If you missed the last total lunar eclipse, don’t worry. You’ll have another chance in October, 2014. For that, I’m grateful since as you can see I had some problems with my apparatus (the CamRanger). The battery failed after the 7th shot of the moon you see below, and then it stopped working again after 3 more shots, and needed to be slayed and restarted just as the moon was transitioning to fully eclipsed.
But this column is not about our troubles, it is about how I planned for the lunar eclipse shot you see below.
The planning began with a list of possible foreground subjects. The San Jose City Hall Rotunda was “Plan C” and the least well researched of my plans. What were plan A and B? Those were one of my favorite lighthouses and a favorite landmark in San Francisco, California. For each arrangement I had to:
- Calculate where to stand to make sure the moon would be in an interesting phase above the object. The plan required solving these problems
- Determine how high in the sky the moon would be (to know what viewing angle was best)
- Determine which DIRECTION I needed to face to capture the moon.
- Determine how “wide” a lens I needed to get the sequence I wanted.
- Monitor the weather at each location.
After planning all that was left was to make a last-minute decision where the most likely target would have favorable conditions and make any final on-site adjustments. I had a Plan D, too… but it was also in San Jose so it would have only been chosen had I found some serious obstacle at the City Hall rotunda.
Calculating the Angles
Determining the angles needed is pretty simple. I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris including all the nifty tricks we teach in our Catching the Moon Webinar. Below you can see a screen shot from the Photographer’s Ephemeris which shows the moon altitude and direction at the beginning of the eclipse. I also moved the time ahead to show the same for the middle of the eclipse. The moon’s altitude angle (32 to 41 degrees) gave me an idea how close to be to the rotunda to get the moon overhead. Lower angles allow me to get farther away which allows me to photograph the moon larger relative to the foreground object. This eclipse, however, and the one in October will have the moon high overhead.
Coming up with a Foreground
There is no good substitute for knowing what interesting foregrounds are possible. And also knowing which direction(s) you should be facing. I knew that the San Jose City Hall Rotunda was generally easterly because I had watched a sun rise through it. I also knew that the eclipse would be at maximum when the moon was in the southern sky so I knew that the range was SE to S directionally. You can see a diagram from The Photographer’s Ephemeris below for more complete planning.
Calculating Where to Stand
I had to know approximately how tall the foreground object is. For the San Jose City Hall I flat-out guessed. I found the overall height of the building through Google, and I guess the Rotunda was 60 to 80 feet tall. My original calculations had me much closer to the building… it was only when I got on site that I realized that there were adaptations that needed to be made.
Watching the Weather
Remember that the Rotunda was plan C. I kept a close eye on the weather for each of the planned sites. My favorite weather app is provided by weather.gov – in particular the hourly graphs. We talked about this tool in detail in a prior column. Why do I like it so much? Because it gives me numbers instead of “partly cloudy”. It was pretty obvious that the coastal region for Plan A, and the San Francisco Landmark (plan B) were likely to have bad weather – both fog and clouds. Indeed my friends who headed those directions were frustrated by poor visibility. We had clouds passing through San Jose, but as the weather predictions had read: it got clearest right near totality, and overall was not a hindrance.
Last Minute Adaptation
When I first got to the site, I realized that the Rotunda was taller than I thought. I set up across the street in order to be able to have the moon over the Rotunda… but there were other problems, too. One of the problems is the floodlight on the top of the building. Another was a street light just to the right of where the red marker is in the graph below. These are problems that would only reveal themselves if you visit at night!
And then there are all of those flag posts. My original guess at the Rotunda Height would have allowed me to stand between the fountain (brown area) and the building… but that clearly didn’t work as the rotunda was too high. Setting up across the street (and very low) also had its challenges… namely buses and cars that came regularly. I also realized that I had miscalculated the eclipse time by an hour (forgot it was now daylight savings time). The miscalculation turned out to be a good thing as it left plenty of time to move around. It would seem the ideal spot was in the MIDDLE of Santa Clara Street, but that wouldn’t have worked, of course. Eventually I picked the spot with the red marker as a compromise between altitude of the moon above the structure, removing the glare from the tower lights, the wash-out of the street light, and the many flag poles in the way.
If only my CamRanger had cooperated, I’d have had a continuous sequence of shots of the moon passing over the Rotunda. There is always October… and maybe Plan A will work for that!
Of course that’s not ALL that was required to get the shot. I also had to composite each of the moon shots into their proper locations. I did that by first taking a panorama of the area, then making sure that when the exposures began I had a piece of the rotunda in each shot so I could properly align the moon over its actual location. The creation of the image used the Easy HDR method we have previously described.