Category Archives: Photo Tip

Cross Country – Things Learned Driving East to West (Parts 1 and 2)

Last revised 6/14/2019

San Jose to East Coast by plane and then driving back over 15 days

If you already read this and are looking for the rest of the article (parts 3, 4 and 5)… Look HERE.

Steven’s father passed away last December and the family decided to hold a memorial in Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia on Memorial Day weekend. Seemed entirely appropriate as that is when all of dads cross-country scattered kin could convene… that and dad also served in the Army during the Korean War era. What I hope to illuminate in this article are some of the considerations to consider to take a multi-day or longer car trip. In this case, we flew to Roanoke Virginia via Chicago (the upper line) and then drove my fathers car back from Smith Mountain Lake through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and finally California.

I’ve divided the discussion into the following sections:

  1. Trip Planning Tools (Excel and Google Maps proved to be the most useful)
  2. Supplies and Provisions
  3. Booking Lodging and Excursions
  4. Photography and Night Photography Considerations
  5. Lessons Learned (What went wrong, what went right)

Trip Planning – Google Maps + My Scenic Drives + Excel

The way I started was simple: fire up google maps, enter my beginning city, added known stops (arranged east to west) and see what happened. To travel directly from Moneta, Virginia (Smith Mountain Lake) to San Jose mapped out as 40 hours of driving over 2722 miles. Since our actual mileage was 3982, clearly we did not take the “straight path” which would have been I40 nearly the whole way. One of the limitations with Google Maps is that you can have a maximum of 10 stops – unless you’re willing to do strange unnatural acts (or create your own map). But the key here was to see what the total distance was. Next I looked at breaking the trip up into digestible bits. The goal was to NOT drive more than 8 hours total in a day. And more significantly, to not be “on the road” more than about 10 hours including stops for sightseeing meals and potty breaks. Google maps was a bit unwieldy as I added more destinations and re-routed the segments to include driving to and through places of interest. One of the nice side benefits of using Google Maps, though, is that I could pull up the map on my laptop and send it to my phone directly. The phone then served as our GPS since the 12 year old navigation system in the car was clearly out of date.

One tool that I spent a lot of time on, and certainly helped was “My Scenic Drives“. The interface is a little clunky but My Scenic Drives can automatically divide up your driving based on time, but its method is not ideal. Indeed, the best use of My Scenic Drives was to “Find Nearby Attractions”. That proved to be it’s forte. “Avenue of the Ancients?” Why yes, thank you. “Valley of the Gods?” OF COURSE!, Chaco Culture, Mesa Verde, Bisti Badlands…. nearly all of these were suggested when searching in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. At one point I had at least 70 items “on the map” as potentials, and I paired it back to a mere 50. Reality eventually set it and I paired it back much further.

My Scenic Drives was quite useful for finding places of interest near or on the route.

I had a core list of must go places which included White Sands, NM; Monument Valley, UT; Lake Powell, AZ/UT; Lower Antelope Slot Canyons, Page, AZ; Toadstool Hoodoos, Kanab, UT; Valley of Fire State Park, NV. To that list there was a long list of LIKE-to-GOs that included Chaco Culture, Avenue of the Ancients, Mesa Verde, and many more. Since my wife traveled with me, it was also important to include stops and destinations that were of interest to her as well.

El Paso, We Have A Problem

Ultimately the reality of the distances, vehicle choice and time constraints dictated what stayed in and what fell out of the plan. And THEN it got even tougher… Scheduling it on some days required to-the-HOUR timing. To be clear, not every day needed to-the-hour scheduling, but 2 of the 14 did… and that’s when I turned to creating an Excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet helped in a number of ways: accumulating miles (and thus predicting fuel costs and tracking lodging costs), accumulating time, and also keeping a record of addresses, reservation numbers and status… and more. The reality of one of the days made me realize that from Farmington, NM to Monument Valley, AZ, it was just not possible to go through Avenue of the Ancients AND Valley of the Gods as well. The reason: I had booked an overnight photography tour of Monument Valley and HAD to be at the View Hotel in Monument Valley by 2:30 PM or the photo tour was in jeopardy. It worked out just fine, however, as the Mrs. wanted to visit Four Corners, so we timed our Farmington, NM departure to arrive around opening time at Four Corners (a Navajo nation stop) and then budgeted time at the additional stops. Fortunately we ended up about an hour ahead of schedule on that day, and were able to take a brief detour into Valley of the Gods.

