In the very early minutes of April 15 people living in North and America were witnesses the first of a series of celestial events. A full lunar eclipse heralded a set of four eclipses to come over the next year and an half, an event known as a tetrad. A full eclipse is also known as a blood moon because of the orange/red color that it turns at the height of the event. It’s due to the sun’s rays passing through the Earth’s atmosphere and illuminating the moon in sort of a dim, all-over sunset.
Photographing a normally illuminated moon is relatively simple. The light falling on it is essentially the same as a daytime exposure here on planet Earth. When the moon is under a full eclipse however it’s almost like a night shot. One has to use a long shutter speed and high ISOs (light sensitivity). To get a shot of the eclipse I wanted to get away from the light pollution of any city lights so I headed out to the Cosumnes River Preserve near Thornton. While one can see the glow of city lights on the horizon, it’s far enough out that that doesn’t affect a long exposure too much.
I arrived at the preserve a little after 11:00 p.m. on April 14th. The eclipse was set to fully envelope the moon at about 12:07 a.m. on April 15 and the Earth’s shadow had already started to take a bite out of one of its edges.
I was able to set up my camera with a telephoto lens on a tripod in one of the preserve’s parking lots, which was nice because I didn’t want to go walking through the brush in the dark and break an ankle in an unseen hole. The preserve is only about a mile or two from I-5 near Twin Cities Road and I could hear the constant hum of traffic traveling down the freeway. It soon became so much background “white” noise and other sounds came to the forefront. Crickets and small frogs created a symphony of gentle chirping all around and in a pond not too far away there was a deeper, intermittent thrum-thrum-thrum of a larger bullfrog. There weren’t any streetlights but under a fully lit moon I could make out trees and the wetlands of the preserve.
It was a pleasant night. I was plenty comfortable with a light hoodie over a t-shirt. However, there was a high, thin cloud cover overhead that worried me. Although the bright full moon could be easily seen through it, I was concerned that an eclipsed one would be blocked. There were some clearer patches of sky but the clouds moved so slowly on the nearly windless night, that I couldn’t tell which direction they were moving.
Slowly the Earth’s shadow ate away at the moon’s glowing white disk. Time seemed to tick away slowly (the watched-pot-never-boils syndrome, I guess) but finally the last of the sun’s direct rays evaporated from the moon’s surface. It started out as light pink in color then turned a darker red as it descended deeper into shadow.
My initial concerns about the cloud cover were born out. While I could see the now-red disk of the moon, the thin clouds obscured any detail making it look like a fuzzy red balloon. All but the brightest stars were also blotted out. I could still see some clear areas of sky so I decided to wait to see what would happen.
Without the full moon’s bright light my surroundings became very dark. Details that I could see before became dark shadows. My mind turned to what critters might be lurking out in the blackness of night (lions, tigers and bears, oh my!). The deep croaking of the nearby bullfrog became a welcomed song in the darkness.
At one point I could hear a flock of geese honking and taking off from the wetlands. As they rose and came closer, their calls grew louder. They flew directly overhead and from the volume of their honking I estimated they could be no more than 100 feet above me. But it was so dark that when I looked up I couldn’t see a single one.
I switched to a wide-angle lens and started taking overall shots where detail in the moon was less important to the photo. I used a “painting-with-light” technique where I shined a small flashlight at a tree in the foreground. I moved the light around during a long 30-second second exposure to avoid a single hotspot in the photo. This way I was able to get detail in the tree as well as having the moon and stars in the shot.
I spent and more than an hour there and I was ready to pack it in when I looked up and saw that the sky had cleared up and I could see much more detail in the moon. I switched back to a telephoto lens to get a tighter shot of the blood moon. There was still some wispy haze in the sky, and I would like to have gotten a little more detail, but I was much clearer than before. I left happy that I got the shot I set out to get and left my friend the bullfrog to enjoy the eclipse on his own.
If you missed the eclipse you’ll have three other opportunities to view and/or photograph it on October 8 of this year, and April 4 and September 28 of 2015.