Mount Tamalpais, January 30-31, 2018
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I might not normally be inclined to delve into the technical aspects of lunar photography, nor do I think there is often too much to say on the subject. However, the events leading up to, the acquisition thereof, and the post processing of the very unique event of the super blue blood moon causes me to reconsider and conclude to share, once more, the story behind the scene. I will touch on the journey, the experience, the technical challenges and nuances of the photography, and some observations during post processing.
The tale begins with a phone call some weeks earlier, from a photography client who wants to come out and photograph the full eclipse of a super blue moon. To review the basics: a super moon occurs when the moon is at its closest position relative to the Earth in its orbit. This results in a moon that is a little over 9% larger than the usual moon (akin to comparing a 16-inch pizza to a 15-inch pizza). It is also about 14% brighter. The blue moon occurs when there are two full moons within a month’s time. The eclipse happens when the moon falls within the earth’s shadow during its orbit. On the morning of January 31, these three events will occur simultaneously for the first time in 150 years giving rise to the name Super Blue Blood Moon. Truly a trifecta of astronomical proportions. My friend’s dilemma is that she lives in Florida, and the eclipse is due to begin at 3:50 PST, as the moon prepares to set on the Pacific. Would I like to work with her on this project and do I have any experience with lunar photography?
People have asked me in the past if I am going to go out and photograph the supermoon that happens with infrequent regularity. My pat answer is “no,” it is just a moon and all pictures of the moon look pretty much the same and depending on the size lens you own and how much you crop it, the moon can look as big and as bright as you want it to be. I have enjoyed getting up in pre-dawn hours to find a good shot of the moon within a larger composition that will make for a unique photograph. My local routine of shooting the moonset over the Sierra Nevada is not going to work in this instance. Too many mountains will be in the way for the timing of this moon’s phase. So, what can we do that will be unique?
I consider a supermoon that will be eclipsing just prior to dawn. Suddenly it dawns on me that back in the 70’s while living in the San Francisco bay area my friends and I would journey to the top of Mount Tamalpais (just north of the city in Marin County) on the night of the full moon and watch the moon rise over the bay while the sun sets upon the Pacific. Bingo. A double header with both a super moonrise and setting moon during the sunrise. The long-range weather forecast is a bit sketchy, while San Diego does look more optimistic. Do I want to drive to San Diego (five hours from our California home) for a shot of the moon? Does my friend want to fly from Florida for the same? I do have several friends in the Bay Area who have been requesting us to visit. Quandary.
I call a friend in San Anselmo (at the base of Mount Tamalpais) to inquire if he and his wife will be in the area if we decide to visit during the event, and I explain what I am considering in terms of visiting the mountain. Apparently, things have changed since the 70’s; go figure. The state park now closes off the top of the mountain between sunset and sunrise. It seems too many party-goers were hitting the top of the mountain, and order needed to be restored. There is an attractive Plan-B however. Atop Tamalpais is a lodge several miles in from the gate, and a few miles from the summit, where we can stage our excursion. The West Point Inn ( https://www.westpointinn.com/ ) was built in 1904 to accommodate visitors to the mountain and was accessible by carriage or train from Mill Valley. My friend is a member (the historic lodge is maintained by a volunteer organization) and he can procure several cabins for us. One cannot drive to the Inn, but old service roads at very moderate grades make for easy access. Easier yet … mountain bikes! There is no electricity at the Inn or cabins, but they do have an industrial style kitchen, gas lights in the Lodge, and spacious great rooms with fireplaces to warm our soles and souls. We must pack in our equipment and food, and sleeping bags are recommended as beds have blankets but no sheets. No problems.
Along the way, my photographer friend from Florida decided against flying across country, perhaps in some measure of the consideration that on January 21, 2019 there will be another full eclipse of the super moon which will be visible from everywhere in the United States. Good call, in my humble opinion. I have traded in a five-hour drive to San Diego for a six-hour drive to the bay area but will visit with friends and take a trip down Memory Lane (perhaps Flashback Lane?) in celebration of what promises to be an energizing experience. We are joined by a dear friend who used to cavort the top of the mountain with us back in the day, and who we will visit after our stay at the Inn.
Carolyn and I arrive a day early to enjoy an evening with our friends Yvo and Carrie. Jeff will drive south from Sebastopol the next day to meet us for the trip up the mountain. The early part of the day is spent gearing up bikes and supplies and exploring the lower reaches of the mountain park including a walk around one of several reservoirs. We have a clear and reflected view of the peak and lookout tower where we hope to embrace all things celestial over the next 24 hours. Along the trail I see something I have never seen before. In the pine trees, woodpeckers have drilled holes into the trunks and squirrels have stuffed each hole with an individual acorn. Many trees may have hundreds of these half-buried treasures protruding from their sides. Strange.
