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Photograph the Total Lunar Eclipse

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Are you hoping to capture a photo of the total lunar eclipse on January 20, 2019? If so, you are not alone. Amateur photographers and astrophotography enthusiasts around the world will do their best to take a pictures of the lunar eclipse in January using a wide variety of camera equipment.

These days, every full moon and lunar eclipse has some sort of epic name attached to it, and the total lunar eclipse in January 2019 is no different. The media has nicknamed this astronomical event the Super Blood Wolf Moon 2019. That’s right, don’t forget to add the “Super”. 

Catchy names aside, a total eclipse of the moon is a truly breath-taking astronomical event that anyone can appreciate. Over the years, I have photographed a number of total lunar eclipses, and I plan to do so again on January 20, 2019. There are many ways to photograph the total lunar eclipse this January, but for the best results I recommend using a DSLR camera and a small refractor telescope on a tracking mount. 

lunar eclipse photography methods

The total lunar eclipse on January 20-21, 2019 is the only total eclipse of the moon in 2019 around the world, with a partial lunar eclipse happening on July 16 in isolated parts of the world. 

To capture a detailed portrait of the moon like the image above, a long focal length and a tracking equatorial mount are required. However, it is also possible to produce a comparable close-up image using a digital camera or smartphone through the eyepiece of a non-tracking telescope using the eyepiece projection method.

In this post, I’ll share some tips for photographing this celestial event using both basic and advanced astrophotography equipment. 

What is a Lunar Eclipse?

Do you understand why a lunar eclipse happens? There are two types of lunar eclipses: partial and total. I am happy to say that the event on January 20-21 is the extra exciting one.

As you know, the Earth orbits the sun, and the moon orbits the Earth. During a total lunar eclipse, the Earth is sitting directly between the sun and the moon. Although the moon is being covered in Earths shadow, some sunlight still reaches the moon. 

When the moon enters the central umbra shadow of the Earth, it turns red and dim. This distinctive “blood” color is due to the fact that the sunlight is passing through Earth’s atmosphere to light up the disk of the moon. 

What is a lunar eclipse?

A diagram of what happens during a total lunar eclipse – NASA

Unlike a solar eclipse, observing a total lunar eclipse is completely safe to do with the naked eye. This natural phenomenon can be enjoyed without the aid of any optical instruments, although binoculars can really help to get an up-close view of the action.

Where and When will it Happen?

The total lunar eclipse will take place on January 20-21, 2019, with the total phase visible from North and South America. From my vantage point in Ontario, Canada, the maximum eclipse will occur at 12:15am on January 21. To find out when the total lunar eclipse will take place from your location, you can check out this eclipse map on Timeanddate.com.

CityPenumbral begins:Maximum:Duration:
Los AngelesJan. 20 at 6:36pmJan. 20 at 9:12pm5 Hours, 11 Minutes
DenverJan. 20 at 7:36pmJan. 20 at 10:12pm5 Hours, 11 Minutes
ChicagoJan. 20 at 8:36pmJan. 20 at 11:12pm5 Hours, 11 Minutes
TorontoJan. 20 at 9:36pmJan. 21 at 12:12am5 Hours, 11 Minutes
St. JohnsJan. 20 at 11:06pmJan. 21 at 1:42am5 Hours, 11 Minutes

There are 7 stages of a total lunar eclipse, and many amateur photographers like to capture the event in each stage. This can later be made into a composite photo showing the transition of the moon as Earth’s shadow covers it. A time lapse video is another excellent way to capture each stage of the eclipse.January 2019

The maximum eclipse stage is when most photographers want a great shot. This is when the the moon turns “blood” red and the surrounding night sky becomes much darker from our point of view on Earth. It is an unforgettable experience for those lucky enough to witness this moment.

lunar eclipse path 2019

Lunar Eclipse Path – January 20-21, 2019 – NASA

Stages of the total lunar eclipse:

  • Penumbral Eclipse begins
  • Partial Eclipse begins
  • Full Eclipse begins
  • Maximum Eclipse
  • Full Eclipse ends
  • Partial Eclipse ends
  • Penumbral Eclipse ends

An interesting thing happens when the moon is completely eclipsed by the shadow of Earth. Not only does the moon turn to an eerie reddish hue, but the stars and constellations surrounding the moon begin to appear as they would on a moonless night. Capturing a scene like this requires careful planning and execution.

