On Saturday, May 5th 2012, the Moon was full…
Now how’s that for a catch phrase! The Moon happened to be at its closest point to Earth that evening, which caused it to look 14% bigger than usual. This event is technically called the “perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-System”, but let’s just call it what everyone else does: Supermoon.
This was a great opportunity for astrophotographers to get out there to take a few memorable shots. Here is my hobbyist experience, tips, and lessons learned while taking pictures of a Moonrise.
One can’t just take a picture and hope to be at the right place at the right time. I wanted to capture the Moon directly behind the downtown Los Angeles skyscrapers. Creating such a shot required ample preparation. While people were partying for Cinco de Mayo, I was scavenging for locations and getting ready to take pictures of an elusive event that would last only a few minutes.
I needed to know where the Moon would be rising along the horizon. Some people manually calculate this, but I went the easy way and used an app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE - free for desktop by the way). This app is almost mandatory for landscape photography or anything that will involve a Sun/Moon set or rise. Basically, you define a point on a map and the app draws lines from that point to show where the Sun/Moon will rise and set, and at what exact time. From there, I made sure the line for the Moon rise was right above downtown Los Angeles, and I began to look for a spot that corresponded to that line. I wanted to find the highest point possible to have a clear shot, and I also wanted to make sure that the Moon was at its lowest point so it would look its largest when rising behind the skyscrapers. There were no high parking lots under the line I chose, so I looked all the way into the Hollywood Hills. Thanks to Google Maps and its street view feature, I was able to find a little street with enough altitude for a clear shot.
Maximizing the size of the Moon was the main priority of these shots. A wide-angle lens would have greatly exaggerated the size of the foreground as compared to the background, which would have the opposite effect I was looking for – so I scrapped that idea. Instead, I used a telephoto lens. andwas able to make the Moon look extremely large compared to whatever was in front of it. To further emphasize the size effect, one needs a point of reference. What better than one of a Los Angeles downtown skyscraper?
Before I set out to look for a clear shot, I had a hunch that I’d be far from downtown - at least eight miles away. Therefore, I picked my best telephoto lens and added a 2x teleconverter to it. The advantage of a 2x teleconverter is that it effectively doubles the lens’ focal length, but the disadvantage is that it halves the aperture and sometimes robs the image of its sharpness. I used a Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 from the early 80’s, which effectively became a 600mm f/5.6 with the teleconverter. This set up is huge and heavy, almost a foot long from front to back and weighs about 5.5lbs, so I used a tripod. I also used a wired remote control and mirror lock-up to avoid vibrations that could affect my image. Vibrations are amplified with the use of telephoto lenses. When you first press the shutter release on your SLR while using mirror lock-up, the mirror flips up out of the way; you then press the shutter release a second time to make your exposure. This gives time for the vibrations created by the mirror movement to dissipate. Yep, with a very long lens, vibrations are so amplified that even the internal moving parts of your camera can affect your picture.
Preparing for the shot
I arrived on site early to ensure that I would have enough time to change spots or adjust my position if I needed to. Arriving early also allowed me to take a few test shots to make sure my equipment was set up correctly. I didn’t want to be fiddling with the camera once the Moon was up; the Moon wouldn’t be smiling and waiting for me as if it were in a portrait photo. The first picture was taken at 7:46:04PM, and the second at 7:49:44PM. I had no more than 5 minutes to take a picture and even less time to capture it right above downtown. Being very familiar with your equipment is critically important in these situations. Knowing which dials to turn and what buttons to press without taking your eye off of the viewfinder will make the difference between getting shots - and missing them. You can’t learn this without first going out and practicing…a lot!
Taking the shot
This was, and always is, the easiest part once you've prepared properly: just press on the shutter release. If you are set up correctly, you should only have minor adjustments to make.
I shot simultaneously in JPEG and RAW. After sorting through all my shots, I ended up mainly using JPEG files. After spending time modifying RAW files to make them look the way I wanted, I noted that they ended up looking exactly like the JPEG files that the camera had created in milliseconds. Rather than create more work for myself, I try to set up the camera settings so that it creates the image I want right away. This saves me a huge amount of time and hard-drive space, since I don't have to use heavy RAW files. RAW has its place of course, but I prefer configuring my camera right to spend more time shooting and less time tweaking.
There was a ton of smog over Los Angeles, which resulted in very poor contrast in the pictures regardless of JPEG or RAW. I adjusted the contrast in the first shot.
I also had to clean the picture because of dust on the sensor. Dust leaves black spots on the picture, which is a pain to correct -- if it can be corrected! You can see one at the bottom of the lower right building of the first picture. Be careful when you change your lenses, which exposes the sensor; do it as infrequently as possible, when there is no wind, and always point your camera downwards. You are better off making this effort then losing so much time cleaning the pictures after the fact. Perhaps I could have spent more time making the pictures prettier, but it was past midnight on Saturday, and I was tired!
Los Angeles is smoggy! Well…I didn't really learn this anew on that particular night, but that was the worst I experienced for long distance photography. The smog makes it challenging because it robs so much contrast and the whole picture just looks grayish. Shooting on a windy day or right after a rainy day might have improved that; I’ll let you know when I find the weather control dial on my camera.
Los Angeles is hot! I didn’t learn that one either on that same night, but there was interference from thermal currents on my long distance shots. This “shimmering” that is caused from thermal currents will be one of the main limits to sharpness for this type of photography.
The Moon rose right where TPE predicted it would, but I didn't consider that it would move sideways in the sky. At the exact moment it passed the horizon, the Moon was invisible because of the thick smog, skyscrapers, hills, etc. So when it finally made a clear appearance, it had already shifted to the side of downtown Los Angeles. My original vision was to get the tallest building of downtown in front of the Moon. To do that, I would have had to adjust my position and be much closer to the buildings. If I did that however, I would then have been looking up to the buildings, losing some the perspective effect that makes the Moon look so huge. It's all about negotiation.
The Supermoon doesn’t happen that often; so make sure you are ready for the next one. In the meantime, there are plenty of opportunities - every 29 days, 12 hours and 44 minutes to be precise, to train with a regular full Moon. After all, the Supermoon appeared “only” 14% larger.
How did your pictures of the Moon come out?