To accommodate our desired focus points, we elected to “force march” from Raleigh, NC to Amarillo, TX with no sightseeing except for one lunch stop in Omni Oak Grove in in Asheville.

Oak Grove Inn View, Asheville, NC

That’s nearly 2/3 of the total east-west distance, and we did it in three LONG days (each less than 8.5 hours of driving, however). I micro managed the stops. The locations I picked for lodging initially were Knoxville, TN, Little Rock, AR; and Amarillo, TX. But the Little Rock to Amarillo drive was almost 9 hours, and the Knoxville to Little Rock was similarly long. There was also the matter of potential rush hour traffic, so the plan changed to drive 40 miles farther west on the first day (Harriman, TN), and about 20 miles farther west the next day (Maumelle, AR instead of Little Rock). That evened out the driving a bit more and got us away from major cities during rush hour. Mind you I still had to find cities with decent lodging. While I might be willing to stay alone in a flea bag hotel for a night, that wouldn’t fly with the Mrs. Choosing better lodging made the trip better overall, anyway!

One thing I highly recommend doing is making sure to add in an extra day or two here and there for two reasons: one is to have a cushion in case you run into delays, or find places more interesting than you expected, and the second is perhaps obvious: rest is good! No sense hauling your luggage into and out of the car twice a day every day. We elected to stay two days in Albuquerque, NM; and three days on the Pacific Coast of California – the latter came about because Las Vegas was just TOO hot to stop, and we needed some cooler “wave time”.

What I wish I had done was to pick the same “chain” of hotels as much as possible. But my strategy of not booking everything in advance proved helpful for changing plans as needed. See the Booking Lodging and Excursions (part 3) for the rationale behind each.

Maps Can Lie – BEWARE!

One last comment about using any mapping software (Google Maps, for example), is to inspect the path carefully. I’ve seen mapping software make bone-headed decisions. On the planning for this trip, for example, it routed us over about 50 miles of dirt-road driving until I forced it to pick a different route by adding intermediate destinations. Once in California, the mapping software assumed that the East Pinnacles National Park and West Pinnacles National park were connected by a road – but they AREN’T. The best you could have done is carry your car about 3 miles over a foot path… And of course there are many examples where people have relied on outdated maps of places like Death Valley and ended up in a heap of hurt.

Supplies and Provisions

Because we were flying from the West Coast to the East Coast, we couldn’t possibly take all the provisions we would want on the plane. Some of the things that just were impractical to take included:

  • A cooler for drinks (plus snacks and ice)
  • A tow strap (in case we got stuck in sand or mud somewhere)
  • Bits of carpet for traction
  • Jump Start cables & jump start battery
  • Keurig Cartridges
  • Supplies, blanket / pillow
  • Gallon or more of water
  • Quart of the proper oil
  • Gallon of Bug / Windshield cleaner

And despite my normal camera-bag-full of equpiment (2 cameras, lenses, two tripods, etc), I elected to take ONE camera – the Nikon D600 – and ONE lens (24mm manual focus), and one tripod. I also took my Mavic Drone, but was only able to use it once… most locations prohibited drones, the wind was excessive in other locations, and a complication with the software made it impossible to use in one area that I wanted to use it… more on that in the Photography and Night Photography Considerations chapter.