Tips for Photographing the Total Lunar Eclipse

There are numerous ways to photograph a lunar eclipse, but here are 5 methods I techniques I suggest you try out:

  • Point-and-shoot digital camera through a telescope eyepiece (eyepiece projection)
  • Smartphone camera through a telescope eyepiece 
  • DSLR camera and wide angle lens on a stationary tripod
  • DSLR camera and telephoto lens on a tracking mount
  • DSLR camera attached to telescope (prime focus) on a tracking mount
  • Dedicated astronomy camera attached to telescope and tracking mount

    total lunar eclispes

    A photo of the “Super Blood Moon” eclipse I captured from my backyard in 2015

All of the methods described above are capable of incredible lunar eclipse photos. However, the ones that leverage the full manual control of a DSLR or dedicated astronomy camera will have more creative control over the types of shots available.

 

Wide-angle nightscape images that include a large portion of the night sky including an eclipsed moon can be done using a DSLR and tripod. For a 30-second exposure, a tracking mount is not necessary. At a focal length of 18mm or wider, star trailing will begin to show after about 20-25 seconds, so just keep that in mind. 

To capture the stars and constellations in the night sky, an ISO of 800 or above is recommended. However, this exposure will likely record the eclipsed moon as a featureless ball of light.

To properly capture both the starry sky and a detailed moon, you will need to capture exposures of varying lengths and blend them together into a composite image. This is because the moon is much brighter (even while eclipsed) than the surrounding starry sky.

A composite image can be made be masking the area of your night sky exposure, and blending in a shorter exposure of the moon with surface details. This technique will take some time and experience to master, but the results can be amazing.

I’ll share a few more astrophotography tips a little farther down the post.

Using a DSLR and Telescope

A telescope can provide an up-close view of the eclipsed moon, and will allow you to take pictures of the moon using your camera or smartphone. The prime focus method of astrophotography is best, as the camera sensors focal plane is aligned with the telescope. You can directly attach a DSLR camera using a T-Ring adapter to utilize the telescopes native focal length.

t-ring adapter

A DSLR camera and T-Ring Adapter attached to a telescope

The prime focus method requires that the telescope tracks the apparent rotation of the night sky to avoid any movement in your shots. To learn more about the process and equipment involved for deep-sky astrophotography, have a look at a typical DSLR and telescope setup.

If your goal is to capture an up-close view of the moon during the eclipse, there are many benefits to this technique. A small refractor telescope will have the adequate amount of focal length (magnification), offer precision focus, and a stable base to attach to an equatorial telescope mount. 

To record the lunar eclipse with a DSLR camera, no filters are necessary. A stock DSLR camera is best as the additional wavelengths available with a modified camera are unused in moon photography.

camera settings for lunar eclipse

Camera settings used for my lunar eclipse photo

Without a tracking equatorial mount, a 2.5 second exposure like the one above is impossible. Even 1-second of movement at this focal length will record a blurry image if the telescope or lens is not moving at the same speed as the moon.

The benefit of shooting a longer exposure during the maximum eclipse, is that you also record the starry sky behind the moon. To do this in a single exposure on a normal full moon is not possible as the dynamic range is too wide.

A dedicated one-shot-color astronomy camera is more than capable of taking a brilliant photo of the eclipse as well. The computer software used to control these devices have countless options to control the Gain and exposure settings of theses cameras. 

For projects like this, I personally enjoy the freedom and simplicity of a DSLR. Camera settings such as ISO, exposure and white balance can easily be changed on-the-fly as the eclipse is taking place.

