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While some obscure astronomical events get over-hyped, a total lunar eclipse is always a crowd-pleaser. It is easy to observe and photograph, even among the bright lights of the big cities.
Note: This article was written for a previous eclipse but is still relevant for the next one too!
A lunar eclipse occurs when the alignment of the moon’s orbit is just right, taking it inside Earth’s shadow at the time of full moon, when the moon is opposite the sun. The lengths of an eclipse can vary from event to event (as can the brightness and colour of the eclipse) depending if it’s a full eclipse or not
Visit in-the-sky.org for eclipse event times in your part of the world. Change your location on the right hand side if the automatic selection is incorrect.
There are two main approaches to photographing a lunar eclipse using just a DSLR and a tripod, excluding more complex approaches with telescopes and tracking mounts.
The moon moves across the sky at approximately 15 degrees per hour or 50 degrees over the full duration of the eclipse. You need a wide angle lens around 18mm focal length (28mm on a full frame camera) to capture all the stages of the eclipse in one field of view. An alternative is to frame up part of the eclipse with a longer focal length about 50mm (80mm on a full frame camera) like the image above which shows the partial stages in more detail.
In the northern hemisphere, the moon (like the sun) moves from left-to-right through the sky. So at the start of the eclipse, position the moon in the left side of the frame leaving it room to move across the image during the eclipse. Reverse that advice in the southern hemisphere. Night sky planetarium Apps such as Stellarium and SkySafari (iOS only) allow you to visualize the path of the moon through the sky to help plan your framing.
With a moderate telephoto lens you can get nice detail of the changing stages of a lunar eclipse. During the partial stages the brightness of the moon allows for very short exposures, so trailing it should not be a problem, although you will need a sturdy tripod and use mirror lock-up to reduce vibration.
During totality, the Moon’s brightness greatly reduces, however this eclipse will be a little brighter than usual. Aim for exposures of around one second with the aperture wide open, and push the ISO as much as you need to, being careful not to blow the highlights on the brighter edge. You should be able to capture images like this one below, which is an example of what you can do even with regular affordable cameras (although nice lenses do help).
In the eastern United States and Canada, and the western half of South America, the moon will set during the partial stages before total eclipse. Through central areas the moon will set while totally eclipsed which will make it much dimmer than a normal moonset and potentially hard to see amongst bright city lights. In the western half of North America you get to enjoy the partial phases leading up to, and including the total eclipse, then capture the moon setting as the partial phases reverse at the end of the eclipse.
You can use apps and software like The Photographers Ephemeris (Android/iOS) and Photo Pills (iOS only) to plan the alignment of the moon against landscape features as it rises or sets. Australian photographer Colin Legg captured this shot of the moon rising during an eclipse last year. An astronomer would immediately recognize the unusual configuration – a crescent moon can normally only appear in a twilight sky in the same direction as sunrise or sunset. Here the crescent moon appears amidst the beautiful shading of Earth’s shadow and The Belt of Venus, opposite where the sun set about 15 minutes earlier. Similar images before sunrise will be possible across North and South America during April’s lunar eclipse.
Will you get out and give it a go? Share any comments and questions below, and if you get a great shot of the eclipse share it here too.
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