We all do our best to rendezvous at 4:00 P.M. at the parking lot near the top of the mountain that will be our launch point for the Inn. The plan is to bicycle into the Inn, establish our cabins, and proceed to the peak for the moonrise and sunset. The best laid plans, as they say. All things considered, we reach a reasonable approximation of the plan, and depart the lot closer to 5:00, and by the time we have peddled our hineys the two miles to the Inn, the moonrise is well underway over the bay and we can make out the edge of the sunset from the eastward facing slope of the mountain. All concur that we have exhausted ourselves sufficiently on the initial trip in to not bother attaining the peak this evening. I make a few shots of the moon over the bay, and we set about to enjoy an evening meal of tacos and wine and good company. Double checking my astronomical predictions, it appears the penumbral eclipse begins about 3:00 A.M. while the umbral eclipse (look it up folks) will start at 3:48 with the full eclipse at 4:52 and lasting approximately 1 hour 16 minutes. At this point it is now 9:00 P.M. and I am going to bed and will rise at 3:00 A.M. to (hopefully) hit the top of the mountain in time for the beginning of the umbral eclipse. Carolyn and Jeff (my cabin mates) are not entirely sure they will rise and shine with me, but Yvo and Carrie assure me they will be ready to go. I turn in fully clothed, sans shoes, to be ready to go when Debussy’s Claire du Lune begins playing on my alarm at the crack of OMG.
I am not at all sure the weather will be in our favor. The forecast has been for a perfect evening (so far so good) but clouds are due to arrive around the hour of midnight which could completely compromise the plan. If such turns out to be the case, we will all just turn back into bed and chalk it up to the weather.
The appointed time arrives sooner than expected; little surprise there. I slip on my shoes and step outside to see what I can see. Beyond belief, the moon is shining full and bright in the sky without a cloud to be seen anywhere. The heavens are shining in full glory and totally with us. I grab my camera gear. Gear consists of a Nikon D800 camera body, a Nikkor 80-400 mm lens as well as a 28-300 lens. Also in the gear pack are a smallish carbon-fiber tripod with an Acratech ballhead, shooting gloves, flashlight, remote shutter release, a variety of Cliff bars and a few other little odds and ends. I don a light down jacket and head up the hill to Yvo’s cabin where he and Carrie are set to go. My muscles are still a little achy from the previous night’s ride. It was not many miles on the trail, but I have more miles on myself than I care to admit, and while I can still knock a few more miles off than others, certainly not as many or as quickly as I used to be able to claim. It is three miles up a steady 6% grade to the parking lot below the peak. The service road that serves as our path is well lit in the moonlight and winds through redwoods, manzanita, and madrone trees with the occasional stream cascading down the mountain. Yvo has supplied me with an excellent mountain bike but it is not long before exertion gets the better of me. The gear pack does not weigh a ton, but it appears to weigh in at a significant percentage thereof, it is 3:15 A.M. on no coffee or tea or full sense of balance, the trail is darkish, and if it is not one thing it is another and before long I find myself dismounting to catch my breath and walk the bike some ways. In truth, at this hour of the morning, I am not convinced I am ever going to get my breath back. Yvo and Carrie double back to make sure the old man isn’t lying dead on the road. I must embarrassingly concede I am likely to walk this fine mountain bike up the hill, much to its own embarrassment and my disgrace, but oh well.
Along the road and not terribly far from the peak, I turn to look at the moon and notice a bite is taken from the top. It looks like I am going to have a clear shot of the moon from this vantage for the next hour at least, so I decide to set up gear and shoot. Why have my back to the event climbing this silly mountain? (I did not realize quite how close I was to the top, but it mattered not).
Now on to the technical aspects. I am using the Nikon D800 (36-megapixel full frame) camera body and I am mounting my 80-400 Nikkor lens for the moon shots. I wish I had my 500mm f/4 monster lens, but that is in Alaska as I use it primarily for wildlife and do not care to travel with it to California. The tripod is not large relative to the equipment (large enough) so I am going to use a remote shutter release to lock the mirror up before opening the shutter. This reduces possible camera vibration. I am also using back-button focusing to establish a focal point that does not change every time the shutter is engaged. (Alternatively, one could set the equipment to manual focus and set the lens to (essentially) infinity.) Exposure is the big issue. It is night, but when photographing the moon, one must keep in mind how bright the subject is and how easy it can be to overexpose. I set my metering to manual to remain in full control of the metering process. Initially, for a full moon, I set the ISO to 400. I prefer a smaller aperture for sharper images and start out at f/10, then adjust my shutter speed as needed. Rendering a shot, I use the camera’s crop tool to zoom in and make an inspection. If the image is over or underexposed I will bump the shutter speed up or down as needed. I find I am initially shooting at 1/640 second. I also attempt to discern how sharp the image may be; can I see the craters, mares and rays on the surface? I shoot in RAW format to have optimal editing head-room and realize that the image the camera provides for review is a JPEG and never quite as sharp as what I have in the camera. My experience with night photography has also taught me that a photo that looks perfectly exposed on the camera’s preview screen is often underexposed when reviewing the shot on my computer. (This is true with Nikon; I am not sure if this is the case with Canon.) It is easier to reduce the exposure value of a shot than increase it. As Ansel Adams said: expose for shadows, develop for highlights.