My father’s car is an older model Lexus and so it wouldn’t be suitable for going down the bumpy off road areas where I might take an AWD high clearance vehicle like my Subaru. I also knew that some of the destinations included driving on unpaved roads. Indeed, some of the destinations that we removed from our itinerary were removed because of the off-road driving required. Since we clearly couldn’t take all needed provisions on the plane with us, and it was not clear that we would be able to acquire all that we desired, I used Amazon to order and have shipped to my father’s house the hard-to-find supplies that I needed. We figured we could pick up a cooler, snacks and drinks, water, oil and windshield cleaner along the way. Indeed, after we noticed that the first two lodgings had in-room Keurig machines, we bought Chai and Pete’s coffee cartridges. I am a Chai drinker, and my wife is a coffee snob. Only about 40% of the places we stayed had such machines, but when they had them, it meant we could enjoy our normal morning and evening beverages.

In Case of Emergency

For our peace of mind, I purchased and activated a plan on a Garmin InReach mini. I had the device shipped to my home before we left so that I could make sure it worked, and the service was active. The Inreach mini is a portable satellite communication device that can be used to track your location –

Emergency Communication and tracking

indeed that device supplied the tracking information for the map presented at the top. One of the plans allows you to track your location every 10 minutes – you can see I turned on tracking somewhere over Nevada on our flight out. The mini can also be used like the SPOT emergency location device to send 3 different canned messages to pre-canned destinations. The mini is about twice the cost, but it’s bi-directional. The messages I chose were: All is well, just checking in when arriving at lodging for the night; Look what I found to mark a particularly interesting place for posterity; and Delayed, or rerouted to indicate we were fine, but not going to arrive as planned. The device also allows an SOS to be sent, and you can then communicate by text with the emergency personnel to indicate what your needs are, and they can text you to indicate their status. Fortunately we had no need of sending an SOS, but there were many areas where we had little and NO cell coverage on either Verizon or ATT (my wife and I have different plans on purpose), so the peace of mind was worth the about $50 of service… and no doubt I’ll use the $300 device in the future.

Enroute Planning

Strorms Ahead. (Actually the blue is from shooting through the screen in the top of the windshield ;-), but it did dump a heap of rain and hail on us just a bit father down the road in Oklahoma.

It wasn’t enough, of course, to merely plot out the path. We also had to be mindful of the weather and road conditions. I’ve written extensively about how I >> plan for weather << so visit that link to learn how I use Weather.gov to be aware of what is going on. On this particular trip, we drove through the middle of the country prior to and during tornado and flooding events. Without the maps, we might have ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As it was, a tornado struck 1 mile away from our path two days prior to arriving (El Reno, Oklahoma) and major flooding was experienced in Little Rock and Fort Smith, AK the days of and following our trip segments there. Amarillo, TX and Roswell, NM were also hit with violent thunderstorms, and we used the forecast to refrain from heading up into Santa Fe, NM due to severe storm warnings. One Android tool I picked up and used was the NOAA Radar app. That offered alerts about nearby events – it was worth one month of subscription at $3 just to get those!

One of the other things that I discovered, but wasn’t aware of is that Google Maps in addition to notifications of slowdowns and road construction also has notifications about speed (radar) traps. We weren’t speeding anywhere, but the heads up certainly came in handy in case we decided to “blow the doors off a slowpoke driver” at an inopportune time.

Keeping Cool

Sugar free beverage + excellent “ice bottle”

We did acquire a decent cooler, small enough to fit in the backseat, but with a velcro latch so that it would be easy to open while underway. It had to be spacious enough to hold a half dozen drinks, ice AND chocolate. Since it was quite hot during our trip, even a short stint with the A/C off would result in a choco melt-down. I employed a trick I often use when hiking. After finishing an Ice beverage (sparkling sweetened drink), I rinsed it and refilled it with tap water. In lodgings that had a freezer component of the mini fridge, I put the refilled bottles in the freezer. Those frozen bottles then served as ice, and in a pinch, cold drinking water on some of our hot hikes. Do not try this with your average bottled water, however, they are too thin and flimsy to stand up to freezing.

It is also a good idea to buy a one or two gallon bottle of water that you can use for drinking (when the tap water is sketchy), and as an emergency source of coolant should your car need it.

See The Rest of the Article!

