Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Very First Moon Shots

Today is the 3 year anniversary of my lunar photography obsession. August 18th, 2007, just 8 days after getting my first DSLR, a Canon XTi. If my memory serves me correctly I went budget super telephoto lens shopping on Friday August 17th, 2007. I was on my way to the now closed Kamera Korner in San Jose and passed by a Wolf Camera that was closing down and figured they might have some discount lenses. I went in expecting to land a deal on some Canon glass but was fortunate enough to meet a fellow moon loving photographer that worked there and he told me about their super closeout Quantaray 500mm f/8 lens with a 2x extender. I knew that a "real" 500mm lens would cost me several thousand dollars so when he informed me that this 1000mm monster could be had for under $200 I jumped at it. He correctly described it as an extremely slow lens that wasn't super sharp and had some chromatic aberration but with some tweaking in Photoshop decent images of the moon could be created. Unfortunately that Wolf Camera location was out of that lens but it was at another location further south in San Jose but I'd have to wait until the next business day since they were closed. But even better was when he told me that since the lens was being discontinued from their line it was on closeout for just about $110!!!

The next day I hurried over to the Wolf Camera with the discounted 1000mm lens setup and paid less than $120 after tax for the lens and a Canon t-mount adapter. I went home and spent the afternoon doing some practice shots until the moon came into view later that evening. I found it extremely challenging focusing this fully manual lens using just the viewfinder. LiveView didn't exist yet so there was lots of experimentation with taking shots and reviewing them at max magnification on the LCD screen.

Here is the very first moon picture I took just over 3 years ago...


The first lesson I learned using a manual lens shooting the moon is that focusing is extremely difficult during the daytime due to the low contrast of a bright waxing gibbous moon against a clear blue sky. Later that evening once it was dark I was able to capture a slightly better shot but manually focusing such a telephoto lens was still very new to me. In addition my composition skills needed a lot of work.

The next night wasn't much better and I remember thinking at this point that the lens was a waste of money. I now know that is NOT THE CASE and it comes down to operator error.

It took me several months to really learn how to use this lens, and several months more to learn how to properly edit the pictures and remove nasty optical artifacts like chromatic aberration which plagues this super budget lens.

Here is an example of the kind of moon shots possible with this very same $120 lens on my exact same XTi camera with a year and a half of lunar photography experience under my belt...


In all I'm certainly glad that I didn't give up on using this lens. It is the most important lens in my collection and one that I've been trying to use for nearly all my 2010 lunar images. It helps that I upgraded from the XTi to the T2i so now I have LiveView to ensure accurate focus. I still do an initial focus manually through the eyepiece to keep my skills sharp and often find with a LiveView check that my focus is spot on :)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

OMG I can hardly believe it's done. 372 pages, exactly 600 different photographs culled from over 22,000 lunar image captures taken during the 2009 lunar cycle. I can't wait to see it in person! Check out a full screen preview in the mean time...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Eclipse Excitement

So now I'm on my way up to the side of Mt. Hamilton to shoot the partial lunar eclipse of June 26, 2010. As I got off the freeway and headed along the streets I could see that indeed the cloud cover was reduced in the area. I could actually look up and see the moon where as at home just 15 minutes earlier I couldn't see a full moon through overcast skies. Driving up the windy road for the first time in the dark I found it hard to focus because seeing the city lights below me was so mesmerizing. As I continued up the mountain side I could clearly see the thick blanket of clouds over the entire area with the moon casting a bright white reflection contrasting with the yellow city lights leaking from below.

Fortunately I remembered the distance I needed to drive up CA-150 from the turnoff because I left my printed directions at home and my phone only interpreted getting me to CA-150, not how far I needed to go to reach my desired altitude of 700 meters above sea level. 3.6 miles I kept telling myself as I tried to focus on dark winding curves while glancing at the city lights below. When I got to my 3.6 mile point the viewing area I was expecting wasn't there. It seemed to be someone's personal driveway and not a hiking trail as I was expecting from my interpretation of Google Earth. I made it up to a spot above where I first planned to stop that had just enough space for 2 cars to park.

It was about 2am and I was nervous about how the next 4 hours would turn out. I setup my tripods and gear and took a few shots since it was clear.