Using a Telephoto Camera Lens

A telephoto camera lens with at least 300mm of focal length will also work well. At longer focal lengths like the ones necessary for a close up of the moon, you must use a fast exposure to capture a sharp photo of the moon. This is because the Earth is spinning, so you’re essentially trying to photograph a moving target. 

The image below was captured using a Canon EOS 70D and a Canon EF 400mm F/5.6 Lens. 

partial eclipse phase

The final stages of the partial eclipse phase are challenging to photograph because there is a bright highlight on a small portion of the moon. For the photo below, the camera settings included an ISO setting of 6400, and a shutter speed of 1/8.

A tracking telescope or camera mount such as the iOptron SkyGuider Pro (pictured below) is recommended. An equatorial mount that is polar aligned with the rotational axis of the Earth will allow you to take longer exposures, and get more creative with your camera settings.

Owners of astronomical telescopes for astrophotography usually own a GoTo equatorial mount. This allows the user to enter any celestial object into the hand controller, and the mount will automatically slew to that object once it has been properly star aligned.

An iOptron SkyGuider Pro camera mount with a DSLR and 300mm Lens attached

The key to capturing details of the moons surface in your lunar eclipse photo is reach, and exposure. By this, I mean that you need enough magnification to show the detailed craters of the moon’s surface, and a fast enough shutter speed to not blow out any of the highlights in your image. 

To do this, a precise exposure length must be used. One that preserves the data in your image while also bringing enough of the shadowed areas forward is ideal. For my photos, I found an ISO of 200 and an exposure of 1/200 to work quite well. This was enough to showcase a starry sky behind the eclipsed moon.

I use Adobe Photoshop to process all of my astrophotography images, including photos of the moon and our solar system. Adobe Camera Raw is a fantastic way to edit your images of the lunar eclipse because it gives you complete control over the highlights and color balance of your image. 

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Camera Raw offers powerful tools to edit your photos of the Total Lunar Eclipse

With the camera connected to the telescope (prime focus astrophotography), experiment with different exposures and ISO settings in manual mode, using live-view to make sure you have not under/overexposed the image.

The shortest exposures will only be useful during the partial stages of the lunar eclipse, as the lunar eclipse is beginning and ending. As I mentioned earlier, this is a challenging phase of the even to capture in a single shot, as the shadows and highlights of the image are from one end of the spectrum to the other.

When the moon enters totality, you will need to bump up your ISO, and/or your exposure length to reveal the disk of the moon as it becomes dimmer. Use a timer or external shutter release cable to avoid camera shake if possible. Ideally, you’ll keep the ISO as low as possible for the least amount of noise. With an accurately polar-aligned tracking mount, exposures of 2-5 seconds will work great.

Using a Smartphone or Point-and-Shoot Camera

Another way you can photograph the moon is to use the eyepiece projection method of astrophotography. To do this, you’ll simply position your digital camera or smartphone into the eyepiece of the telescope. This method usually requires a far amount of trial and error, but you may be quite surprised with your results.

An eyepiece smartphone adapter may help to steady your shot of the lunar eclipse. Although you’ll have much less control over exposure and record less detail, this technique can be used with a non-tracking telescope such as the Apertura AD8 Dobsonian I reviewed in late 2018. 

The moon is one of the few subjects that is easy to photograph with a non-tracking mount, although the transition phases of the eclipse will be more difficult. I recommend capturing the lunar eclipse during its maximum phase if you’re using this method. You likely won’t be able to capture a well-exposed image  using the cameras auto-exposure mode.

Experiment with your cameras manual settings that allow for variations in shutter speed. 

Without Using a Telescope 

If you are simply using a point and shoot camera, or a DSLR and lens on a tripod, you can still take photo of the lunar eclipse. This is often a great way to capture the landscape and mood of the moment. The photo below was captured back in October 2014 using a CaDSLR Canon EOS 7D and a 18-200mm lens.

The wide angle tripod shot was photographed at 18mm, while the inset image was captured at the lenses maximum focal lengh of 200mm. 