>>> Click here for parts 3, 4, and 5 along with many photos! You’re also welcome to use my excel planning sheet for yourself. The sheet contains links to the maps I used (divided into daily segments), a TODO list, as well as a heap of web references I used to select the events and locations I visited.

Sky Drift

Why Aim North?

Reaching for the Sky

Reaching for the Sky: 112 images, each f/4, ISO 800 for 60 seconds including a shot from twilight hour for the foreground Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California

Want to capture Perseid meteors, the Milky Way, and star trails in an awesome location?

Join us for our>>> Field Event: Meteors, Milk Way in Alabama Hills <<<Sunday, August 12, 2018 (with an optional second night).  SORRY EVENT IS FULL

I live and travel in the Northern Hemisphere. In fact I have yet to travel south of the equator, so my apologies to those of you from the southern half of the planet for my obvious northern bias.  I believe those of you in the bottom half of the planet can just substitute the word South for North everywhere and everything should be correct.  I have added [parenthetical content for those who are in the southern hemisphere where that north/south swap doesn’t work]

The results obtained by shooting a long exposure at night depend quite a lot on which direction the camera is pointed. I favor long star exposures with a northern view for many reasons.

The Advantages of Shooting To the North

  1. Curvature of the star trails is strongest around the north star. Exposures of about 6 hours will appear to be full circles (24 hours of exposures are actually needed to make complete circles and that is not possible in one night except near the North Pole!).
  2. The moon will never intervene into the shot because the moon never passes through the northern sky.  [NOTE: those in the southern hemisphere still have to worry about a moon in their Southern shots]
  3. Cassiopeia and Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) are bright constellations that can always be found in the Northern Sky – so there is always some interesting sweep of stars possible. The region immediately around the North Star, however has dimmer stars which may only be captured through long exposures. [The southern hemisphere suffers for lack of many bright constellations near the southern celestial equator]
  4. With just a smidgen of star hopping skill it is easy to find the north star which, weather permitting, is always visible in the night sky.
  5. The moon sweeps east to west giving long shadows from the right or left of the subject. And when the moon is highest in the sky it can cast strong face light.
  6. The sun also never appears in the northern sky so it is safe to leave a camera running from before sundown to after sun up. Camera damage can result from a long exposure pointed at the sun.  [NOTE: those in the southern hemisphere still have to worry about a sun in their Southern shots]
  7. Since the moon cannot enter into a northern shot a photo can be made regardless of the moon’s phase and for as long as I choose. For shots toward the East, South or West it is important to know the moon phase and location during the hours of shooting to prevent problems from flare or washout. [NOTE: those in the southern hemisphere still have to worry about a moon in their Southern shots].
  8. The stars in the north move the slowest through the field of view which allows them to be brighter and reduces inter-exposure gaps in the trails.
  9. If I know my latitude I know how high to point the camera and be guaranteed to get a circle in the view.
  10. I do not need to know what constellations will be visible in the direction I will shoot.
  11. Two major meteor showers (the Perseids and Quadrantids) and 3 periodic meteor showers (the Giacobinids or Draconids, the Ursids and the Andromedids) are well placed in the northern sky.

The Disadvantages

There are a few detriments to pointing north, however:

  • Not every situation lends itself to a view from the south.
  • It takes a longer exposure to form a pleasing arc.
  • To get a circular arc, I must include at least 10 degrees or so above and below the North Star. The farther north you are, the higher in the sky the center of rotation. Those at more northerly latitudes will be more constrained in their choices.
  • The altitude (degrees above the horizon) of the north celestial pole may constrain the choice of lenses to very wide-angle – and may force you to use portrait mode. Or you can create your exposure by stitching together foreground and sky shots.

Another Northern View

Grand View [C_009613-686br]

Looking North from Grandview Campground, White Mountains, Bishop, California.  Shot at ISO 800, f/3.2 for 6 minutes each. Began at 10:11 PM and ended at 5:35 AM. That is 75 shots x 6 minutes = seven and a half hours. Grandview is at latitude 37 degrees North, so the center of the circular pattern is 37 degrees above the horizon.

