How to Photograph a Lunar Eclipse

by Ron Van Harten

Every so often the Moon falls into the shadows of the Earth, resulting in a lunar eclipse. Although lunar eclipses take place more often than solar eclipses, you might still want to experience watching and potentially photographing this somewhat rare and stunningly beautiful phenomenon. I have been taking pictures of both partial and total lunar eclipses for a number of years now and I decided to document my experiences and the challenges I encountered for the benefit of our readers. In this article, I will do my best to explain how to photograph a lunar eclipse in detail.

1. Basics of Moon Photography

Before reading the information below, I highly recommend reading my “How to Photograph the Moon” article, where you can find plenty of information (including camera settings) on the subject. You will need that while capturing the beginning and the end of a lunar eclipse, when the Moon is partially lit by the Sun.

2. Photographing the Sequence

One thing you need to decide on, is whether you want to shoot the entire sequence of the lunar eclipse, or just the period of totality when the Moon is orange / red in color. I would personally recommend to document the whole process from the beginning to the end, so that you have pictures of the full Moon, then a partial eclipse, then a total eclipse, then a partial eclipse again, returning back to full Moon when the eclipse ends. The nice thing about having the entire sequence in pictures, is that you can later combine images together like this:

You will have to be very patient though – it took me about four hours in total to capture the Moon from the beginning to the end of the eclipse. The night was quite cold, but I was out with a group of photographers and we decided to document all phases of the eclipse with our cameras. After we were done, we decided to drive to an overlook where we photographed the above scene separately as a panorama, in order to create a single composite you see above. It is important to note that the image has a much larger Moon compared to the reality. If I kept the Moon at its real size relative to the landscape, it would have looked minuscule. Some photographers choose to photograph real scenes with super telephoto lenses, without resizing the landscape or the Moon. Such photographs require a lot of planning and effort (often requiring a lunar eclipse to take place near the horizon for matching a landscape), but offer a much more rewarding experience. Proper planning is extremely important in such cases. Reliable tools and apps that allow one to preview the location of the lunar eclipse should be used for best results, as explained below.

3. Planning

Whether your goal is to simply photograph the Moon during an eclipse, or to photograph a scene with the Moon at the time of the eclipse, proper planning is important and should not be overlooked. There are plenty of great software and smartphone apps out there that you can use for planning purposes, but the two apps I use the most are PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris. When doing night photography, I sometimes fire up Star Walk as well, but that’s only if I need to find a particular object in the sky. Being able to see exactly where the Moon is going to rise is very important – it will make the job of scouting for a location much easier.

While leading a group of photographers in Death Valley National Park, I really hoped that the sky would clear up during the total lunar eclipse on January 20, 2019. The weather was quite stormy for a few days at the beginning of my workshop, but the day of the eclipse looked promising, with the sky opening up in the evening. While checking for weather reports every few hours, I also used the PhotoPills app on my smartphone to find out exactly where the Moon would be located in the sky during the lunar eclipse. Using the Night Augmented Reality (Night AR) feature of the app allowed me to pinpoint the exact location of the Moon. After realizing that I would not be able to find a subject tall enough in the vicinity to be able to use it as my foreground, I made the decision to skip the scouting process and only focus on photographing the lunar eclipse with my super telephoto lens. However, if I found a very tall foreground subject, it could have worked to photograph the eclipse over it. Instead, I looked up where the Moon was going to rise from and decided to photograph a landscape scene facing the Moon as it rose up:

As you can see, it was a pretty foggy evening – not particularly great for photographing a lunar eclipse! As the Moon rose over the distant mountains, the clouds in the sky were too thick, making it a problem to get a clear shot of the Moon. The weather forecast still insisted on a clear night though. I looked at the horizon and the sky indeed looked quite clear there. After about an hour the sky indeed cleared up for the most part – just in time for the beginning of the lunar eclipse!

So keep all this in mind. When planning for a lunar eclipse, always pay close attention to weather forecast – you might need to move to a different location with less cloud coverage.