Total Lunar Eclipse - Moon Photography

Just like I mentioned when using a phone camera, you’ll want as much manual control over the camera settings as possible. “Auto” mode, flash, and autofocus won’t work on a photo of the total lunar eclipse. Adjusting individual parameters such as exposure length and ISO is essential when photographing objects at night. 

Practice taking shots at night beforehand, so that you are ready when the eclipse happens. Ideally, find a location that includes some interesting foreground and background details to capture a dramatic scene on the night of the event. 

I hope you enjoy the total lunar eclipse in January with your friends and family. If the weather cooperates, I will be photographing the event from my backyard using a DSLR camera and telescope. 

Related Posts:

My Best Astrophotography Tips for Beginners

Choosing a Camera for Astrophotography

How to Take Pictures of the Moon

Helpful Resources:

 In-the-sky.org’s calendar of Celestial Events for 2019

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Astrophotography by Trevor Jones

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What is Astrobackyard.com?

This astrophotography blog creates an outlet for me to share images, information and tips about my favourite hobby. I received lots of help when I began this hobby in 2011, and it’s my turn to pay-it-forward to the next wave of astrophotographers. I have watched the hobby grow in the short years that I have been involved. There are more options and information out there now than ever before. The one aspect that does not change is a love for the night sky. The story behind the sites name is that the backyard is where I began my journey, and where I still spend the most time under the stars. Travelling to new locations around the continent with much darker skies is great, but happens only once or twice a year at max. My backyards is my personal window to the heavens, and it’s where I connect with the universe.

 

Lagoon Nebula by Trevor Jones

The Lagoon and Cat’s Paw Nebula by Trevor Jones

Why should I come back?

If you’re anything like me, you enjoy reading about a fellow astrophotographers experiences.  You enjoy hearing stories from someone who shares the same love for astronomy that you do.  If you use similar camera and astrophotography equipment, you might even learn a thing or two from my mistakes.  Maybe you just like to sit back and enjoy the hours of hard work I have put into each and every one of my photos.  Whichever reason you choose, I sincerely appreciate your company.

What to expect

I have recently overhauled my site to it’s current design. Astrobackyard.com is now set to become an authority in the astrophotography community.  You can expect more astronomy related news and events, more astrophotography tutorials and equipment reviews, and of course, all of my astrophotography adventures from the backyard, and beyond.  I plan to share astrophotography processing techniques that have helped me pull the absolute most detail out of my images.  Later this year I will be creating a video tutorial series on youtube that should cover the basics of my current workflow.  I am not an professional photographer, image-processor or scientist, but I am dedicated to improving my skills.  I am an active member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, as the current webmaster and newsletter editor for the Niagara Centre. Please follow me on Twitter for the absolute latest news.

@astrobackyard on Instagram

I post new and old astronomy photos in Instagram quite regularly.  Feel free to connect with me over there!

 

Astrobackyard on Instagram

 

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Essential Image Processing Video Tutorial

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This video may change the way your shoot and process astro-images forever. It covers the few simple steps needed to create an ultra high-resolution master frame with a high signal-to-noise ratio.  This tutorial covers the capturing, processing and production of gorgeous wide-field astrophotography images using a camera lens or small telescope. If you are a DSLR imager like me, many of the techniques you’ll see demonstrated in this video will make their way into your capturing and processing workflow.  Even if you focus more on deep-sky imaging with a large telescope, there is still much to take away from Tony’s practices. You might even learn a little bit more about the way DSLR’s work, its limitations, and how to get around them to produce stunning images.

Self-proclaimed “Lazy” Astrophotographer Tony Hallas discusses the basics of DSLR imaging and provides intermediate pointers for capturing and processing amazing images. In this video, Tony explains how he has learned to harness the powerful and sophisticated capabilities of Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) to handle the majority of his astrophotography image editing and processing. I will be implementing Tony’s techniques into my own workflow, and I will share my new images using his techniques as I capture them. Here is a Milky Way image processing tutorial that includes some of the methods Tony uses in Adobe Camera Raw. 

Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR)

The measure used in science and engineering that compares the level of the desired signal to the level of background noise.

