A blood moon (total lunar eclipse) that coincides with a supermoon is a can’t miss celestial event for photographers at any skill level.
A total lunar eclipse is known as a “Blood Moon” due to the dramatic red coloration of the Moon that occurs as it falls completely behind the Earth’s shadow. This event is even more impressive when it happens to occur during the supermoon phase, when the Moon is closest to the earth and can appear up to 17% larger than usual.
In this post I’ll run through some simple tips to plan your shot in advance using an array of phone apps. Yes, there’s an app for that. If only Steve Jobs could see us now. FYI, none of these are affiliated links - not that I’m morally opposed to them, I just don’t know how to get that sort of thing set up.
If you’re all set on the planning front and would like a tutorial on how to photograph a lunar eclipse, I recommend visiting my previous blog post, How to Photograph the "Super Blue Blood Moon" Lunar Eclipse.
When is this thing anyway?
Unless you live in the UK or Iceland, for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster do not head out to the solar eclipse at 3:30 in the morning. Most websites show the GMT times and are not localized to your time zone.
Do yourself a favor and download Solar and Lunar Eclipses - a free and incredibly easy reference so you don’t get up out of bed at a ridiculous time for nothing.
According to the screenshot to the right, we know that the full eclipse occurs from 8:41 PM to 9:43 PM in Seattle. This means that in Seattle, we would have a full hour to capture the blood moon. Unless you’re planning to capture all phases of the eclipse, you can ignore the partial beginning and ending times.
Pro tip: For solar eclipses, having localized times is even more critical because of the duration of totality (~2 minutes). The duration varies depending on the latitude of the location and the exact time of totality can shift within the hour depending on where you are in the time zone.
Hey guys, it’s January. Maybe check the weather.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, is worse than heading out to a night time shoot only to be stymied by cloud cover. There are a few apps for free (or cheap) that can help you out.
Ventusky is a great weather app that has the ability to forecast cloud cover overlaid on top of a map. If you’re looking for a clear night sky, hope to see a bunch of “0%” in your region.
Clear Sky Chart is an app designed for astronomers that provides a dense and detailed look at the conditions up to 30 hours in advance. It’s a pain to read, but I would say that it’s a must-have to plan a shot involving the night sky. iCSC provides information beyond Ventusky that includes cloud cover, transparency, darkness, and overall visibility quality. Generally, the darker the little boxes in the chart, the better. White bad, navy good.
Being from Seattle, I’m used to weather happily delivering the opposite of what you need when you’re counting on it to cooperate. So it should come as no surprise that, after an early January that has been unusually dry and clear, the clouds finally started to roll in today. Checking the Ventusky and iCSC app, we can see that the cloud cover is predicted to be 100% more-or-less state wide. Personally I would Hopefully you may have a better relationship with the weather gods.
Pro tip: If you tap the “Total cloud cover” icon on the upper right of the Ventusky app, you can check for low, mid, and high altitude cloud cover. High altitude clouds make for wonderful sunrises and sunsets.
It looks like the weather is cooperating in my area! Woot! Now what?
Whether you’re looking to include a foreground element to your shot or just checking to see that the neighbor’s house won’t obstruct your view from your backyard, you’ll need to know what direction the moon will be at the time of the eclipse and its angle to the horizon. As they say, there’s an app for that - PhotoPills.
OK, so I know what you’re going to say (OMG THE APP IS $10?@!?!), but if you shoot landscapes, PhotoPills is worth 10 times that amount. If you are shooting a sunset and want to include the sun in your composition, PhotoPills will help. If you’re sitting at your desk on your lunch break and want to see if you can align the blood moon with the space needle (you could, if we weren’t blanketed in by clouds this weekend), PhotoPills has got your back. Heck, if you were finished with this tutorial and your plan and wanted to figure out when and where this summer you should set up to photograph Mount Rainier with the Milky Way galactic core shooting straight out of the top, it’ll do that too. It’s a truly amazing app that uses a combination of maps and AR to give you the ability to plan your shot on both a macro and micro level.
A secondary companion app that is incredibly useful for photographers is the Viewfinder Preview - an app that uses your phone’s camera and crops accordingly to simulate the field of view of your lens’ focal lengths. There are a few apps out there that do it, and this is the cheapest one that I’ve found so far.
OK, so now that you’ve just coughed up $13, let’s run through an example of using these apps. Since we’ve already determined the time of the eclipse in your region and also the weather conditions, we can move on to using PhotoPills and Viewfinder Preview to plan the shot. In this example we will use my plan for the January 31, 2018 Blood Moon.
Step 1: Open PhotoPills and go to the planner. Here you’ll see a map overlaid with a bunch of lines that indicate either the sun (yellow to orange), the moon (cyan to blue), and the milky way. Use the slider at the bottom to adjust the time and date accordingly and we see that the location of last year’s Blood Moon is due west at about 20 degrees off the horizon.
Step 2: Click the location pin on the bottom to move your physical location around the map. If you’re in the city, try to find an iconic building that could be tall enough to be included in the composition. If you’re in the mountains, try to find, well, a mountain. As you can see in the screenshot, I was able to find an approximate location where I could line up the blood moon and the Seattle Wheel.
Step 3: Leading up to the day of the shoot, check Clear Dark Sky to verify the conditions are still bueno.
Step 4A: Go on location in advance if possible and switch to AR mode in PhotoPills using the button on the bottom of the planner to fine-tune your composition.
Step 4B: If you can’t visit the site in advance, consider the elevation of the moon and the height of the building/local terrain in your plan. I have created a spreadsheet [link] that will help.
Step 5: If you’re on location without your camera handy, you can use Viewfinder Preview to test different focal lengths. Generally, the longer the focal length, the better to enhance the moon. Try adjusting to 400mm and see how far you’d have to step back to get both the moon and the foreground element in the frame. I recommend shooting at 400mm, or no less than 200mm on a full-frame camera. FYI many camera stores offer daily lens rentals at a very affordable rate.
Step 6: Show up and shoot. Unfortunately our expedition to shoot the 2018 super blood moon was a bust as Seattle had nearly total cloud cover (remember to check Clear Sky Tracker before you head out). Here’s what the composition would have looked like if we had clear skies:
Thanks for reading! I hope this information is useful to those who can make it out on Sunday. If you’re like me and will be completely blanketed with clouds but reeeeaaalllly want a picture of a super blood moon, my image of the 2015 Harvest Moon / Super moon / Blood Moon is available to purchase in a variety of sizes and formats here [link].
If you are looking for a tutorial on equipment setup and shooting techniques, please check out my previous blog post How to Photograph the "Super Blue Blood Moon" Lunar Eclipse.