A7 III and it all worked quite well. 

There are lots of articles on shooting eclipses around, we've run our share, but I want to touch on some of the less obvious things, as well as some good solid tips to keep in mind. 

First, if your camera has some variant of Live View you are ahead of the game. Getting the moon in focus is a big priority. If it isn't, the rest of these tips won't matter. With a Live View of what your camera sees, you can get aperture set properly, make sure you are in focus, and centered the way you want. Focus should be manual, not automatic. Some cameras will hunt forever for that correct focus point when in automatic. Once you are in focus, don't accidently change focus in the dark. 

Just before an eclipse, the moon is bright, and some people get out in the field expecting to shoot time exposures all night, but the reality is you have to keep adjusting your settings as the moon grows dimmer and dimmer. With a fully bright moon I was shooting at ISO 80 and ƒ22 at about 1/6 of a second, but by the time the moon turned red I was at ISO 400, ƒ5.6 with a 6 second time exposure. There aren't any set rules. Conditions and your equipment will make all the difference. Whatever the settings, be prepared to change frequently as the eclipse progresses. You'll know your settings are right when you see some detail on the surface of the moon, most prominent are the lunar Maria, which are darker lava flows that make up what we call the "man in the moon".

One thing I noticed Sunday with my first timers was they were afraid of tripping over their tripods in the dark, and flashlights were out in abundance. If you aren't shooting alone, get the cameras far away from each other to minimize that risk, and keep everyone from hauling out bright flashlights which will kill your night vision. 

You will want some light, but just enough to see your camera controls. Flashlights or headband lights with red light will really help, but even my iPhone with the flashlight turned all the way down was good enough. Too much light from bright flashlights will dazzle your eye to the degree that you might not be able to easily find the moon in your viewfinder. It can take a minute or two for that temporary "blindness" to settle down, so warn everyone in advance. No bright lights.

If at all possible, never touch your shutter button, as the image will likely blur from the vibration. Use some form of remote switch, wireless or cable connected to trigger the photo. Failing that, most cameras can be set to take the image a couple of seconds after you press the shutter button, allowing vibrations to settle down. 

There's no need to rush. Eclipses move slowly. Sunday's blood red moon stayed red for almost an hour, allowing me and my colleagues to experiment with different settings, and to swap lenses between us, since I was the only one with a longer lens. Luckily, my guests had Canon cameras.

What to Do With Those Images

So you've got the images, now what? You'll probably have a collection of small photos of an orange moon. You can turn the best shots into individual images, and even add a label in Photoshop or your favorite editor.

I think the best option is to show the gradual change of the moon over time. My method is to crop each image to get the size I want, and paste each moon image as a new layer over a black background in Photoshop When you have several layers of shots, you can arrange their position, and Photoshop will show you guides that can help you line them up. 

I added text above each moon image to show the time, getting that time info from the file itself. 

There are others ways to display your eclipse images, but the collage of images always seems to get the best results. If the moon had been lower I would have used some single images as the moon came up over our local mountains, but for this eclipse the moon was far away from the horizon.

You may have some of your own methods for getting the most from an eclipse, so please feel free to share below. 

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21 Comments

user-156929's picture

I guess at <300mm, you can get by at 6 seconds but at 600mm, I didn't go any slower than 1/4 second. The moon is moving pretty fast, relatively speaking. I'd have preferred to shoot it wider but didn't have a foreground to include, especially as it was over 60-degrees above the horizon in my area. At f/8 and 1/4 second, my ISO was set at 6400. Really noisy but...

Fully agree, the most I can get by with 500mm (with 1.5 crop) is around 1/4s. Longer than that shows motion blur beyond my tolerance.

Other tips:
- it’s cold outside, I know, but suck it up and don’t shoot through your dining room window, you’d lose sharpness. And, you know, reflections.
- no, don’t just open the window: hot air will rush out and you’ll lose a LOT of sharpness. Go outside and let your equipment get to temperature, esp. if using a mirror telescope

Great tips! I have gone out to shoot a super moon/blood moon 3 times now (twice successfully) and it has been a super fun project.

For the brighter exposure I would consider opening up the aperture to about f/8-f/11 minimum to eliminate diffraction and increase shutter speed, both of which will result in better detail. Similarly, if you boost the ISO on the blood moon shots and reduce the shutter speed, you can eliminate the motion blur (the moon travels surprisingly fast!).

Some additional thoughts and tips:

1: If you plan on sticking with a single focal length, manually focus ahead of time and securing the focus ring with electrical tape. The blood moon is DARK and the lack of contrast makes it incredibly difficult to manually focus. If you don't get a chance to focus ahead of time, zoom in on a star in live view and use that for your focus.

2: Use as fast of a shutter speed as possible due to mirror slap/vibrations and moon travel. The image of the blood moon over Mt Shuksan is at 400mm ISO 3200 and 1/2 of a sec was the max I could go without running into motion blur. For the space needle, I had to increase the ISO and shutter speed because the weight distribution of the heavy camera and lens to the side in portrait made it more susceptible to shake.