What About OTHER Directions?

Southern View

Woosh

Woosh: 19 images. Each image: 6 minutes, ISO 800, f/3.2, Canon 5D Mark II, 16mm; Patriarch Grove, White Mountain, California

Eastern View

Valley of Stars (Remix) *Explored*

Western View

Stars and Stripes [5_065561-626li]
Granite Park - 53 Minutes (edited)

Notes

Contrary to popular belief, Polaris, the North Star, is not the brightest star in the sky. Sirius is the brightest star. The brightest objects in the night sky are the moon, and the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Also while Polaris is quite NEAR to the North Celestial Pole, it’s not exactly there so even Polaris will make a trail.

This is a reissue of an article originally written in October 11, 2010; Thoroughly revised and updated.

What Makes An Image Memorable?

Perhaps the highest praise Steven gets as a speaker is this:

Wow, his passion is infectious. I’m now eager to try night photography.”

Almost every photographer makes pictures to SHARE with others so praise of passion is high praise, indeed. Not everyone will have similar interests or feel the connection you feel with your work, but there are some questions you can ask yourself to strengthen the broader appeal of your work, that is, make your image more memorable.

My friend and mentor, Kip Evans sold his photography from a gallery in Carmel, California. One of his laments to me was: I don’t really sell what I find beautiful and compelling, I mostly sell what others have a connection to – often touristy things like images of the Golden Gate Bridge. What drew us into Kip’s gallery was an image of a large breaking wave called Winter Swell. We have print of Winter Swell hanging in our bedroom (and so does at least one coastal hotel).

        Kip Evans: Winter Swell

My wife loves waves – and I share her affinity. She will stand in awe and clap as huge surf crashes on to our coast. There is a visceral connection with the spectacle and power of the scene.

If we spend a little time thinking about what causes that kind of connection, we can endeavor to put elements of it in our work.


From my perspective, images need the following:

  • Scale that inspires awe, grandeur
  • Connectedness – intimacy in the viewer caused by an emotive reaction to the image
  • Interest – an alignment with the passions of the viewer – even if only tangential
  • Revelation – an innovative view that illuminates something either unnoticed or unseeable.

Of course these characteristics are inter-related and if only two of the four are strongly present that may be enough to wow the viewer.

Vote!

Before you move on to the explanations, consider the following 4 images. Decide which image is the one that best reveals scale, the one that speaks to you (connects with you), the one that is most in line with your interests, and the one that reveals something you’ve not seen or understood before. The answer to each question may be a different image. Indeed, we would love it if you’d answer the four questions in the polls below… If you want to elaborate or leave a comment listing your choices (e.g. “A,B,B,D”) that’s fine, too. And yes, we realize we have mixed in a photo of a cute dog that has nothing to do with Night Photography.

The images are
A: Sky from Orion to the Pleiades, B: Trona Pinnacles with Orion and Canis Major, C: Mount Whitney in Moonlight; D: Pierre Grazin’ in the Grass.

WHICH IMAGE:

... most shows Scale or Grandeur
... draws you the most?
... aligns with YOUR interests
... gives a unique/new insight

 

Revelation

Fortunately for Night Photography, the last part – Revelation – is the easiest. Few people have seen a truly dark sky with starry heavens. If you can connect the viewer by linking Earth and Heaven you can draw people in.  Even fewer people realize that the Milky Way is awesome, and that stars have discernible colors. It is not hard to enchant viewers with a revelatory image.

Revelation can take many forms, however. For example: showing an unfamiliar but interesting place, illustrating a relationship that was not obvious before, revealing unexpected or unobserved colors or details. The camera is very good at seeing color, even in dim light – so it’s almost easy to be revelatory in a night image. In my opinion the single most significant mistake that people make in night images is in not selecting or not providing sufficient interest in the foreground – either because the foreground is boring, or because it is not well enough illuminated to speak on its own. My personal bias is to tune out a photo of a car under the stars, for example, unless the car is really, really sexy looking. My wife, who is a car fan, feels a little differently. I am also not a fan of junkyard scenes with garish colors, but my judgments (biases) are not about revelation, but about Interest.