*Full Moon @ 2:08AM PST*

The entire mountain side behind me was tall grass fields that seemed to be teaming with life rustling about. I'll admit I was little freaked out wondering if any mountain lions were in the area, or even extremely hungry foxes, like the one I nearly ran over as he crossed the road on my way up. For the next hour I sat inside my car keeping warm , watching the cloud cover and checking wunderground status updates on my phone. Thankfully I got service out there otherwise I would have been left in the dark about how the cloud cover was actually rising. Just before the eclipse was set to begin the overcast conditions had risen to 1600ft and I could see it creeping closer to the mountain edge and starting to flow up the hill. I was really worried that fate was going to play a cruel joke on me and cover the entire mountain in fog just as the eclipse was set to begin. Thankfully there seemed to be some wind from the east that worked to keep the cloud cover at bay but I wasn't sure how long that would last. The overcast skies seemed intent on climbing Mt Hamilton.

Around 3AM I could see the initial darkening of the moon as the eclipse began. Unfortunately the cloud cover seemed to be getting thicker so I made the decision to swap lenses and use my "faster" 50-500mm Bigma on my main T2i body around 3:20am. I took a few pictures then but focused on shooting video for the next hour or so. This was more of a mistake than the plan. I was busy concentrating on judging the cloud cover and operating two cameras, I simply forgot to switch back to still mode and get some good shots as the eclipse progressed.

The eclipse takes hold around 3:30AM. Fortunately the cloud cover didn't overtake my shooting position but it did come close. The area around my car became foggy at times and I could barely see 100 feet away from me. This heightened my city boy worries about things rustling in the bushes. In fact around 3:40am I made a tweet about it. 20 minutes later I realized that all the rustling I heard was just a deer that crossed the road just a little way down from me. I made sure to tweet my relief about that moment as well :)

Looking back I wished I would have not changed lenses. The cloud cover never became so thick that the moon was completely obscured but it did become thick enough for my slow F16 wide open with horrible chromatic abberation 1000mm lens setup. If only I could have afforded to rent the Canon f/4 500mm lens and a 2x extender and used that I would have never swapped lenses. While I'm making technical gripes I would like to express my amazement at how much more awesome taking moon pictures is using a 1.6x crop body instead of a full 35mm sensor DSLR. My usual workhorse lens, the Sigma 50-500mm behemoth was making thumbnail sized images at full 500mm extension on my friends borrowed 5DmkII. Like I mentioned in the first part of this eclipse post this was only my second time using a full frame SLR body. I had shot the moon with this same lens before and had even reviewed some of those images before this eclipse but felt a little underwhelmed with the results I was seeing. I can understand how wide angle star field shooting astro guys might envy access to a 5DmkII but I found myself swearing to only using crop body cameras for all lunar and certainly eclipse events.

Back to the eclipse. Around 4:00AM I realized that the cloud cover over the moon was a temporary threat to my coverage. The clouds only got bad for a stretch of about 5 minutes or so during the time I was worried. It did make for some dramatic moments on video but interrupted my flow of alternating between video and stills. Around 4:15AM I swapped the lenses back, 1000mm on the T2i and Bigma on the 5DmkII. This would be the setup for the rest of the night.

Here is a shot from 4:25AM, about 20 minutes before peak eclipse. I went back to shooting video for about 15 minutes, since my charts said totality would occur around 4:47AM or so. I planned on capturing the peak moment in stills.

The moon at 4:44AM during the peak eclipse time. I took quite a few during a 5 minute span but this was my best looking one. I was also a bit distracted because at this point I was also dancing a jig on the side of Mt. Hamilton. I managed to view this awesome event when I could see the entire Santa Cruz to Santa Clara to San Mateo valleys were blanketed in thick cloud cover. I couldn't even see the glow of yellow San Jose street lights through this cover, it had grown too thick. I really felt like one of the few lucky people in the Bay Area who cared about AND got to see this eclipse. And quite possibly most of coastal California since I had checked on forecasts in the LA area.

~5:10AM, the eclipse is now fading, as the moon begins to descend into the thin wispy layer of cloud cover. To the east I can see that the night sky is begining to give way to dawn. The stars are begining to fade. I take long moments between handling two cameras to turn around and appreciate all of the scenery behind me. I especially loved watching the horizon begin to glow with light from the sun. I did my best to capture the transition of the moon as black skies turned to faded blue cloud shroud.

I knew I couldn't see the entire eclipse from my longitude on the west coast of California. I had hoped to watch the eclipse as the moon set over the Pacific ocean and cursed the cloud cover that overtook the area. But as I stood there watching the moon set into a sea of overcast skies it was even more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.

Here you can make out the cloud layer below the moon.

I can't believe people live up here and get to witness mornings like this on a regular basis. I am slightly jealous. The moon had taken on a slightly redish tint due to what I assume was atmospheric effects from the cloud cover. Mixed with the fading eclipse shadow created a moment that I've never witnessed.

