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.

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