Perhaps one of the revelatory aspects of image D is the “on-eye-level-ness” with a furry little creature.

Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 - People and Space **

Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 – People and Space **

Interest

How many images of sunsets have you seen? Most of them are immediately emotive, colorful, and often compelling… but are they different enough to hold your interest?

People are all over the map in interests: favorite colors, past-times, subjects, hobbies … It is impossible to create an image that will be interesting to everyone. The point here is to think about your audience.  The photo that won Astronomy Photographer of the Year in 2010 (above) garnered interest because it was not a run-of-the-mill, same as everyone else night sky photo indeed it wasn’t a night sky photo at all! The image was something that I calculated would be of interest to judges in the UK. In the UK Stonehenge is an ancient, human-made edifice apparently built to measure seasons. My Photon Worshipper image is of a natural formation that does a similar thing – it only forms a beam of light during the winter solstice.  The image is also unlike the many existing images of the same phenomenon: it is a different view, and includes people to give it human scale.

Scale / Grandeur

Likewise my runner-up image in 2012 (below) was arguably the least well executed of my awarded work: focus is soft, color is off. But the scale and human interest of Lost In Yosemite is hard to miss. The contrast of tiny figures – once you recognize them as people – against towering trees and an immense sky was not lost on the judges.

I love this photo because it illustrates how humbling, even frightening, both the natural world and the cold depths of space can be for us as tiny, fragile human beings. ~ Olivia Johnson

Lost in Yosemite [C_033706] Runner Up - Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2012

Lost in Yosemite: Two tiny hikers in flashlight against the enormity of the environment.

If you’ve seen it in person the scale of the Grand Canyon is inspiring. If you’ve seen it in photos, the Grand Canyon is LESS impressive. Why? My thought is that most photos lack human-scaled perspective of the kind in Lost in Yosemite above. Image A, above, is an image in which you likely found no sense of scale – unless you’re an astronomer. Image C shows rugged mountains (Mount Whitney, in fact). Hikers and mountaineers will implicitly understand the scale. Image B, however has formations that are of indeterminate size unless you have first-hand experience with them. Image D also gives scale clues… You see the size of the ears in proportion to the dog (named Pierre), and the size of the dog in proportion to the grass and flowers. But it’s not likely that it was the scale or size revelation of the dog that drew you in, is it?  If you found affinity with Pierre, it’s because you have – or had – a pet you are fond of, or wished that you had a pet. But we will address connectedness in a moment.

My suggestion is to be sure that something in your image imparts an easily recognizable scale.  In fact, putting a human in the shot can be powerful – Ben Canales won a National Geographic competition with an image featuring himself and Crater Lake – and a bit of whimsy.

Connectedness

Connectedness, or perhaps better term intimacy is not a single characteristic. By connectedness, I mean that involuntary emotive sense of drawing your attention – either as awwwww or that’s beautiful, or that’s disgusting, or my heart hurts. Sunsets, puppies, and kittens are perhaps the most photographed items of all. Why? Because most of them come laden with affection and fond memories – or sadness, or whimsy.  I immediately feel connectedness with well crafted night skies because I have many fond memories of sitting out in the dark under a horizon-to-horizon Milky Way.

I am reminded that compared to the enormity of the sky I feel small, but somehow embedded in that smallness is always a feeling of importance and one-ness with nature.

I assert that connectedness is usually a product of scale, revelation and interest, but connectedness can also occur spontaneously out of past experience and the human condition. My wife would put it this way:

Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.

Technical Competency

I gave thought to avoiding discussion of this important aspect of an image. Some of my most viewed, appreciated and commented images are NOT images that exhibit technical mastery! I purposely chose images B and C because they are older work, and lack technical robustness. Indeed, I have much better images from Trona Pinnacles (Image B), but none have been as popular as image B!