5:41:37AM - This is the penultimate minute of the eclipse moon being visible to me.

5:42:03AM - Just 26 seconds later, the moon speeds into the cloud cover.

5:42:43AM - Goodbye Birthday Partial Lunar Eclipse Moon, you gave me an awesome show :) :) :)

I stayed at my spot by the road for another 30 minutes or so. I spent some time trying to capture the morning light coming in from the west. This is when I felt like eating my wrods earlier about loving crop body cameras. Here with the Bigma fully wide at 50mm on the 5DmkII I wasn't covering enough area to show the beautiful scenery behind me.

The fog visible in the background is only a fraction of what was floating around me about an hour earlier. I had to wipe down the front of my Bigma due to foggy condensation that had collected on it.

What I'm not able to show here is how awesome this event was overall. I would need 4-5 cameras and some additional camera operators to really show how beautiful this evening and morning was. Especially from my vantage point above San Jose. I would have loved to shown you all how the city lights were covered by a steadily advancing cloud layer. And the misty tall grass behind me filled with the sounds of crickets, frogs, rustling deer and other critters. The feeling of cool misty fog blowing up the mountain side, fogging lenses and making breath visible.

There is a strong all 5 senses memory in my mind now of this event. Pretty much unlike any other night in my 3 years of moon stalking. It is also one of many other awesome lunar related nights and mornings that stand out in my mind. I hope I have helped share a tiny bit of what I witnessed because it's too spectacular to keep to myself. At least for those like me who are in tune with taking the time to appreciate moments like these. From ~3AM to 5:40AM, just under 3 hours of lunar excitement mixed with a spectacular finish as the sun rose behind me. I've never seen a movie as visually inspiring as the 3 hours I witnessed here. I think Avatar or Dune might come close, but for a lunarphile like myself, this night was hands down the best birthday gift of my entire life.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Pre-Eclipse Success

Wow, the past few days have been exciting and annoying. But most importantly I got to witness and capture this weekends partial lunar eclipse in near complete detail. And as an added bonus Saturday the 26th was also my birthday Weeeee!!!

Ok so let's back up to Friday evening, June 25th 2010. I went to my favorite moon rise shooting spot in east San Jose to catch the full moon rising over Mt Hamilton, actually the far south end of it since it rose at 122° azimuth, the same azimuth as on Thursday the 24th, but my attempts to precisely locate the rising position were thwarted by cloud cover as I mention in my previous blog entry. So I had to use the force and my guesstimate based upon catching the moon rise on Wednesday. I had a friend with me who let me borrow his Canon 5D mkII for the weekend to capture the eclipse on 2 cameras. I mounted his 5D to my Bigma 50-500mm lens at full extension to catch a wider view of the moon coming over the horizon. I used my 1000mm lens combo on my Canon T2i to get an extreme closeup view of the moon cresting the horizon.

Fortunately we got there a bit early because this was my first time using the 5D in over a year and I had totally forgotten how to record video with it and he had never shot video with it. Thankfully my memories of renting it back in the spring of 2009 came back to me after a few minutes of fiddling with controls. I must say that Canon really has done a great job with making video recording more user friendly on my T2i versus the legendary 5DmkII. I'm sure his body is still using the original firmware so I'll hold off making any further comments about how difficult it was to use that body.

The important thing is that I was all setup to get the shots I've wanted to get for the longest time. Dual video recordings of the moon coming over the horizon, one at 1600mm and another at 500mm. And it was stunning!!! Unfortunately I was so excited to be shooting video on two cameras and distracted by recalling how to shoot video with the 5D that I forgot to take any stills. Thankfully I was shooting HD so here are some still extracted from the video.

Here comes Luna!

Notice the extreme atmospheric distortion around the edges of the moon

And the moon is so RED due to the atmospheric distortion as well.

The distortion is still there but reduced as the moon inherits the dusky sky from the sun.

If you look at the bottom of the image there is a little black speck on the moon, that is a plane crossing that I didn't see until I got home and started editing the video footage :)

And here the moon is ready for a night of eclipse action.

So far everything was as I had hoped for and more. I was able to capture the extreme heat distorting effects of the atmosphere causing ripples and eddies along the edges of the moon with a reddish tint as it rose through the thin haze over the mountains in other wise clear skies. It was soon dark after the moon came over the horizon and we had to leave since my shooting location was closing.

