Capturing a Lunar Eclipse with a $100 Lens
Unsplash Untold #10 — The Blood Moon
There are few forms of photography which mystify me more than shooting the night sky. Not only does it require dedication, but it seems to require an attention to technical details which I’ve never seemed to possess. Unsplash is no stranger to beautiful photos of stars, the moon, and even the galaxy — yet Jake Hills’ photo of the blood moon is something unique in its own right.
I asked Jake how he got this composite shot of a lunar eclipse, and I expected an answer which involved a lot of specialized gear. However, that just wasn’t the case. Instead, he told me how he captured the night sky with a cheap telephoto lens and a whole lot of patience:
This was my first time photographing a blood moon, or any kind of eclipse for that matter, so all the learning was done out on the field.
The first thing I should say is that this is a composite. It takes about six hours for the moon to fully transition from full, to blood, and then back to full, and in that time it travels pretty far across the sky. To capture the whole thing would require a wide-angle lens and result in the blood moon being nothing more than a little red dot, so I decided to shoot with a 300mm lens and stitch the photos manually in Photoshop.
I used a Canon 5D III, and at the time had a cheap £80 telephoto lens. The lens was just terrible — kit lens terrible! — but the low-light capabilities of the 5D made up for it. I knew the blood moon would be a lot darker than the full moon, and would require a much longer exposure, but I didn’t realise how much. A couple of hours into the shoot I was already shooting at 8000 ISO for 3 or 4 second exposures. On the camera display it looked terrible, grainy, and blurry. I couldn’t even tell if they were in focus. My moral decreased with each and every photo to the point where I convinced myself I’d missed out on the holy grail of photo opportunities.
Sticking it out through a difficult shoot can be a challenge, especially when it feels like you’re not getting what you want out of it — but Jake’s photo is a perfect example of how sometimes the image on the back of the camera isn’t telling the whole story.
Jake took his photos at Telscome Tye, an area not too far from his home in Brighton. He went to this location to avoid light pollution, as the two nearest villages turn off their streetlights after midnight. This allowed him to get a clear view of the eclipse, but it also meant he was stuck sitting in the dark for hours.
I photographed from 1 in the morning, the start of the transition, until 4 AM when the blood moon was at its fullest. It was a gruelling night; I had to work at 9 in the morning the next day, and despite being September, it was already freezing.
My camera was set up on a tripod, lens extended all the way to 300mm, and focused manually. I had a shutter release to avoid shakes and because it was so cold, which enabled me to trigger the camera with my hands buried in my pockets. I took a photo every 30 seconds with a varied exposure time as the moon grew darker. When you’re shooting at 300mm for three hours you get to witness just how fast the moon travels across the sky. I was having to reposition the camera every 10 minutes to keep the moon in frame.
I was originally planning to photograph the full transition, but after three hours of shivering for what I’d thought were terrible photos, I’d had enough. I packed up my things and made my way home. At this point I’d convinced myself the night was a failure and I was feeling pretty low. It wasn’t until the following morning that I started editing the photos and realised a good photo may still be salvageable.
Jake’s final image included seven photos of the moon overplayed on a wide-angle shot of the stars, but he took around 200 shots in total to get the correct images.
Looking back, Jake recognizes that the image could have been even better — but knows that the image could always be better. He reflects on this truth and gives some advice to anyone hoping to follow in his shoes. Here’s what he has to say for aspiring night sky photographers who want to give it a try themselves:
I’ve since upgraded to a sharper lens and often wish I could go back…but there’s always going to be fancier gear, a sturdier tripod or that gadget from Kickstarter you just couldn’t live without. It’s important to be grateful for the equipment you have. Some of my favourite photos have been captured with a camera phone.
My advice: Get out of your comfort zone. You’re not always going to come away with a great photo — and it’s not always going to be fun — but you will experience something new and it’ll help you grow as a photographer.
Feeling inspired? Find the image you want to capture, and follow Jake’s lead. Don’t be afraid to get a little cold in the process.