In summary, while technical mastery is a great goal to seek, if you work too hard on making your image sharp, color balanced, and so on, you may neglect choosing environments and images that have more compelling characteristics: Scale, Interest, Connectedness and Revelation.

So What is My Favorite Image – And Why?

If you’ve been paying attention you’ll understand that images, like aromas, colors and words carry different weights due to our personal experiences. I always gravitate to the image below. It’s my wife on our last evening in Santorini, Greece.  We had just finished a fantastic meal, I had given her that ring, and our view was awesome. And, it happens to be a sunset I shot with my cell phone.

Last Evening in Santorini

You probably wanted to know what’s my favorite Night Image, though.  It’s hard to choose, but it’s probably one of these two. I’ve never uploaded the first one, though it’s predecessor was released.

“South Side,” Red Rock Canyon State Park, California

“Like Grains of Sand,” Pfeiffer State Beach, Big Sur, California

If you ask my wife the same question about my images, I am pretty sure she would pick this one:

Famous III [C_035478]

This is all part of a larger talk I am planning for a local Astronomy Club.  I appreciate your votes on the images above so I have a good set of data to go on. Also, please comment on an image that really inspired you – mine or anyone elses!

Not Eclipsed!

Published: February 6, 2018

The total Lunar Eclipse of February, 2018 reminded me of my travails from my first effort to shoot an eclipse in 2010.

My First Eclipse Attempt: 2010

In December 2010, I was crestfallen to see the weather reports. The last total eclipse of the moon visible from North America until 2014… and the weather everywhere within a reasonable 3-4 hour drive was predicted to be 90% clouds and worse. It seemed my eclipse was going to be eclipsed by cloud cover.

At about 9:15 PM, PST on December 20th, however, I looked up and saw… THE MOON!  Sure, it was scintillating in a little sucker hole playing with me. But I decided to play along. I hastily hauled out the Canon 5D Mark II, the 70-200mm f/4 IS L lens, the 1.4x Telextender, and the Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. Why those? Because that’s what I found first.

My equipment was scattered about in my office still recovering from the wet weather from earlier in San Jose. Indeed, I did not find the batteries for my Canon 50D camera.

By the time I got set up, I realized that the moon would very soon be contacting the earth’s umbra (darkest part of the shadow). So I quickly got to shooting what I could. Never mind that it was cold and I was not dressed properly.  Soon enough the clouds would come and I could dart into the house to hurriedly collect what I was missing.  The first shot I got was with the moon in the earth’s penumbra. Not particularly remarkable, unfortunately.

Through various breaks in the clouds I was able to get photos from first umbra contact all the way up to totality. Including a serendipitous shot of an airplane headed, probably, to the San Francisco airport or some other place to the north west.

Airplane Transits the Partially Eclipsed Moon
Airplane Transits the Partially Eclipsed Moon

What settings did I use for these shots? f/7.1, ISO 200, and 1/400 of a second exposures. Why so fast? Because, my friends, the moon is BRIGHT. Even partially eclipsed, even already in earths penumbra it is a big bright object. Shooting the moon is a definitive case where your camera absolutely cannot get the right exposure if left to itself. A good exposure must be manually set. I arrived at my settings by a few quick trials. I started at about 1/200th at f/5.6 and noticed that I was getting some over exposed areas (on my LCD screen the overexposed pixels blink white). I then decreased the aperture and continued to tweak the focus.

I wanted the moon images to be as well exposed as possible – especially knowing that the thin clouds were going to dim the image. My goal was to get detail in the moon, I did not care about the clouds or stars. In fact it is impossible – except at a very slender crescent or during a total eclipse to get detail in the moon AND also show stars in the sky. Why? Because the moon is so, SO bright.

I definitely made a slew of mistakes. The most significant one is that I should have put the telephoto lens on my 50D body which is a 1.6 crop camera. Had I done that all my moon images would have been about twice the size of what I actually got. Not having my camera all packed away in my bag meant some lost opportunities here.

