Saturday, December 17, 2011

De-Lovely Moon

Total lunar eclipse, December 10, 2011.  The green ghosting is probably some type of light bouncing in the lens. Those little white dots are not specks on your monitor but stars showing up as the moon's glow is dimmed.
f/4, 4 seconds, ISO 400, 120 mm, Nikon D60, photo cropped
I spend most of my time puzzling over things on the earth's surface. I largely ignore the sky, just too much of it there. And then like a fortune cookie, the Lion Hunter called last week to say we were going to photograph the total eclipse of the moon at the Dipper Ranch. We agreed to meet early the next morning.  I have been missing eclipses and sleeping through meteorite showers since 1986, so I was determined to try harder this time. Over the next 12 hours, curiosity and photography once again brought me face-to-face with intimate details of nature, even extraterrestrial nature.

Early eclipse.
f/4, 3 seconds, ISO 400, 112mm, Nikon D60
Late Friday night, I hustled to find information about shooting lunar eclipses. At our location on the California coast, the eclipse would end near moonset so I thought it was important to find a view with a low western horizon. Remembering my favorite spot to watch late summer sunsets, I picked a hill above the Dipper gate where a gap in the coastal ranges provides a clear view of the Pacific Ocean. I set up one camera with a long lens to focus on the moon's surface, and the other camera with a wider angle to capture the atmospheric change in ecliptic light. Everything went into a pack and I finally went to bed.

On Saturday at 4:30 AM, I was smugly waiting in my kitchen with a thermos of hot tea. With four hours of sleep, I could boil water but had forgotten most of my research from the night before. Fortunately, the shooting hill was a short distance from the house, so I was hoping to refresh my memory by spending the next 3 hours and 32 minutes referring to the Lunar Eclipse Exposure Guide.  As a NASA astrophysicist, MrEclipse explains things like Danjon brightness values and focusing just short of infinity.

Eclipsing moon setting to right of Mindego Hill.
f/5, 5 seconds, ISO 100, 70mm, Nikon D7000 
As we hiked up with our gear, stars were twinkling in the clear sky above. But at the top of the hill, I was embarrassed to realize how little I understood the heavens. The moon was in the wrong place! It was much farther north than I had expected. Not over the ocean gap but over the tallest peak in view - Mindego Hill. Fortunately, the Lion Hunter explained that the moon's path would angle to the right, so it would set over the lower Langley Hill. I would have been better prepared if I had checked the moon's passage in the sky a few nights before the eclipse (check field sites beforehand especially if you are traversing them in the dark). To add to our challenges, there were low brooding clouds.

After running up and down the hill (which really didn't make any difference but was kind of fun in the dark), we picked a spot near the gate and mounted our cameras on tripods with some muttering over f-stops and shutter speeds. The hardest part was getting a good focus. You would think this would be easy, but the moon is far away and with the big contrast in light/dark conditions, it is difficult to tell if your focus is crisp. Furthermore, you have to keep changing your settings since the brightness of the moon is constantly changing throughout the eclipse, and the moon is gradually moving along an arc. Three hours under the charismatic night sky went by quickly and I never got a chance to refer to MrEclipse's cheat sheet for beginners.

Getting dark.
f/2.8, 0.5 seconds, ISO 100, 200mm, Nikon D7000
I especially liked the first part of the eclipse where the bright lower lip of the moon contrasted with its shadowy head. Next time I want to catch more of this early stage (give yourself time to setup well before the event is scheduled to begin). During full eclipse, the moon was an orange color which is sunlight bent around and refracted through the earth's atmosphere. In that muted orange glow, we could clearly see features on the moon's surface. It wasn't just a big, bright satellite in the sky, it was battle-scarred.

October moon rising over cities ten miles away from Dipper Ranch.
We enjoyed being outside in early, early morning. We could hear a great-horned owl and watched three deer creep across the road beneath us. The Lion Hunter helped me identify a deep noise I sometimes hear under certain atmospheric conditions - it's the sleeping cities ten miles away pulsating with a low rumble. Finally, as the moon pulled out of the darkest shadow, it also sunk into the clouds and we lost it. We remembered to turn around (always turn around!) and we watched a spectacular sun rising through clouds on the other horizon.

Cloudy sunrise opposite the lunar eclipse.
Afterwards, we had breakfast at the ranch house and checked our eclipse photos on our computers. We were a little disappointed at first. It's hard for photographs to capture the immediacy of two small friends wandering around in the dark for hours under a huge sky. A sky that is mostly familiar but with a small area dominated by an extraordinary, extraterrestrial event.

Eclipse at near totality.
f/2.8, 2.5 seconds, ISO 100, 200mm, Nikon D7000
Photography is about light. Our eyes and brain see light one way. The camera captures light a slightly different way. With nature photography, I often struggle to make the camera create exactly what I see. Visual art is also about light, and when it reveals light in an unusual way, it helps us see and understand our surroundings differently, and maybe, just maybe we experience feelings that are deeper than our first visual impression. Since photography is a permanent record, we can also refer back to photos to ponder and deepen our experience.