DSLR Camera vs. CCD – Which is Better?

A DSLR and a CCD camera may seem similar, both essentially use a sensor to gather light photons.  However, there are several key differences that make these tools worlds apart. Each has their own benefits and downfalls. Some of the major advantages of a CCD camera over a DSLR are the specialized astrophotography features, such as a cooled and regulated chip temperature, and better handling of noise during long exposures.  The mono chip, combined with calibrated narrowband filters, provides extremely accurate color control.

ATIK Mono CCD Camera for narrowband astrophotography with filters

In Tony’s opinion, narrowband imaging is the realm of CCD cameras, and not worth the time and effort of tackling with your DSLR.  It is not possible to produce an astronomical image as deep and detailed with a DSLR as you would with a CCD. The major downside on CCD cameras is their steep learning curve, and high price tag.  An entry-level CCD Camera will cost you upwards of $2,000.

What is the Best DSLR Camera for Astrophotography?

If you ask Tony, he’ll tell you it’s the full-frame, Canon EOS 6D. His was astro-modified by Hutech for astrophotography. My friend and fellow astrophotographer Phil owns this camera and produces amazing results when combined with his ultra-portable iOptron Skytracker mount. You can view a photo he captured of the Milky Way at the bottom of this page.  I currently use my old modified Canon Rebel Xsi, but my next DSLR will definitely be full-frame. Whether I spring for a used Canon EOS 5D Mark II, or the newer 6D, is yet to be decided.

Benefits of using a DSLR

The advantages of using a DSLR for astrophotography are many. The first is that it is easy to focus the camera using live-view. You can simply find a bright star, zoom-in by 10X and fine-tune your focus whether it is through a telescope or on the camera lens. DSLR cameras do not use very much power.

I use an aftermarket battery grip that I purchased on eBay. These 2 small batteries will last an entire night’s worth of imaging. You have the option of taking shorter exposures to adjust your frame and enjoy a quick preview of your subject. Instant gratification. The most important factor of them all is the fast setup, and minimal equipment.

If you plan on doing any travel astrophotography, chances are you will be using a DSLR and a lightweight tracking-mount. I believe that this is the reason DSLR astrophotography has become so popular around the world.

Image of the Andromeda Galaxy with a DSLR by Trevor Jones

Some of the drawbacks of using a DSLR for astrophotography are the lack of temperature regulation, the handling of color using a Bayer mask (RGB) and the primary noise source of “color mottle”. 

Color mottle by Tony’s definition is horrible globs of red, green and blue artifacts that appear in a long-exposure DSLR frame.  In the video above he explains the steps, he takes to remove the large amount of grain and noise in his long-exposure astrophotos. The process is known as dithering, which subtracts the noise data by taking frames slightly apart from each other, and then registering and stacking the data afterward.

Best Camera Lens for Astrophotography?

The 4 camera lenses mentioned in this video that would make excellent choices for astrophotography purposes are the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 G, Canon 15mm f/2.8 Fish-eye (not pictured) and the surprisingly high-performing Rokinon 35mm f/1.4

Tony noted that the Nikon 14-24mm was the best wide-angle lens, that he uses an adapter to connect to the Canon body.  You can browse insightful performance statistics about each lens including the amount of vignetting and resolution on the Photozone website.

The Rokinon Lens is 1/3 of the price of the big-name brands and scores top marks in the categories of vignetting and resolution. As Tony says, this lens is a total sleeper.

Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 Lens for Canon Cameras 
 

Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 lens for astrophotography
The Resolution of the Rokinon 35mm Lens scored top marks from Photozone

 

Different examples of camera lens choices for astronomy photography

I personally enjoy the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 lens for wide-angle astrophotography. This lens is very affordable and can capture extremely wide swaths of the night sky with either a crop sensor or full-frame DSLR camera.

So What Equipment do I Need for this Process?

As Tony describes in the video, there are some essential pieces of equipment and software to produce the high-quality images he is taking. Remember, you don’t have to jump straight to top-of-line equipment right away.  I certainly didn’t! This is merely a guideline for those wondering the exact equipment used in the video.