4. Camera Equipment and Lenses

When it comes to photographing a lunar eclipse, the type of equipment you are using plays a huge role. Photographing a lunar eclipse is not the same as photographing the Moon for one major reason – lack of light. When you photograph the Moon lit by the Sun, it is typically so bright, that you can easily use fast shutter speeds and low ISO, without having to worry about noise and motion blur. Photographing a lunar eclipse is much more challenging, because the Moon gets very dim when it is in the Earth’s shadow. Not only will you have to drastically decrease your shutter speed, but you will also have to increase camera ISO to a much higher value, especially if you are shooting with long lenses above 300mm. Having a good DSLR or a mirrorless camera that can handle noise at high ISO levels will certainly help.

When it comes to lenses, longer lenses will magnify the Moon more and provide some good details for your shots. So, unless you are planning to capture the Moon with a foreground element, I would recommend to use the longest lens in your arsenal. But a longer lens presents another problem for Moon photography – you will have to use a fast shutter speed to get blur-free images of the Moon, since it moves so fast.

Without a doubt, the best thing you can do for lunar eclipse photography is get an equatorial tracker, such as the iOptron SkyGuider Pro:

I have previously attempted to photograph the Moon without a tracker and I always found myself struggling with camera settings at the time of the total lunar eclipse. Even with a very slow shutter speed of 1 second (which was barely enough to keep motion blur under control), I had to increase my camera ISO to 3200, at which point the amount of noise in the images was too much to deal with. With an equatorial tracker, once you set it up to track the Moon, you can take very long exposures without having to worry about shutter speed, since the setup automatically adjusts for the Moon movements. In addition, you do not have to constantly deal with readjusting your composition every few minutes. The biggest task is going to be proper and accurate alignment with the North Star – once you do that, the rest of it is going to be a breeze. With the tracker, I was easily able to take 10-20 second exposures at ISO 64 – ISO 200, which allowed me to take images with no noise issues to deal with in post-processing.

A good equatorial tracker is not just useful for photographing lunar eclipses. I used the same setup before for photographing a solar eclipse, as well as photographing the Milky Way and it worked amazingly well. If you are into photographing the night sky, you should seriously consider investing in such a device. In fact, instead of spending a lot of money buying expensive lenses designed for astrophotography, I would recommend to start out with a tracker!

If you have no plans for getting an equatorial tracker, you can still successfully photograph the lunar eclipse. See the instructions below for more details.

5. Camera Settings

When you shoot a bright Moon, a good starting exposure is typically around 1/125-1/250th of a second @ f/8, ISO 100. When an eclipse starts, this exposure should work great to expose the bright part of the Moon, while the dark side of the Moon is not going to be visible at all. At some point, you will have to change your shutter speed to expose for the dark side, while overexposing the bright side of the Moon, similar to this image:

I found out that the exposure difference between the bright and the dark sides of the Moon was a whopping 8 full stops! What does this mean? It means that if you were getting a great exposure of the Sun-lit Moon at 1/250th of a second at ISO 200, in order to capture the part of the Moon that is in the Earth’s shadow, you will have to shoot at 1 second @ ISO 200 (1/125 -> 1/60 -> 1/30 -> 1/15 -> 1/8 -> 1/4 -> 1/2 -> 1)!

This is the part where the focal length of your lens becomes your enemy. The longer the lens, the more you need to worry about two major problems – shutter speed and camera shake. A long lens (above 300mm) will make the Moon larger in your picture, which at the same time means that the Moon will move very quickly through your frame. Using a slow shutter speed is obviously unacceptable, because the Moon features will appear blurry due to motion blur. Therefore, your only choice (aside from getting a motorized equatorial tracker) is to shoot at maximum aperture and increase camera ISO to a large number. In the above example, to increase my shutter speed to just 1/15th of a second, I would have to shoot at ISO 3200, which would result in a lot of noise, especially if I were shooting on a small sensor camera.

So, what should your shutter speed be? It depends on the focal length of your lens. If you are shooting at 300mm on a 1.5x crop-factor camera body using a 70-300mm lens, shoot at shutter speeds faster than 2 seconds. If you are using a longer lens, you will have to use even faster shutter speeds to get a blur-free image of the Moon. I was shooting at 560mm (a 400mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter) on a 12 MP full-frame camera and I found that my limit was about a half a second (1/2) before the Moon started to get blurry. If you have a high resolution camera with a 30+ MP sensor, you might need to use even longer shutter speeds to avoid blurring the Moon.

Take a look at the below crop shot at 2 seconds to see how blurry the Moon got:

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