I am enjoying myself immensely, taking a shot every minute or so and catching my breath (still) while noshing a Cliff bar when Yvo and Carrie once again return to find where the body might be laying. It continues to be a beautiful evening, surprisingly mild of temperature, and I remark on the lack of wind, feeling it might be better than being on a peak where winds always seem to blow. The lights of Mill Valley, San Francisco, and the East Bay bejewel the country below. A light appears in the road below us, and my wife Carolyn soon joins us. A few clouds appear in the sky to the east above us, in a form that resembles the Northern Lights. We decide they can be whatever we want them to be at this hour of the morning and agree among ourselves that our trifecta has turned into quadromania. While we are engaging in marvelment I get a text message from friend Jeff who is on the peak and wondering where we are? Apparently, he took a different fork along the way and took the road more travelled, making all the difference. Fear not, when the moon is in full eclipse we will make our way and join him. I post to Facebook that I am knee deep in the lunar hoopla and find myself soon engaging with my friend from Florida in texts across the heavens.
This is the first time I have engaged in shooting an eclipse, and I soon discover I need to make adjustments for the changing magnitude of light which is expanding the dynamic range between the illuminated side of the moon and the eclipsed portion. As the moon essentially wanes, at an adjusted shutter speed of 1/25 second, I am still getting a sharp shot of the illumination, but precious little of the shadow. I open the shutter to f/8 and increase my shutter speed to a full second to get the bloody portion of the lunar surface at the expense of an overexposed edge. The shadow continues to consume the moon, and with the loss of light I eventually set my camera to an ISO of 1600 (knowing I would have to process some noise reduction) with an aperture of f/8 and a shutter speed of 2 seconds. It is a lovely photo of a blood moon, and I marvel to see stars in the sky around a full moon. The moon is now in full eclipse, so we gather up our things and head up the hill to gain the peak.
The regulation parking lot for the peak-trail access is not far up the hill and well illuminated by a soda dispenser portraying a lovely verdant mountain waterfall. Quite ironic. We stash our bikes behind the rest facility and don headlamps for the trail up to the peak. The light is all but non-existent compared to an hour earlier and the line of headlamps heading up the mountain remind me of Everest videos I have been watching recently. When we reach the lookout tower at the top, we find Jeff questioning the reality of the scene that stretches out before us: the blood moon like a dull ruby gracing the treasure of lights of the metropolis below. My concern is realized that the peak is attracting the wind, which is nothing more than a strong breeze, but too much for hopes of steady shots given the size of my equipment and the exposure requirements. I cautiously pick my way around outcrops and descend a way on the lee side of the mountain to a relatively flat and calm platform where I resume my task. All totaled I made around 200 exposures on the mountain that morning. Many were rejected in post processing back at the home office, particularly the shots made on top of the mountain. While I thought I was without wind, there was enough to compromise many of the shots. I made a mistake in keeping my aperture at f/10 (usually enjoying the increased sharpness of the smaller apertures) and increasing my exposure time to 3 seconds, which appeared to be giving me good results on my preview screen. (Everything looks better on a preview screen.) I should have increased the aperture allowing more light through the lens
and reduced the time of the exposure. Living and learning, and hard to make all the right decisions at 5:00 A.M. in the dark. Meanwhile the sun is rising in the east and I took a break to switch to a wider-angle lens and swing around to capture the magic of the landscape below. As the light increased, so did the foot traffic and soon enough there were barking dogs and boom boxes and we made our retreat to the Inn for coffee and pancakes. I am glad to say the bicycle ride down the hill was easier than walking it up the mountain.
While shooting, I had a vision of a final product to commemorate this unique event in the very special setting atop Mount Tamalpais. This is my offering:
As is the growing convention, any of the photos displayed can be clicked to visit a high resolution rendition of the shot, with an option to acquire. The gallery link also contains a few shots not presented in this blog. Visit the 2018 Super Blue Blood Moon Gallery online.
And there is always more adventure to be found along the full range of photo galleries through Time & Space at: https://timenspace.net/photo-galleries/
This is a fascinating, very well written account.
the thousand words were worth as much as the picture. It is a gift to be circumspect AND in the moment at the same time.
Well, as usual Tom—a fascinating tale. I found myself out of breath as I read of your journey. Hope you have regained your composure completely!:):)
Love to you and Carolyn
Great work Tom. I did some blood moon shots back a few years ago and unfortunately did not have a remote shutter device nor your experience but still manages to get some reasonably good shots.