Perigee, Totality and Amateur Photography

Back in March we were treated to several celestial events which I blogged about here. I really enjoyed watching the Solar Eclipse through my pinhole camera, hunting for the Aurora Borealis in Mid Wales and looking for the Supermoon.

So I wasn’t going to miss yet another Supermoon here in Autumn. It was rather special and got a lot of press in the days leading up to it because not only was it the largest “Supermoon” or moon at perigee (closest to the earth as it orbits) this year but it was also the Harvest Moon (closest full moon to the Autumn Equinox) and also a total lunar eclipse (sometimes called a Blood Moon). And unlike the solar eclipse it’s quite safe to watch a lunar eclipse with the naked eye. The trade off is that you just have to sit around in the dark and cold to watch it!

I treated myself to a new camera last week. I’ve been pondering this for well over a year and saving up. Some friends lent me a camera over the summer months – it’s far more intelligent than me and way beyond my limited photography skills to use at its full potential but it’s still been a real boon for me to improve some of my product photography. I’ve tried hard to get photography to “stick” in my head over the years but it doesn’t come naturally – I’m quite happy composing pictures and effects but the technical skills come slowly to me. So I’ve recently pulled myself together and made more of an effort to switch from auto to manual photography and the new DSLR was part of this.

I spent some time in the evening after moonrise trying to get suitable settings to take a picture of the full moon. Without success. I very nearly gave up in disgust and then turned to our old friend Google for suggestions on what I should be setting my camera at. I realised immediately I had the ISO too fast, the shutter speed too slow and aperture too wide. Back to the drawing board. But also I had the insurmountable problem that my lens was simply not long enough. The suggestion was 300mm zoom – taking moon pictures was way way beyond the capabilities of my basic 18-55mm. Part of me was relieved it wasn’t me being completely rubbish but also a bit sad that I wasn’t going to be able to take nice moon pictures after all. I don’t have a long zoom lens, I don’t have a tripod. I took a few blurry snaps and put the camera down.

And then I remembered about the camera I’d been loaned now waiting to go back to it’s owners. I hadn’t tried to use it other than as a point and shoot – too many buttons and clever gadgety bits scaring me to even try fiddling with buttons and knobs but since my recent attempts at educating myself it seemed a little less daunting to experiment. And I was pretty certain it had a far longer lens than my new toy. Sure enough it is 14-140mm – so not really long enough for Lunar Spectacular but still it was worth a try. I was back in the running!

I set the ISO, aperture and shutter speed as recommended with adjustments. I still had no tripod but at 1/125 I reckoned I could risk it by bracing myself against the door jamb and bridging my fingers for extra stability. Yessss!!! First ever photo of the moon I’ve taken that looks like a respectable moon photo!

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Not very big and not very professional but for me this was something of a triumph no matter how small. I determined to try to capture images of the Bloodmoon later in the night.

So I set my alarm last night – or rather this morning – for 2.40am. I hastily dressed to the utter confusion of my dogs who hate it when I have a broken night whether because of insomnia, lambing/sick animals or being on call for work. Or even lunar eclipses. They really don’t get the need to be up and about with lights on in the middle of the night and give me reproachful looks and small doggy sighs for disturbing their sleep. Last night, as I popped in and out of my front door, was no exception. Marley was especially unimpressed. No biscuits. No walkies. No chasing for sticks. Rubbish.

When I got outside the moon was partially eclipsed. It was pretty but definitely not blood coloured – it looked like a regular crescent moon really.

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I sat on the bench and star gazed, saw some meteorites, listened to the owls hooting and watched the earth’s shadow slowly slip over the surface of the moon.

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At this point I realised that my new found moon-photography skills had reached their limit – I’d completely forgotten that I’d need to alter my settings for totality. P1100254

The bright moon had disappeared and now I needed fast ISO, long exposure times and a wider aperture. Help!! No tripod, everything was going to look as blurry as I was starting to feel. Luckily you have time at totality of a lunar eclipse to play around – and time I definitely needed. I had no idea what I was doing and I was now getting cold as well as sleep deprived.

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My first efforts started to show some of the rusty colour I could see with the naked eye so encouraged I kept experimenting, pushing the exposure time longer and longer.

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Now it was properly orange but very blurry. I made an impromptu tripod out of my kitchen stool stood on the lawn above  my front steps to give me something nearer head height with a feather cushion on top to rest the camera on (no bean bag) and again braced it as strongly as I could with laced fingers. And shot and shot and shot.

I felt that this one was the best effort I was going to get given the limits of my skills and camera.

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Less detail and colour but not as blurry. I was pretty happy given that a few hours earlier my moon pictures looked like this…!

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And because things of beauty and wonder are meant to be simply looked at rather than just recorded I then put my camera away and sat for a while and took time to observe the bodies moving slowly above me.

At around 4.10am I felt bone tired and chilled and decided to call it a night. The eclipse was starting to move off and away so I took one last photo before heading indoors to my bed again.

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Much to the relief of the dogs!!

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