Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lunar (Eclipse) Madness

“It is the very error of the moon: She comes more nearer earth than she was wont, and makes men mad." (William Shakespeare)

Lunar eclipse in the general vicinity of Chief Mountain (c) John Ashley
Lunar eclipse vanishes from the the pre-dawn sky,
high over Chief Mountain in Glacier National Park.
I am now officially oh-for-two on lunar eclipse photos - but I am getting closer. I was forced to punt six hours into the last eclipse, but during yesterday's eclipse I only missed my shot by 15 minutes.

The last eclipse was several summers back, and I set up on a lakeshore for the night. I had this elaborate plan to photograph the entire arc with two identical camera/tripod sets, each one covering half the sky with a good amount of overlap. I started well before sunset, with the eclipse starting at about 2 am. And then the clouds rolled in at 2:10 am. I stayed all night anyway, but all of my plans evaporated. I never found out if all those careful calculations would have worked.

By contrast, the stars appeared to be lining up perfectly for this eclipse - so I added in a series of mistakes and generally raised the degree of difficulty by several orders of magnitude.

The full moon was due to set at 304 degrees west - a perfect azimuth for me to place it behind Chief Mtn. (almost a three-hour drive from home). The Earth-shaded moon was predicted to glow "coppery orange" and set (as in, dropping below the horizon) a little bit before sunrise.

Now, about the winter weather here in western Montana. Normally, the mountains disappear into clouds in the fall and aren't seen again until spring. Where we live, on the west side of the mountains, yesterday's forecast was for dense, freezing fog. Not so good for astrophotography. But, as fate would have it, the forecast over on the east side of the mountains was for what I consider a clear winter sky - only 22% cloud cover!

The way the stars, planets and clouds were aligning, I should have been able to capture a once-in-a-lifetime image of a copper-colored moon just barely touching the top of a dark-blue, pre-dawn Chief Mtn.

The operative words here are, "should have."

Another thing about weather on the east side of the mountains. It's windy. Very windy. All winter long. When I worked there years ago the postmaster explained to me that, when the wind finally stops blowing in spring, everyone falls over.

My eclipse night weather forecast? A manageable 25 degrees, and west winds 25-35 mph with gusts to 50 mph. Okay, so that's challenging for long exposures made in the dark, but maybe not insurmountable. I've worked in worse. Maybe.

Now about those mistakes. I left home late, which forced me to shoot my azimuths in the windy dark, using binoculars to see the mountain, but I was still able to sort out the best of seven potential camera locations. In a hurry to leave home, I also forgot to pack my weight bag and second tripod. With two tripods, I could have anchored my lens to one and camera body to the other - clunky to set up but solid in the wind. I did, however, bring along my perpetual headache, and the prescription drugs were pretty good at helping me think less clearly. So, I didn't actually leave all of the fog behind.

In addition, I'd misplaced my favorite (thin) headlamp and resorted to wearing an old clunky one instead. I had also cut my left thumb on a picture frame earlier in the week, which made me painfully reluctant to remove my left glove. And to top things off, I was still figuring out how to use my first-ever pair of bifocal eyeglasses.

Let's just toss all of these conditions together during a nighttime, winter hurricane and make some images, shall we?

I parked perpendicular to the wind and set my lone tripod up on the leeward side, as short and as solid as I could make it. But the gale easily curled around my car, and I could see the camera shake with every gust. Well okay, I guess I'll just have to time the gusts. I figured out too late that I couldn't use mirror-up with a remote release, so my next-best choice was a 3-second timer delay. So all I had to do is guess when each wind gust would end, and press the shutter release 4-6 seconds before the lull.

Now it's a good thing no one was there to watch me, so I don't have to feel embarrassed. Like when the tripod head detached itself from the tripod. Or when one tripod leg suddenly decided to make itself shorter. Or all of the times when I tried looking through the viewfinder, forgot, and headbutted my camera with the big headlamp.

But the worst mistake was wearing a winter glove on that injured left hand. As the eclipse progressed and the moon got darker and darker, I was dialing down the exposure to a minimum, and then dialing up the ISO. Then I did the reverse when the ambient light started to rise. This required spinning one knob with my (un-gloved) right hand while pushing one of four tiny buttons with my (gloved) left hand.

I can hear you groaning.

You should have heard me groan when I realized that I'd inadvertently dialed the camera settings from RAW to JPG format, and then back again some time later. And, somewhere among the JPG's, I somehow also changed the color-balance to tungsten. Of course I didn't notice these camera changes right away, peering through my new-fangled bifocal eye glasses, and there's no going back if you screw up a bunch of JPG's with a fumbling hand and feeble brain.

But in the end, it wasn't the Keystone Cop routine that kept me from making the image I wanted. Instead it was my camera angle. That, and plain ol' bad luck with the timing.

I had to shoot from the road because I didn't want to trespass - especially in the dark, and in snow. Moving uphill along the road moved the moon higher, while moving downhill moved the moon farther left and off course from the mountain. My chosen spot was simply the best available roadside camera angle that would have the moon set behind Chief Mtn.

Still, this camera angle would have worked perfectly - if only the moon had set earlier, or if a few clouds to the east had knocked the pre-dawn light down a couple of stops. Instead, the sky got too light too early, and the already-dark moon simply evaporated into thin air while still hanging too high above Chief Mtn. (top image).

Like the previous eclipse, I punted. I tried to go wide (the image below) but it was too late. The sky was too light for the moon to show any "coppery orange" glow. Instead, the eclipsed moon looked like a regular full moon that had faded with the sunrise - and that's a regular old once-a-month event, not once-a-lifetime.

You need to aim high to make unique images, working through the challenges, and no one's going to succeed every time. But just 15 minutes more darkness, and I would have nailed this one.

Well, maybe.

Lunar eclipse high over the mountains of Glacier Park (c) John Ashley
Wide view of the lunar eclipse somewhere in the general vicinity of Chief Mtn., in Glacier Nat. Park (c) John Ashley.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post and great views..Thanks to share..

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