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Total Lunar Eclipse of a Rare Moon

The moon glows orange as the sun casts earth

Totality viewed from Griffith Observatory, 8:43 p.m., Sunday, January 20, 2019

Super Blood Blue Wolf Moon – What the descriptive words mean:

  • Super Moon
    a full moon closest to perigee, the closest distance of the moon’s orbit to earth, making the moon appear relatively larger; on this date the distance from the moon to earth was a close approach of 222,268 miles.
  • Blood Moon
    in total eclipse the moon is illuminated by sunlight filtered and refracted through earth’s atmosphere lending it a dark reddish-orange glow.
  • Blue Moon
    the second full moon in a single month;
  • Wolf Moon
    a full moon during the month of January, so-called by the Old Farmer’s Almanac;
  • Most of these words are not scientific but colloquial speech intended to explain scientific phenomena to an unscientific general public.

Starting point for an astrophotographic adventure:

It was my good fortune to be in Los Angeles on the 20th of January, 2019, to witness and photograph a total eclipse of the moon over greater Los Angeles. And moreover it was a rare Super Blood Blue Wolf Moon. I’d swapped out a 400mm lens option for a lighter, more compact one to fit my carry-on since I’d also be carrying a tripod. The skies were forecast to be overcast anyway so I opted for convenience over better judgment–the forecast turned out to be wrong! Our son-in-law and I left early since we expected media attention to draw a large crowd to Griffith Observatory. That was about the best we could plan since the sun, earth, and moon precisely set the rest of the evening’s agenda.

Traffic congestion was predictable, parking was difficult, and we had a long, uphill hike along North Vermont Canyon Road to the Observatory. It was Southern California cold but no complaints as back home in the Midwest it was minus 20° Fahrenheit for my husband who was watching the same patch of sky. The crowds at the Observatory were very large and the lawns were full of people and anticipation. I’d no sooner set my tripod and taken a few test shots when I learned that equipment wasn’t allowed on the lawn. Ever resourceful we moved forward between a large utility pole and the perimeter fence that perfectly concealed me and my gear. To reduce light pollution lights around the observatory grounds were turned off and the iconic Hollywood sign 4.4 miles away on Mt. Lee was dark.

By the numbers:

My utility pole was at latitude 34.1189 °N; longitude 118.3002 °W and 1109’ above msl altitude. The partial eclipse began at 7:34 p.m. and became full at 8:41 p.m. right about the time I took this panorama sequence. Maximum totality of the eclipse occurred shortly after at 9:13 p.m. with totality ending at 9:44 p.m.

Basic gear and strategy:

It’s seven miles from Griffith Observatory to downtown LA in the background. The camera is a full-frame 5D Mark iii with an EF100mm f/2.8L IS USM lens mounted on a graphite tripod with fluid panhead; some shots of the moon were handheld with camera wedged against the utility pole. The shutter was triggered with a two second delay while I held my breath and hoped! The city-scape was taken in portrait-aspect in several series of fifteen shots (three rows of five images). I then concentrated exclusively on the changing moonscape.

Post production:

After stitching the best series into a panorama in Lightroom Classic, the resulting .tiff file was run through Gigapixel to clean up noise and maximize AI features for clarity and detail. The resulting image is over four feet wide at 300 pixels per inch! Amazingly the UHAUL sign two miles away in the mid-foreground and lighted corporate logos crowning many downtown buildings in the background are distinct and readable at seven miles distance.

I varied my settings, particularly ISO to expose a bit to the right. Here is what generally worked best to accommodate exposure, focus and least noise:

  • 1/40 second
  • f 9
  • ISO 3200

“The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.” Ansel Adams

A preface: To me photography is as much about art as science. Unless you’re a documentarian with legal responsibilities, it can be about creative experimentation as well as with setting the exposure triangle to best capture the light. Getting it right in camera isn’t enough as I prefer to make a print that captures not just what I saw but what I remember, all the while taking technical constraints into consideration. Those who engineered how the camera would “see” the scene have already made in their hardware and software designs what amount to artistic decisions. I can choose to accept their priorities or to craft to my own artistic taste.

An explanation and confession: The 49.13° elevation of the moon at totality made for a different aspect relationship than this photo shows. Although the moon shot and cityscape were taken altogether in the same pano sequence, the entire middle panel of five shots showed only an entirely black sky! When I developed the whole sequence of fifteen shots that black band of sky added 50% more pixels and inflated the already gigantic gigapixel image to unmanageable size. I made the practical and artistic decision to remove those five shots from the final panorama. As a result the elevation of the moon appears lower here than it was in reality.

Tip of the hat:

The Photopills app was invaluable in planning where and how to best see and photograph the Super Moon total eclipse on January 20, 2019. The nighttime city is always beautiful and never more so than under the dark sky of totality. Over a lifetime I’ve seen many lunar eclipses but this one is particularly special for what I learned about staging the shot and appreciation for the family member with whom I shared it. Thanks for helping to make it happen!