I came home and consulted my array of WeatherUnderground tabs that gave me updates on weather conditions on cities in the Bay Area. While most every coastal city from San Francisco, to Half Moon Bay to Pescadero was experiencing cloudy or over cast conditions Santa Cruz seemed to be clear. I was excited to see this because I wanted to shoot the moon and the receding eclipse as it set into the Pacific ocean.

However around 10-11pm I went outside to get some stills of the moon from my backyard and got setup just in time to snap off a dozen shutter clicks before a nasty thick cloud cover came rolling in from the west.

I assumed this was the same fog and overcast clouds blowing in from the ocean that had blanketed all the coastal cities I wanted to shoot from. I went back inside to the disappointing weather update that indeed Santa Cruz was becoming cloud covered, not only ruining my plans of catching the moon descending into the ocean but also meaning I might miss the eclipse all together if everywhere within a 2 hour drive was going to be overtaken by thick overcast skies :(

I spent the next 2 hours searching for webcams in various cities like Santa Cruz and San Jose and checking satellite predictions for the 1-6am time frame of Saturday morning, all with very bad news that everywhere from north of San Francisco to south of Monterey and even as far east as Gilroy would be covered in overcast skies during the early morning hours. I honestly wanted to cry but remembered a friends suggestion that I go up Mt. Hamilton which overlooks San Jose and the surrounding Santa Clara county areas.

I started up the Google Earth app, multiple tabs of Google maps and weatherunderground and began to search for potential spots that would get me above the cloud cover that was rolling over the entire Bay Area. I knew it would be bad to go all the way up to Lick Obeservatory since drivers headlights interfere with observation there but also figured that going all the way up would be overkill. Thankfully gives great detailed stats on cloud conditions for each particular area it reports on, down to the individual communities and neighborhoods where weather stations are. I could see that in my area of far south San Jose that the cloud cover was at 1200ft above ground level and combined with the info that area of San Jose was 200ft above sea level I was able to calculate that I needed to be above 1400ft or about 430meters above sea level. Using Google Earth to find CA-130E/Mt Hamilton road I was able to locate several places around 600+meters above sea level that would point me in the right direction and hopefully be above the cloud cover to see at least some of the eclipse if not the peak moment.

I emailed myself directions to my phone and also printed directions and double checked that all my gear was in order and ready to go. I made and ate a tasty sandwich so I would have energy for what was to be a long night/morning. Then headed off to the eastern hills of San Jose hoping for a night of successful partial lunar eclipse shooting...

Ok time for a blogging break, full details about the eclipse in my next post :)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Pre-Eclipse Agony

Ugh, I'm so anxious about tomorrow night's eclipse. Especially since there is cloud cover tonight and has been that way for the past week. Last week was clear and beautiful. This is definitely part of the love/hate relationship I have with lunar photography. I can plan and scout ideal locations as much as I want but it doesn't really matter if nature decides to blow a storm system in. I was planning on getting some great shots of the receding eclipse as it descends into into the Pacific but now I think I'll be lucky if I get ONE shot of the eclipse at it's peak.

To emphasize my point take this evening as an example. Today the moon rose in San Jose at an azimuth of 122° which is the EXACT same azimuth that it will rise tomorrow. I went to my favorite secret moonrise shooting location to get a bearing on where it would appear over the horizon but was greeted with a WALL of cloud cover that looked nice from a 'photographing clouds just before sunset' perspective but what I wanted was a clear view of the moon bursting over the horizon.

*For reference this shot was taken @ 50mm on my 50-500mm Bigma*

See the building at the lower left? The moon was supposed to come up over that area, and technically it already had when I took this pic, but was completely shrouded by clouds. The glowing dot toward the middle right of the image among the clouds is a plane approaching San Jose Airport. I stayed and waited for an hour with no success. Even more heartbreaking was the fact that to the west there was no cloud cover on the horizon, all the clouds were higher in the sky.

I will try again tomorrow but without having an exact visual cue of where to aim my lens I'll be going on rough estimates provided by GPS pointers in my phone. It was important to have an exact reference point because tomorrow I wanted to use my 1000mm lens to capture the moon coming over the horizon which would have been a first in my nearly 3 years of shooting the moon. There is so little room for error with the 1000mm lens, just 1/4° degree on each side of the moon. While each month there is often a point when the moon rises in the same spot on successive days it RARELY happens with full moon conditions, and is even less rare with a full moon that will be eclipsed later that evening. But such are the woes of being a nature photographer. I'm sure 1000 other photographers world wide had carefully planned shots ruined due to cloud cover today, and I'm sure it will happen to many others and myself in the future.

