A Blood Wolf Moon

April 10, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Photographer Olis Garber shares the story behind the planning and execution of this composite of the Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse.

Made from 20 light frames by Starry Landscape Stacker 1.7.0. Algorithm: Mean Min Hor Noise

This is one of my favorite spots along the Gulf Coast of Florida for dark sky photography and is one of only a handful of dark sky locations I know of in the South East United States.  Keith Bartholomew and I found this spot the previous summer on one of our scouting trips. 

A Plan

Back in October 2018, planning for this event started.  PhotoPills with its Night Augmented Reality was used to look ahead on the night of January 20th and the morning of the 21st. From this, we got moonrise and sunset times, the path of the moon across the night sky, and the position of the milky way at maximum eclipse.

Backlit by Moonlight The day of the eclipse started at 10:45 AM full of optimism and conversation with the drive to the Gulf Coast. It included a side trip to another dark sky location to see if our favorite coastal tree survived the hurricane season, it did!  At 3:30 PM we arrived at our primary destination with two hours to spare.

Scouting for a landscape composition, I’m looking for an interconnected combination of foreground, middle ground, and background. Our plan from studying Google Maps was to be at a specific location that appeared to have good landscape elements for the moonrise and placed us in a dark sky area for photographing the lunar eclipse later that night.

Different Reality

On-site at 3:30 PM, the 100% cloud cover cleared as forecasted. But what looked good on maps turned out to be an open foreground of water, no middle ground, no leading lines. We spent the next 90 minutes scouting a half dozen other locations to no avail and that earlier feeling of optimism now slid towards despair as moonrise approached. 

It was decision time. Giving up on perfection we settled for an unremarkable location with just enough time to get multiple cameras setup. Then the GPS on both iPhones missed the exact spot of moonrise. Even with calibrated iPhones, when we finally spotted the moon, it was at least 10° off where the apps (PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris) pointed.  The result, a last-minute 30 yard scurry with cameras, lens, and tripods, jockeying for a viable composition.

By the time my cameras were re-composed and ready, the moon had already risen uncomfortably high for a “last chance” moonrise that evening.  As fast as that part of the evening unfolded, it ended.  We packed and moved to a final shooting location reflecting on what just occurred and how the day had gone with 8 hours in and 11 hours to go, well perhaps those thoughts are best left to the imagination. This brings me to my favorite things about landscape photography; being with friends, sharing insights and techniques, common goals, a commitment to the mission, and the adventure! 

The result, a landscape focus stack. The moon in this stack was replaced with an image taken from my second camera, all taken within a few seconds of each other. Camera 1, landscape & moon; Nikon D850, 4 image focus stack, 1/25 sec at f/5.6 (f/5.6 for optical performance and focus stacking for the depth of field), ISO 64, 80-400mm @ 175 mm. Camera 2, just the moon; D850, single image, 1/25 sec at f/7.1, ISO 64, 600 mm (1/25 sec in both cameras in this light, allow ISO 64).

20 minutes after moonrise and several hundred yards down a gravel road, we selected this island surround by salt marsh to spent our next 8 hours.

Marsh Island SunsetMarsh Island SunsetLife at sunset along a Florida salt marsh, the transitional area where a North Florida river meets the Gulf of Mexico as day transitions to night. Taken the previous summer. A focus stack, 3 images, D850, 0.5 sec at f/7.1, 20 mm, ISO 64.

A Mental Image

For the image, it was always going to be a composite that I’d create in Photoshop with an eclipse sequence positioned over the island. The questions going in were how dark would it get, would the milky way be visible and would there be a twilight like an event on the horizon around the island during the middle of the eclipse? The Island would initially be lit by the full moon and images taken during this time would show a blue sky with stars, a typical full moon night-scape. Then a few hours later, it would only be lit by stars and maybe a dark reddish moon. Can this light transition be recorded in an artistic, meaningful way, and technically, will I be able to set up my cameras to capture this?