What I formerly referred to as the moon's belly button near 8:00 position is the Tycho crater. The bright rays around Tycho are tracks of rock blasted outward when the crater was originally formed probably by impact from a meteroid.  Dark shapes to the lower right are maria - dark, flat areas formed by ancient lava flows. Does anyone know what the bright star close to the lower left of the moon is?
4/2.8, 2.5 seconds, ISO 100, 200mm, Nikon D7000, cropped
The thrill of the chilly night stuck with me. Over the last week as I've looked at my eclipse photos again and admired ones posted by more experienced photographers, I got curious about the features we saw on the moon's surface. Field guides to the sky are now scattered across every table and countertop in my study and kitchen. Cool things I've learned:
  • The moon is slightly more than 1/4 the diameter of the earth. That's bigger than I realized.
  • The Moon formed 4.5 billion years ago when something big hit the earth and debris thrown into orbit eventually coalesced 238,000 miles away.
  • We basically only see one hemisphere of the moon referred to as the near side. Honestly, I didn't know this. Here is the best explanation I have found so far and although the reference is kind of old, I hope it is correct because it makes such sense to me: "The moon keeps essentially the same face toward the earth as it orbits the earth, presumably because a slight bulge of matter exists in the side of the moon that faces the earth, allowing the earth's gravity to capture the moon's rotation. (As a result, the moon turns once on its axis with respect to the stars during each of its orbits around the earth). " A Field Guide to Stars and Planets, Donald H. Menzel and Jay M. Pasachoff, 1983.
  • The dark side of the moon isn't. The Navigator will be researching how this misleading phrase came about.
  • The moon moves to the right as it crosses the sky (if the earthly observer is in the northern hemisphere).
  • Usually, there is at least one lunar eclipse in a year, and sometimes as many as three. But the next total lunar eclipse is not until April 15, 2014.
  • Each total lunar eclipse is visible from about half the Earth's surface.
November moon rising over Dipper hillsides.  The green ghost image of the moon (from light bouncing in the lens) shows some of the details of the moon's surface such as the dark maria.
The Lion Hunter wants to shoot the solar eclipse coming up on May 20, 2012. I have no idea how to do it, just something about special filters and boxes so you don't ruin your camera and eyes. Sounds dangerous, but after all, what did I expect from a lion hunter? Does anyone have books, website links or locations you recommend for this event?

"Will this dream of mind fade out of sight
Like the moon growing dim on the rim of the hill
In the chill still of the night"
Cole Porter, Still of the Night


  1. I don't usually bother to provide camera settings but since I bugged my friends for them on their eclipse photos, I decided to include mine here. If you have recommendations on settings for a solar or lunar eclipse, I would love to hear it.

  2. Brilliant lunacy! It was cloudy in my bit of the UK that day, so many thanks for sharing your experiences. As far as solar eclipses go, when our girls were smaller, I recall taking photos of the ground under trees, where the stomata of the leaves were acting as hundreds of pinhole cameras. Not as spectacular as totality, but impressive nonetheless. All the best for Christmas and the New Year. Best Wishes, Graeme

  3. Here is a link to my post about the lunar eclipse which pretty much says what NOT to do. Other than that I am no help.

  4. "Dark" as in "hidden from view" or "unknown" ... cf "darkest Africa" or "dark horse". OED dates it to Shakespeare, like half of the rest of the language's figurative usages ;-)

  5. Jim: that's good. I'm slim on my Shakespeare but glad to know it.

  6. Ah, nice! It was too foggy here in western Oregon to see the eclipse. Glad you had better luck!

  7. “I spend most of my time puzzling over things on the earth's surface. I largely ignore the sky, just too much of it there”.

    Pretty much sums it up for me, but after reading your tale I feel kind of foolish for just glancing at the eclipse on my way to “work” and thinking “oh that’s cool”. I guess next time I should drag my camera out and give it a shot. DT

  8. DT: you just need a lion hunter to arrange your shooting schedule.

  9. Cindy: The bright star above and right (N)of the moon is Capella in the constellation Auriga (4th brightest from N hemisphere). Giant red Betelgeuse (Orion's upper left shoulder) set about the same time as the moon a little further west(right.
    I went to a secluded overlook in the Rocky Mountain Foothills and watched the lunar eclipse from just before dusk to sunrise. Great view of about 85-90% eclipsed moon sliding down the NE face of the snow covered Indian Peaks, followed by alpineglow! [If standing on top of "Big Indian" the fully eclipsed moon would have greeted the sunrise, which occured at the same time - an unusual occurance.] Alas I have no photo to share...but did have great views thru a spotting scope of the pre-umbral (shadowy), umbral (earth's shadow touching to partially covering moon) and near toatal eclipse. Got to see Jupiter set in the west when left the house, Mars and Saturn; and the bright stars Rigel & red giant Betelgeuse (Orion), brightest Sirius (Canis Major), Procyon (Canis Minor), Pollux (Gemini), red Alderbaran (Taurus), and Capella (Auriga)in the W/NW skies, Regulus in conjunction with Mars at the zenith; and very bright Arcturus high in the east, with yellow Saturn in conjunction with Spica (Virgo) in the SE and very bright Vega rising in the NE. So in addition to a near total eclipse, I enjoyed 3 planets and 11 of the 15 brightest stars seen from the northern hemisphere. It was a "stellar" experience, and well worth the temperatures in the teens!
    The Earth's moon is huge and close compared to any other planet's moon, and the major cause of the tides. The Moon actually keeps the Earth from "wobbling" 10 degrees on it's axis. Believe the The earth only wobbles 4.5 degrees, from 25 degrees to 21.5 degrees, which causees Ice Ages" at 25 degrees and temperate poles with no ice most of the time. We are at 23.54 degrees and getting smaller, so moving from an "Ice Age" to a "Tropical Age". However this takes 100,000s of years. There is no question that human activity has greatly accelerated global warming.
    Yes the bulge in the moon causes it to rotate only once every Earth rotation, so the same side faces us...however it does slowly turn relative to the Sun, and therefore does not have a "Dark Side". So maybe Pink Floyd was not astronomically correct, but it's still great music!


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