Friday, April 25, 2014

Blood Moon and Great Blue Heron

Click on image for a larger view
The first of four consecutive Lunar Eclipses has come and gone (see the end of this article to learn about the other three). Above is an excellent image by my good friend Jim Zanardi. I have created a time lapse video from my images and put it on YouTube here.

My wife, Gloria, and I spent the whole night watching and photographing it, April 14-15, 2014. It was an awesome sight, but wow it was cold! Temperatures were around 25 degrees and there was frost over everything, including my photo equipment. But I'm used to that and prepared for it. I have a dew heater, connected to a 12-volt battery, wrapped around the lens to keep the optics slightly warmer than the air around it.

Click on image for a larger view
We arrived at the site, Middle Creek Lake, just south of Louisburg, KS, around 6 p.m. I wanted to set up my time lapse rig in the daylight so that I wouldn't make any mistakes. Yeah, sure! I made plenty of mistakes, but I didn't find out about them until the next day. We had scouted out the lake a week before and found a nice place I could shoot the eclipse from. I had to park my car about 150 feet from the shore line, so I made a few trips carrying my gear. A cold wind was blowing from the north, but it was totally clear. I hoped the wind would die down as it usually does at night in the Mid-West.

I set up my new toy, a Dynamic Perception Stage Zero controller and rail that I purchased from my good friend and photographer, Wayne Thompson. I attached my iOptron Sky Tracker on the rail and my Canon 4Ti on top of it. My plan was to shoot the time lapse with my 10-22 mm lens at 10mm and have the Sky Tracker pan from left to right following the Moon and the rail move from West to East. After taking a few pictures of my set up in front of the lake I waited for the Moon to rise above the tree line.

Once I saw the Moon I started shooting a series of images with my 300mm f/4 lens on a tripod. I took a total of 166 images about every 5 seconds (counted in my head) hoping that was about right. It turned out okay, but maybe a shot every 2 to 3 seconds would have been smoother.

 I also took several wide angle pictures of the Moon rising with the lake as the foreground. Several ducks swam by and a reflection of moonlight on the lake created a peacefully serene scene.

Before the eclipse started and the moon was glaringly bright there was a surprise visit by a Great Blue Heron. I did not know about this until a few days later. Here are two of the best pics where he held still for the 30 seconds it took to get the image. He is right behind the piece of driftwood.

Right around totality I was looking at the eclipse with a pair of binoculars. I took them away from my eyes and moments later I saw a bright meteor flashing downward. This image shows the meteor and Mars to the upper right of the eclipsed moon. The streak at lower right is that of an airplane. The moon is pasted into the picture from one I took with telephoto lens to make it look more like what we actually saw that night.

In the above photo the Great Blue Heron and his shadow once again makes its appearance (lower left next to the driftwood). Here I have left the moon's image alone to show that a 30 second exposure wipes any detail out completely. Of course, a much shorter exposure would show detail on the moon and everything else would be way too dark.

The color changes between all of the images during the eclipse has not been modified. The color temperature setting on my camera was set to daylight through out and the color changes are actual changes from the light of the eclipsed moon.

Mistakes Not To Do The Next Time
Mistake #1. I started the time lapse sequence around 9 p.m. after the Moon had already risen. My plan was to shoot 30 second exposures with an interval of 2 seconds all night long. A few days before the event, I had taken some test shots of the almost full moon from my backyard to see what my exposures should be. Those tests told me that I could get away with shooting 30 seconds at f/3.5 and ISO 3200 all night. The Moon before eclipse would be really over exposed, but I could fix that afterward in Lightroom by lowering the exposure setting to bring out detail in the sky and clouds. But my test exposures on the evening of the event showed much more overexposure, so I kept the 30 second exposure but lowered the ISO to 1600, essentially, decreasing the exposure by 1 stop. As it turned out, even this was too much overexposure.

Mistake #2. I had never used the Dynamic Perception system until that night, but had done some test with it indoors to learn how to use it. Unfortunately I accidently put the drive belt on a little weird and it did not track like it should have.

Mistake #3. There are two ways to make the camera shoot a time lapse sequence with the rail. Option #1: Set up the controller to move camera the intended distance along the rail and have the camera settings set to shoot a 30 second exposure at the end of the move, then the controller delays 2 seconds to allow the image to download to the card before making another rail move. Option #2: Set up the controller to do all of the above and just set the camera to Bulb. The second option seemed the simplest. At home it seemed to work, but on the field it did not. What happened was the camera took a 30 second exposure, the rail moved and waited 2 seconds then sent a signal to the camera to take another exposure, but instead, the camera skipped the next shot. The camera did not have enough time to download the last image so it waited another 30 seconds until the controller released the last signal to shoot. So my intervals between shots were 34 seconds instead of 2 seconds. This made a rather quick and jittery time lapse, which is what you see in the final video. I am using a very fast card in my camera (Sandisk Extreme 63 G) which, on tests without the Dynamic Perception controller, allows me to shoot images with 2 second intervals easily. Apparently with the controller controlling the shots, the interval needs to be longer.

Mistake #4. I've been wanting to use some software that I've been reading about, but haven't had the time to try it out. I purchased and downloaded and ebook on using the software after the eclipse. My mistake was in not doing this before the eclipse. It would have corrected mistake #1. The software is LRTimelpase, by Gunther Wegner. In concert with Lightroom, it is an excellent piece of software for editing, grading and rendering a time lapse sequence. One very good part of the software is for what is known as "Holy Grail Day to Night" shooting. With this software, you can adjust exposure time or ISO settings during shooting to compensate for changing light conditions (which can be as much as 22 stops), then smooth out the transitions during the processing of the sequence.

Luckily, I was able to use the images I got to produce a video, although it could have been a lot better. I consider this a learning experience, so that for the next eclipse coming on October 8, 2014, I will be a little bit better prepared.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this was the first of four lunar eclipses within the span of 2 years. This is known as a tetrad. The last time we had a tetrad was in 2003-2004. The next tetrad will not happen for another 20 years, 2032-2033. There are several religious groups making a big to do about this current tetrad, but in fact there is nothing special about it. In the far distant future there will be no tetrads at all. To read more about this see article this by Fred Espenak.


  1. Tom, thanks for sharing all the details of your experience. This may help me when I attempt what you attempted. With all your issues you still made a wonderful video!
    Doug S.

  2. Thanks Doug. I was hoping this would help others in their attempts to create time lapse videos. I love seeing them, especially night time videos. I hope to see yours some day.