3: Because of the high ISO, consider using image stacking to enhance the detail and reduce high ISO noise. Take multiple images of the moon in quick succession and you can blend them together later in the program of your choice. For the space needle shot, the moon is 4 stacked images at ISO 6400. For the blood moon rising over Mt Shuksan, the moon is a single image at ISO 3200. The ISO 3200 moon is more grainy.

4: If including a foreground element, double check the focus for both the moon and the landscape. At f/5.6 the Space Needle at 750 feet away still required focus stacking, which was really surprising to me.

Rod Kestel's picture

Thanks for that. Lovers of astro photography probably already know about NASA Astropix - recommended.
https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html

Also watch this excellent vid that shows how the eclipse (Clippers of the Moon, as I used to say) https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap190120.html

Rayann Elzein's picture

Why on earth are you shooting the non eclipsed full moon with those settings?
ISO 80 and ƒ22 at about 1/6 of a second
Is it just because you like to make your life difficult? I can't see another reason, and sorry, but I stopped reading at this sentence, because what good advice could you give further down if you're shooting 1/6s @ 300mm....

user-156929's picture

You can certainly disagree with his settings but there's no reason to be insulting.

Rayann Elzein's picture

I did not mean to be insulting, and if that's how it sounded, I apologize. I just don't get that such a "serious" site as Fstopper would publish such bad advice. But I guess "serious" is the wrong word to define this website then...

user-156929's picture

It seemed a bit harsh but on a second reading, I can see how it could have been intended otherwise. Of course, following up with your comment on Fstoppers… ;-)

Mel Martin's picture

I tried many settings as I was getting ready for the eclipse and liked the results. I had drastically different settings during the eclipse, and was happy with those results too.

Spy Black's picture

I experimented with throwing my old full frame Sigma 400mm f/5.6 APO Macro on my Olympus E-M10 Mk II M4/3 camera to give me an equivalent FOV of an 800mm. I used f/8 to try an have a bit of additional sharpness. I needed 3200 ISO and used a 1/2 sec exposure. Surprisingly for being across from Manhattan I also recorded some stars, which I thought were dead pixels, but a 2-sec exposure test revealed motion blur. I felt the moon recorded a bit soft, not sure why that is, possibly motion blur still, although the stars look fairly sharp with just the slightest hint of motion. There was a lot of wind with a massive cold front bulldozing in, but I was relatively shielded behind my building. Here is the full frame view below. Overall it was an interesting experiment, even if I did freeze my ass off. :-)

user-156929's picture

Luckily, I still have my Canada Goose coat, pants and snow boots from my winter trip to Alaska, years ago. :-)

Nicely done. Is that from a JPEG or RAW file? The "softness" in a JPEG is likely from the high ISO and the image processing that produces the JPEG. You can mitigate it somewhat by processing the RAW file yourself in Photoshop, etc., but you still have to figure out what to do with the excessive graininess and noise. "Blurring" the graininess results in the same softness. I had the same thing with my Panasonic micro four-thirds camera. When the full moon isn't eclipsed, I can shoot 300mm equivalent at ISO 200, f8, 1/320th sec. When eclipsed, I had to go high ISO or long (4 seconds) exposure at ISO 200. I compromised at ISO 800 but by then clouds moved in. Will try again on May 26, 2021.

Spy Black's picture

No, thats from a RAW file. Examining it further it appears to indeed be motion blur. I should have also shot one at 1/4 second at least at ISO 6400, damn the noise. I kept noise reduction to a minimum to preserve detail.

Here my attempt. Moom "moves" fast in the sky and I noticed motion blur with anything longer than 4sec so I push the ISO higher. clouds didn't helped me either.

imagecolorado's picture

I used an iOptron Sky Guider Pro for a long sequence up to just past totality. Kept things well aligned. Did the whole thing at ISO 200, f/7.1 adjusting only the shutter speed.

The only issue here in Denver was the drop in temperature causing the gear to ice up shortly after totality.

Bill Metallinos's picture

You just need a Star/Moon Tracker. You can even 10min exposure without motion blur(it depends the tracker).
You can shoot even as hight as 2.000mm(and more) without problems.

user-156929's picture

I thought about that but as infrequently as I'd use it, I couldn't justify the cost. Well, I couldn't justify it to my wife...I think it's perfectly justified! ;-)

Bill Metallinos's picture

I understand that Sam, I know, I do the same thing for other equipment, anything that it's infrequently usage it just doesn't worth it.
-I'm just seeing that perhaps someone that reads us, or even you some day perhaps you can buy one. As long as you like to take captures from Lunar Eclipse perhaps you could like to take nightscapes, so the mount could be a more usage equipment. There are some good offers from second hand about 300$ (more or less).
Any way, have great captures and keep shooting ;)

imagecolorado's picture

I'll consider myself lucky. My wife actually bought this for me as a Christmas gift, and without my influence I may add. It's actually not that expensive when I consider how many junk lenses I've gone through.

user-156929's picture

I was kidding. Kinda. :-)

"75-300mm ƒ5.6...but by the time the moon turned red I was at ISO 400, ƒ5.6 with a 6 second time exposure"

Wrong settings sorry, you had the shutter speed opened too long. That's why your picture is so blurry. At 300mm, you should be less than 1 second, like 0.5sec would have been ideal, ISO 1600 at least.