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A Guest Post by Stephen Trainor
Whatever you have planned for this weekend, cancel it now.
Saturday Dec 10 2011 sees the last total eclipse of the moon until April 2014 – the last chance to photograph one of nature’s most attractive natural phenomena in over two years.
In this article, we’ll take a brief tour of eclipse science and then look at the sort of photographs that might be possible in five locations around the world – weather permitting.
Last December’s Total Lunar Eclipse. © Steven Christenson, http://www.starcircleacademy.com. Reproduced by kind permission.
As seen in the image above, during the totality phase of a lunar eclipse, the moon takes on an astonishing red colour. This is caused by the same two effects that are responsible for the vivid reds and oranges seen at sunset: scattering of the sun’s light by particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, and refraction (bending) of the light around the Earth’s surface. Only sunlight that bends around the Earth through the atmosphere reaches the moon at this time.
There are many resources available online that will tell you about the timing of the lunar eclipse. Perhaps the most comprehensive is offered by NASA. The Lunar Eclipse Page for 2011 includes an overview of the event and the key times. In addition, a PDF document shows greater detail and a larger scale visibility map.
These are the key times to note:
The times are stated in Universal Time (what used to be known as GMT), so you may need to adjust for your own time zone.
During the penumbral eclipse, the moon may appear noticeably dimmer than usual. As the partial eclipse begins, the moon’s disc will begin to disappear. Only as the eclipse enters the totality phase, does the characteristic red colour appear in all its glory.
Taking a path from east to west, we’ll now examine what shots might be possible during the eclipse.
Just like last year, December’s eclipse in Sydney is a late night event, starting at around 10:30pm on Saturday, with the total eclipse lasting from 1:06am to 1:57am Sunday morning.
You can use The Photographer’s Ephemeris to scout and plan potential shooting locations for the eclipse (see below for download details).
By the time of totality, the moon will be high in the sky (at an altitude of 32.7°). Shooting options include framing the moon next to the structure of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from a position to the southwest (see screenshot), or alternatively catching it over the Sydney skyline from Hyde Park or Potts Point. If an urban location doesn’t appeal, consider driving to a dark spot away from the city lights to capture a close up of the moon against the night sky with a telephoto lens.
Moscow (and many locations at a similar longitude) will enjoy almost ideal timing for shooting the total eclipse. Totality begins at 6:06pm local time, an hour and 17 minutes after moonrise, when the moon lies relatively low in the twilight sky to the northwest.
The sky will be a dark blue during the latter half of nautical twilight, but it will not yet be completely dark. There should be some great opportunities to capture the moon over many of the city’s famous landmarks.
London, along with much of Western Europe, misses the best of the eclipse this time around. The moon is still set during totality, only rising with 30 minutes of the partial eclipse remaining.
However, the partially eclipsed moon will be rising through the early stages of twilight, providing the possibility of some good colour and tones in the late afternoon sky.
Given that you’ll need to catch the rising moon to observe the last of the partial eclipse, the best advice may be to head to higher ground with fewer obstructions from dense inner-city buildings. One option is Greenwich Park in southeast London, or perhaps Blackheath (also nearby).
Like Londoners, New Yorkers will miss out on totality for this eclipse. The moon sets at 7:06am, before totality begins at 9:06am local time. The penumbral eclipse coincides with morning civil twilight (the time when the sun moves from six degrees below the horizon until sunrise), with the moon setting to the northwest.
The real challenge with shooting the setting moon in New York will be finding a location with a clear view to the northwest. Unless you can get early morning access to a skyscraper, a shorefront location with a view across water might be the best bet. Beware locations on the west side of Manhattan though, for example Fort Washington Park: the higher land on the New Jersey side makes for only a very small window of opportunity to catch the moon during the penumbral eclipse before it disappears from view.
For those willing to make an early start this Saturday, the West Coast of the US will enjoy perhaps the best conditions of all. Before dawn and during totality, there will be an unimpeded view of the setting moon over the Pacific.
With the total eclipse lasting from 6:06am to 6:57am, you could, for example, capture the moon hanging over the horizon amongst the famous sea stacks at Cannon Beach, Oregon. It should be possible to silhouette the sea stacks against the dawn sky while exposing for the red moon.
As totality ends just before 7am, the last of nautical twilight will usher in the first glow of dawn on the horizon and the moon – for a few seconds – will retain its red glow before brightening as the sun’s direct light reaches it once more.
We’ve covered how to plan locations and timing for your eclipse shoot in this article. But a few tips to remember while shooting:
Stephen Trainor has spent the last four years photographing around the southwest US, learning the importance of planning your shots along the way. More at http://www.stephentrainor.com.
Star Circle Academy offers workshops covering all aspect of how to photograph the moon, including lunar eclipses, along with advanced courses on astrophotography.