I also thought  that perhaps the 5D would have been a good choice to get a sequence of shots showing the progression of the eclipse. The idea was to get the moon in the bottom corner of the frame and take a series of shots as it moved to the upper left of the frame. This also did not work for several reasons. The first problem was that the cloud “holes” came at irregular intervals – so spreading them across the frame evenly was not going to happen. The second problem was purely my failure to correctly guess the path the moon would follow in the sky.  Had I been a little smarter I’d have switched lenses when I realized the timelapse path was not going to work. But instead I tried again a few times.

I also realized that when the eclipse was total, the moon was going to be quite dim and the superior high ISO performance of the 5D II was needed. For the totally eclipsed shot, the ISO was ramped all the way up to 1600 and the exposure dropped from 1/400 to 1/6 of a second. That is a HUGE difference. The slower exposure meant that details in the moon would be blurred and the stars at this telephoto range would become dashes rather than dots.

Jewel [C_029690]
Nearly Total – With enough bright area left to form a halo in the clouds

Epilogue:  February, 2018

Sadly I was NOT much better prepared. After studying the weather forecasts, I headed to the coast where it is often really yucky with fog, low clouds, and on-shore winds that bring dampness and salt spray. It was surprisingly clear. My goal was to take a series of shots showing the progression of the eclipse ending at sunrise with the moon hovering over the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. I had done all the calculations as we cover in our Catching the Moon Webinar. (And also somewhat described here)

I imagined something like this effort, but better done.
Plan C: San Jose City Hall Eclipse Sequence

As it came about in 2014, we had to go with plan C due to weather. So I was excited that the weather forecast for the coast was much better in February, 2018. Some oversights on preparation conspired against me. I had not jotted down the proper GPS location and on site I had no cell signal, so couldn’t (re)calculate the spot. That left me wandering about trying to find the little tree and path that was featured on the satellite view… and NOT finding it.

Instead I ended up wandering into a thicket of brush that had an abrupt downward slope. That was fall number 1. Several efforts (and falls) later I tried setting my tripod down THROUGH the gorse all around… only to snap the leg off of my tripod. Now I needed to take  trek back to the car for my backup tripod. (Fortunately I had one!).

Since I got a late start, I scrambled to try to get a couple of series of panoramas on which to overlay the moon trajectory. However the moon was already in complete eclipse by the time I had everything set up. It was only then that I realized I was not getting the details I wanted out of the moon. I was using a 70mm f/4 lens, and the long exposures were streaking the stars and blurring the moon. So while I did get a FEW shots, they weren’t the ones I had imagined. My problem, in a nutshell, was that I was trying to get the moon AND the stars … which I did, but at the cost of streaking and blurring.

Orb to Rule the Night

By the time twilight started to appear, it was obvious that my location was about 1/4 mile distant from where I wanted to be… the little tree that I thought might form the right edge of my panorama was far off. The moon was NOT going to land anywhere near the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, so I packed up and ran up Highway 1 closer to the calculated location. I had to abandon the sequence plans, throw on the big tele-extender and HOPE the moon would survive visibility through the now obvious off-shore fog bank. Of course it didn’t. It fizzled as it got near the target.  I did get a consolation prize of sorts, though. This image hit 80 THOUSAND views in a few days – becoming my most popular photo on Flickr EVER. Sadly it’s not the image I imagined.

It's A Little Bit Broken
Photo from the end of the total eclipse of February, 2018

What Did I Learn?

To get a decent eclipsed moon shot with details, either you need a very fast telephoto lens, or to use a mount to track the moon. I also need to be willing to lose more sleep. I woke up at 3:00 AM, but the 90 minute drive meant that the umbral (dark part) of the eclipse would be starting as I arrived.

I also realized that if I’m going to spend the better part of a day mapping out the moon trajectory toward a landmark like the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, I’d do well to record some GPS locations (where to park, where to stand), and even get a Google map pre-downloaded.

Hopefully you, dear reader, will learn from my mistakes because you won’t have enough time to make them all yourself!