Super Blood Moon, or, The Best Laid Plans… etc.

Quick reminder:  sign up ASAP for the Special Techniques classes at City College on Printing on Canvas and stitching frames for unlimited resolution.  See details by clicking on the link to City Classes just below the banner above.

OK, on to the main story…  Sunday night we were privileged to witness an uncommon lunar event.  A Perigee Moon, meaning a moon at its closest orbital pass to the earth and therefore at its largest in the sky (14% larger than normal) was coinciding with a lunar eclipse.  Because of the close distance and perceived size of the moon, it was just slightly larger than the earth’s shadow causing the eclipse.  Due to refracted light waves on the red end of the spectrum, the result is a so-called “Blood Moon.”  This phenomenon will not recur until 2033 so this was the last chance to see it for quite a spell.

The best view was supposed to be to the east, so along with Steve Burns, the President of the SD Photoshop Users Group, workshop presenter, author, and teacher at several regional schools,  I headed out to the Anza Borrego area.  We knew it would be hot but this was a special chance to see this phenomenon.  And hot it was.  Around 4:30 scouting locations for the shoot there were several places where the outside temp thermometer in my car was reading over 110 degrees F. At least in the desert the humidity was quite low so it was a dry heat.

My carefully planned out timing for scouting locations, doing a product shot for my other blog, and grabbing a quick dinner bite before the moon rose ran headlong into a reality I should have anticipated but did not.  The bottom line was that as we left the restaurant in Borrego Springs to discover the moon was not only already up, a bite was being taken out of it by the eclipse.  There was no time to make it to the last planned location and it was much higher in the sky than I anticipated so there was no help for it but to head for a close spot.

Blazing down the road toward the town dump, we scooted in beneath the bluff leading to Fount’s Point since this made the land rise a bit to cover the distance between the horizon and the moon.  We quickly set up our tripods.  I paused for the “30-second stare” to get a sense of how I “felt” about the scene unfolding in front of me.  There was the warm embrace of the desert floor.  Coyotes were yipping to each other nearby with their own rendition of the music of the night.  The moon was incredible… so incredible that it dominated the emotional quotient of the scene far beyond its actual size.  Though the eclipse was just starting already the red overtones were showing up and changing the color of the ground and bushes.  It dominated the scene in a number of ways

Our chosen spot was a gamble with the distance: close enough to get the land form in the shot but far enough to stack it up with the moon using a long lens.  I decided to use the Sigma 50-500 with a 2X telextender.  That zoom range let me capture a bit of the environment for a base and, if needed zoom in to the equivalent of a 1,000 mm lens.   The idea was that since it turned out there was a light cloud cover, just enough to soften the moon, if I shot it large then reduced it to proper size I could better render the detail in the final print. Plus the moon was moving so fast for a telephoto shot even at a three second shot it was ever-so-slightly blurred.

I had read some suggestions from a local guru in astronomical and deep sky photography about shooting the eclipse.  Sorry to say, he wasn’t even close.  I printed the table from his web site but in putting his suggestions into the camera… I got a black incredibly underexposed frame.  There wasn’t time to do anything other than to “chimp” my way to a proper exposure.  Inelegant to be sure, but workable…  The final exposures were at 3 seconds, f8, ISO 6400.  That is 4-5 stops different from the guru’s suggestions.  It is an important lesson: no matter the reputation of the source of the technical advice, you need to test it out for yourself… and that includes me!

The first shot was made to provide a foreground/environment exposure.  I still focused on the moon so the terrestrial part would be properly out of the depth of field which was far less than I planned based on the suggested setting, but the moon was still blown out. There was a faint horizon glow from El Centro.  A couple of exposures gave me enough to work with so then it was time to expose for the moon.  I took almost a dozen exposures to make sure I had one I liked.

The desert sky, even with a light cloud cover is unlike anything I’ve seen except the sky from the mountain tops.  The stars are simply astonishing… and everywhere.  It is as if you could reach out and touch them.  I could see them during the other exposures but they were not recording.   So after the moon shots I was able to add shutter time to 30 seconds to capture the stars and the glow on the clouds.  The moon was, of course, again utterly blown out but I did already have it with proper exposures.

So here then is a final shot made of three exposures blended into a single image: one for the environment, one for the moon, and one for the stars.  And here it is…

Super Blood Moon over Fount's Point, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, September 27, 2015. Shot with Canon 5DSr and Sigma 50-500 f4 Lens.

Super Blood Moon over Fount’s Point, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, September 27, 2015. Shot with Canon 5DSr and Sigma 50-500 f4 Lens.

The drive back in the warm desert air made me wish there had been room for everything in my other car: taking the T-tops off would have made the drive even more delightful.

Don’t forget about the Creative Techniques classes!

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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