1.  Astro-Modified DSLR Camera such as the Hutech Modified Canon 6D
2.  High-Quality Camera Lens such as the Rokinon 35mm f/1.4
3.  Recent Version of Adobe Photoshop with Adobe Camera Raw
4.  Latest Version of the Registar Software

Adobe Camera Raw software and a Canon 6D DSLR
 

The Tony Hallas DSLR Processing Workflow

Tony uses Adobe Camera Raw for the bulk of his processing. He then combines the corrected images together using Registar, and back into Photoshop for final editing. His DSLR processing workflow is shown below:

1. Initial ACR batch processing and save as 16 bit TIFF to folder
2. Register frames in Registar and combine with median/mean function
3. High Signal-to-Noise ratio 16 bit TIFF imported into Photoshop for final processing

Chromatic Aberration and Vignetting

He begins his process by opening the first frame in a series of images and removing the chromatic aberration with the tool designated for this in Adobe Camera Raw. This is a powerful technique that can remove even severe chromatic aberration produced by inexpensive lenses. Next up is vignetting. The traditional way of dealing with vignetting was to shoot “flat” frames using an old white t-shirt to cover your camera lens or telescope, and shining a bright, evenly lit light into it. Try explaining THAT to your nosy neighbor watching you in your backyard. Tony simply uses the anti-vignetting tool in the Lens Correction tab of in ACR.

Noise Reduction and Colour Adjustment

The noise-reduction tool in ACR is comparable with powerful third-party plugins dedicated to this task. A liberal amount of luminance noise-reduction is applied in the example. He then opens the curves tab, selects the red colour channel, and reduces the amount of red (caused by light pollution) in his image. A small contrast adjustment is made next. Our instructor seems a tad rushed through this part of the tutorial, but if you are following along with the video it all makes sense.

A general rule of thumb when processing astro-images in ACR is to start from the right tab, and work your way left. Resist the temptation to start moving sliders in the far left tab right away.

Now that we have this one “perfect” frame with all of our adjustments, we can apply these settings to all of the frames at once using the “synchronize” command. This is the stage of the game Tony calls “halfway home”, where we have all of our images in the series with the exact same adjustments made.

Registar

I’ll start by saying that I have never used Registar. I use free software called DeepSkyStacker for registering my images, and Registar is listed at $150 US!  I will see if I can supplement this step with DSS before forking out 150 big ones for Registar.

In a nutshell, he tells Registar where to look for the image set, uses the default program settings, and goes for a coffee. (I like your style Tony!) Registar then goes through each image and accurately aligns each image star by star. This takes about 5 minutes. The next step is to click on “Combine Control” and select “Median/Mean” to average all of the frames together and create a neutral image. You can also take this process a step further by using the outlier rejection capabilities of Registar to remove unwanted objects such as a satellite trail.

The final combined image is created by Registar is impressive. The stacked image is smooth and free of grain, colour noise and spurious colors. This averaged image is now the Master Frame. A 16-bit TIFF with all of the adjustments made and a high signal to noise ratio.

An astronomical image with an improved signal to noise ratio

Final Processing in Adobe Photoshop

This is where your artistic freedom comes in to play. There are limitless ways to process your final astrophotography image, and this is definitely my favorite step in the entire process. The big difference this time is that you now have a very smooth, clean image to play around with. An image free of vignetting, chromatic aberration, noise, and properly color corrected. I hope you got as much out of this tutorial as I did the first time I watched this amazing video from Tony Hallas.

You can visit Tony’s Website Here.

Wide-Field Astrophotography Image using Canon EOS 6D and Tony Hallas Processing:

 

Milky way galaxy photo taken with a Canon 6D and iOptron Skytracker.
The Milky Way – Photo by Philip Downey using Tony Hallas Processing Techniques

Phil is a member of my astronomy club and takes incredible astrophotography images using a Canon 6D and iOptron SkyTracker.  You can visit his blog here.

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