Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Winter Solstice Total Lunar Eclipse

After a couple of weeks of distractions and side projects I'm finally finding the time to post about the total lunar eclipse that occurred on winter solstice December 20, 2010.

I had been looking forward to this eclipse for months now, especially after capturing the partial eclipse over the summer. But it's rainy season here in California and there was nonstop cloud cover day and night for about 5 days leading up to the 20th. I was extremely anxious and worried about missing the eclipse due to cloud cover and don't have a budget to go jet setting around the country to capture lunar events. Fortunately I was able to rent a Canon 500mm f/4 prime lens and 2x extender for the day which would be my special tool for capturing good images through the cloud cover. This $6,000+ lens is technically 2 full stops faster and infinitely sharper than my crappy $100 Quantaray 500mm +2x extender setup. And it only cost $100 for the day :)

I was really lucky to see any of the eclipse since most of North America was covered in clouds that evening. Here is a screen shot from Wunderground.com showing satellite imagery of cloud cover. Only areas around the Gulf of Mexico and bits of the south west had any chance of predictable viewing conditions.

But look closer on the west coast, specifically the San Jose area...

There was thin to little cloud cover shown in the area around me and going outside to look showed that to be partially true. There were clouds but they were thinning and moving fast to the east. Even though I missed the moon rise due to overcast conditions, just an hour after moon rise the clouds had cleared enough for me to capture this shot around 5:30pm PST.

The clouds moved along over the next few hours. I was finally able to get a clear shot of the moon at 1000mm, or 1600mm technically factoring in my T2i's 1.6x crop factor. I jumped around like a giddy school girl when I saw how SHARP the moon edges looked with this professional lens.

Unfortunately the clearing in the cloud cover only lasted so long. Around 10pm a light cloud cover started to roll in. Here is a shot during the penumbral period with some thin cloud cover.

The cloud cover never really went away after this point but did have some moments that were more clear than others. In this next shot taken around 10:30pm you can see clear evidence of the earth's shadow on the moon as the umbral period is about to begin.

After this the cloud cover became more thick and even blocked out the moon some moments. I went back to check satellite updates on Wunderground that showed clear skies but that obviously wasn't the case. Thankfully I had the super badass Canon 500mm mounted to my camera and was able to capture moments like this around 11:05pm.

The cloud cover only got worse as time went on and with less than an hour until the eclipse peak I was worried about missing out due to overcast skies. Again I can't praise the Canon 500mm lens enough for letting me capture moments where I could barely see the moon with my naked eye. I felt like an amateur race car driver who won the chance to drive a Ferrari for a day using this thing. It really is worth every penny because while I've shot stuff at ISO3200 before, its usually done no faster than f/16 with a 1/5th second shutter. But here is what you get with this L class lens at f/8, taken around 11:35pm just before the total eclipse phase starts.

These next 2 shots are unfortunately the last I was able to get since cloud cover took over after this for the next hour or so. This was shot at ISO6400 f/8 0.4s shutter at 11:48pm.

This was right before the peak eclipse taken at 12:07am PST, ISO6400 f/9 and 0.5s shutter.

And that was all I saw of the eclipse for about the next hour until the clouds cleared up some. Here is a shot as the eclipse is fading during the umbral period at 1:20am.

Only about 10 minutes later the earth shadow had receded even more and the red glow had gone from the moon as seen in this shot from 1:33am.

After this cloud cover totally overtook the skies for another hour. By the time I saw the moon again around 2:20am the umbral period had ended and there was no clear evidence of a shadow on the moon. The cloud cover was also thick and would only give me brief 30 second of so glimpses of the moon at this time. I removed the 2x extender so that I was just working with the 500mm lens at f/4 giving me lots more light to work with under such cloudy conditions.

Fortunately these were rain clouds! No you didn't misread that, I said fortunately because:
a) I had a pro level weather sealed lens and a rain cover for my non pro camera body so rain won't affect my gear
b) I was able to sit under my car port as I took these pictures keeping my gear and self dry
c) shooting the moon in rain clouds is super awesome because it can create rainbow-ish aura's around the moon

Here is a shot at 3:00am as the eclipse is officially ending in these rainbow clouds, taken at 500mm f/5 1/15s shutter ISO400.

This is my last shot of the night and maybe my favorite. This is seconds before a huge block of clouds hides the moon from view, you can see the dark edge creeping in on the right of the image. I had to open up two stops to get this before the moon disappeared for the rest of the night. Taken at 3:06am 12/21/2010 500mm ISO400 f/8 1/20s shutter.

Overall I'm glad to have gotten to experience this total lunar eclipse, and on the Winter solstice too, a real once in a lifetime treat. While I certainly had wished for clear skies I can't complain because things could have been worse. I was really happy to use the Canon 500mm lens and captured some great moments with it. I hope to own that fine piece of glass some day. Then we can make sweet cloudy moon magic together, until then I'll just remember this evening.

*all times PST

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