1/20/19 Super Blood Wolf Moon
Moonrise Sunset Penumbral begins Partial begins Full begins Maximum  Full ends Partial ends Penumbral ends

5:40 PM

6:02 PM

9:36 PM

10:33 PM

11:41 PM

12:12 AM

12:43 AM

1:50 AM

2:48 AM

It's been a while since I've experienced a night this chilly in Florida, but it's much better than the spring, summer, and fall alternatives of 90% humidity and mosquitoes.  At 2 AM the fatigue and cold won, we had enough. We packed our equipment and did the 3 hours drive back to Jacksonville.

Made from 20 light frames by Starry Landscape Stacker 1.7.0. Algorithm: Mean Min Hor Star Dupe Version 1

Made from 20 light frames by Starry Landscape Stacker 1.7.0. Algorithm: Mean Min Hor Noise Version 2


Technicals

3 Cameras, 3 tripods

Nikon D5

Capture Settings:

  • 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm, manual focus
  • Vertical composition with island centered at bottom 1/4 of frame
  • 643 images taken using the camera’s interval timer, the first image taken at 8:17 PM, last image was taken at 1:56 AM
  • 23-second interval
  • 20-second minimum shutter speed
  • ISO set to 1250
  • Exposure mode set to Aperture priority f/7.1 (Moon came across top 1/4 of the image, using this aperture was a mistake, caused a starburst of moonlight that flared from the moon due to the small aperture)

Post Processing:

  • Picked the image just after maximum eclipse with the light starting to glow on the horizon just before the moon flares reappeared. I processed the image in Lightroom and Photoshop, then dropped a moon captured by D850 #2 as described in that post process.

Nikon D850 #1

Capture Settings:

  • 20mm f/1.8 lens, manual focus
  • Horizontal composition with island centered at the bottom 1/4 of the frame (Version 1 & 2 above)
  • 1407 images taken using the camera’s interval timer, the first image taken at 8:30 PM, last image was taken at 1:58 AM
  • 15-second interval
  • 13-second minimum shutter speed
  • Auto ISO (ranged from 400 to 1250)
  • Exposure mode set to Aperture priority f/2.8

Post Processing:

  • In Lightroom from the 1407 images, I picked sets of 20 sequential images based on the quality of light and the position of the milky way for Star Stacking using the software StarryLandscapeStacker. The resulting files became the background images in Version 1 and Version 2 above.

Nikon D850 #2

Capture Settings:

  • 600mm f/4 lens, manual focus
  • Just the Moon, Camera repositioned for each set
  • Took 60 sets of 20 images totaling 1,200 images. Used the interval timer to trigger each set. The first set started at 8:39 PM and the last set finished at 2:00 AM.
  • Exposure mode set to Manual exposure
  • Manual exposure from ISO 400 to 3200, from f/11 to f/4, and from 1/800 to 1/80 second.

Post Processing:

  • Out of the 60 sets, I picked 11 based on sharpness and phase of the eclipse, then for each of the 11 sets of 20, I did “moon stacking” to reduce the noise creating a single image.  From Lightroom, I opened the set of 20 photos into photoshop…, Edit in “Open as Layers in Photoshop…”  hide all the images layers above the bottom two, change the layer mode on the top of the two bottom visible layers to “difference mode” and move that layer until all common areas go dark. When this happens, the two layers are aligned. Then switch that layer mode back to normal and get the next image layer above, do the same with that layer against the bottom layer. Do this until all 20 layers are aligned, here’s a YouTube video that shows this process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-6Z4S6iAFs.  Once done, final adjustments made back in Lightroom.  My final step is 11 moons on a single image with a transparent background that are smart objects that can be dropped onto any image.

ISO 400, 600mm, f/11, 1/250 sec. 

ISO 3200, 600mm, f/4.0, 1/80 sec. 

A Final thought

At the moment not quite so much but now remembering that night that started with a marsh landscape clearly visible under a super full moon, a night that perceptibly changed into one so dark you couldn’t see a hand in front of your face and overhead, a sky that became an infinite black palette of shining stars with a small faint orange ball in the center.  A ball that eventually grew back into a full moon that faded the stars back into a milky sky.  Now looking back at that night in the comforts of home and years ago, I can say in hindsight, it was amazing.


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