Trying to remain positive I'm definitely glad that tomorrow nights eclipse won't be a TOTAL eclipse, just a partial. That means the moon should cast enough light to shine through moderate cloud cover. I certainly have enough experience shooting gibbous and even crescent moons in a wide range of cloud conditions but I still feel nervous about tomorrow night.

As I write this every location within an hour drive of San Jose is forecast to have overcast or partially cloudy conditions. But that is 26 or so hours away from now. I guess I should just sit back and wait to see what nature gives me.

But I still have every finger and toe crossed that San Jose/Santa Cruz fog doesn't roll in until after sunrise. I won't even waste prayers on fog free conditions in SF, I know better than to ask for miracles. Please cross your fingers and toes with me :)

Monday, June 21, 2010

WOLF MOON: 12.27.2008 - 01.25.2009

The following is my summary of moon images from the WOLF cycle which occured between December 27, 2008 and January 25, 2009.


~5:30pm - 2% illumination
This is one of the youngest moons in my catalog of images and one that I recall shooting with pleasure since these were semihandheld using a monopod to support my XTi and "BIGMA", ie the Sigma 50-500mm lens.

While these may not be the sharpest due to the challenge of handling such a large lens on a monopod I was pleased to capture Mercury and Jupiter following this 1+ day old waxing crescent over the horizon.


~6:15pm - 6% illumination
This is one of my best attempts at capturing a young moon with my 1000mm lens setup.


~ 5:55pm - 11% illumination
Another 1000mm lens capture also with some 500mm examples...

...and one including earthshine.


~7:35pm - 27% illumination
Woohoo the first moon of 2009, a classic looking waxing crescent in 1000mm glory.


~5:30pm - 35% illumination
Another waxing crescent soon after dusk gave way to the night sky

~8:50pm - 37% illumination
Just a few hours later and the moon is ready to lay down for its evening nap.

I managed to catch a shot of this in the sky,
...and reflected in a puddle of rain water.


~4:20pm - 45% illumination
Oh now this is one of my favorite DAYS of moon shooting, I love seeing the moon in a see of bright blue and this waxing crescent/prehalf moon stands out well in the pre-sunset light.

~5:30pm - 46% illumination
I decided to follow this moon into the night and you can see how crater detail begins to really show once the sun has set.

~10:20pm - 48% illumination
5 hours later and the moon is ready for bed.


~12:40pm - 54% illuminated
Some shots of the moon midday from a parking lot. I happened to have my camera on me but only with the kit lens so no telephoto glory, but I liked how I could position it around the rows of lights.

~11:15pm - 59% illuminated
Those clear blue skies from earlier gave way to murky cloud cover that almost ruined my chances at getting a shot that night. Luckily the haze was thin enough for me to use my 1000mm combo.


~5:25pm - 77% illuminated
Waxing Gibbous with no cloud cover.


~5:25pm - 86%
Even more Gibbous waxing the night away.


~5:00pm - 93%
I <3 gibbous moons at dusk. Here I follow it into the night...

~2:40am - 96%
And again deep in the night when it has turned on its head ready to dive across the horizon.


~5:00pm - 98%
I have many favorite moon phases, and the day before a full moon is high on the list. I enjoy watching a nearly full moon rise over the horizon while the sky is still blue and watching the sky as it changes from blue, to orange to black. I also tried unsuccessfully to capture a plane crossing the moon. The unfortunate bit is that I have since lost access to this shooting location so getting a shot like that will be even more difficult.

7:15pm - 98%
Here is the waxing gibbous prefull moon now that night has taken over.


~5:30pm - 100%
Mmmm, full moon rising at dusk, I <3 the silhouetted trees
...and tried my best to capture the crazy orange glow from that evening.

~8:10pm - 100%


~8:00pm - 98%
Waning gibbous at 1000mm


9:30pm - 94%
Waning gibbous


~11:45pm - 86%
Waning gibbous


~11:20pm - 78%
Waning gibbous with and without a light cloud cover. This is one of my favorite/confounding/joyous/annoying things about
photographing the moon, especially in Northern California winters, cloud cover can come and go in minutes. Sometimes its a joy to have, other times it isn't like when the sky is completely overcast the entire night. Luckily this wasn't one of those bad nights.


~4:10am - 66%
Waning gibbous


~2:25am - 57%
Waning gibbous/prehalf moon


~5:40am - 46%
Waning crescent/posthalf moon just before night gives way...
~7:50am - 45%
to a waning crescent after sunrise.

~6:30am - 36%
Waning crescent before dawn, and the last of this month for me.

I hope you enjoyed them. Please let me know which moon was your favorite from this month. I'll write more about a particular day if there are enough requests.