Supermoon fever seemed to grip the online communities on Saturday night. Twitter was buzzing with it as people who would normally pay no interest in our nearest celestial neighbour peered upwards trying to see if the moon was indeed 14% bigger than usual and 30% brighter as the news websites reported. Of course if you hadn’t seen the moon for a few months then suddenly caught it on Saturday it would have looked different, if you look for it all the time you didn’t see much since the move to a big moon is gradual and not all at once.
The Supermoon, or perigee moon, is not a once in a lifetime occurrence as the media would have us believe, it actually happens a few times a year as the moon’s orbit gets closer to Earth and then ebbs away again, it’s just some are closer than others, this year’s wasn’t as close as the March one last year but it was still impressive.
With the moon’s latest close approach to Earth the timing wasn’t great with regards to the moonrise time still falling in daylight. The moon came up over the horizon from Edinburgh at 20.37 and to that ends I was stood on Blackford Hill with a good view to the South East with a Nikon D7000, Sigma 200mm f2.8, 2xtele and photographic tripod and the MacBook pro so I could try some tethered shots. However, as with all good astro plans the weather got in the way dumping a low bank of cloud on the horizon spoiling the fun. The sky was still very light too so gave up and went home in a huff.
It didn’t take too long though for the moon to get over that cloud bank and around an hour after moonrise I got my first shot at it from home. Sadly, it was so low I had to shoot from the front garden in-between passing Lothian Buses double deckers and glaring sodium streetlights. This was shot tethered to the MacBook pro with Sofortbild which lets you get a real handle on the focus, the golden glow of the low moon still very evident.
Remember those buses I had to try and avoid, I didn’t manage it every time…
About an hour later with the moon higher in the sky I tried again, not tethered this time due to where I had to stand to get the shot (half way up the neighbours stair to avoid a telephone cable). The golden glow has lessened but there’s more contrast and detail.
It might have just been imagination but even at midnight the sky still looked almost twilight to the south with that moon shining so brightly.
The following night with a later moon rise and more cloud about I wasn’t hopeful of anything at all but it did peek out from between the houses over the road very low down and very orange. Pretty impressive even though it wasn’t a “Supermoon” any longer.
The reality here is that any phase of the moon, near or far is a delight to photograph. Despite it being the same subject it’s a challenging subject to get right and atmospherics and cloud play their part too. It’s probably my favourite photographic object and it’s not out of reach for those even with basic photographic equipment. Supermoon or not, give it a try on the next clear day, daylight, twilight or night time it’s always worth a go.
One of the things that really frustrates me about photographing the moon is getting the camera settings right. OK, it’s not that big a deal but every time you touch a big zoom lens to make an adjustment there’s a degree of shake introduced, even with exposure delay set to on there’s still a chance the camera won’t have settled by the time you take a shot. It’s tempting when experimenting with exposures on a subject like the moon just to quickly change the shutter speed and hit the remote, especially if there’s cloud in the equation where exposure times can change from second to second. What you invariably get are shots that look ok on the preview but on closer inspection are slightly blurred. No good to anyone.
The solution I’ve found, where it’s convenient anyway, is to tether the camera to a laptop. Most modern DSLR’s should be capable of being controlled remotely from a laptop and there’s a range of freeware out there to help you along. For this example I’m using Sofortbild on a MacBook Pro tethered to my Nikon D7000.
Here’s a pic of the setup with a bonus can of beer in the background…
When connected to the laptop the camera show’s this on its top screen and all settings are now changeable directly from the app window on the Mac.
Sofortbild is a Nikon only Mac based app but there’s stacks of options out there for all models. Other than the laptop and software all I needed was a mini-USB to USB cable. I bought a 5m one from eBay for less than £2. This lets me have a certain freedom from the camera, i.e. I can sit in the car with the laptop or in my shed etc. Sounds like overkill but when the winter comes around and the temperatures drop I’ll be the one sat with a heater on taking pics from the garden shed!
In this example I’m setup on a photographic tripod but it would be fine with the camera connected to a telescope or piggybacked. The downside to the photographic tripod is no tracking so you do have to keep adjusting it to keep the moon in view.
With the setup done in Sofortbild there’s a live view option so I can see what the live view screen on the camera will see although, bigger on the laptop screen. You can zoom in on this too so you can really nail that focus. Much easier than peering at the 3″ screen on the back of the DSLR.
With optimum focus in place now you can take a shot. Within seconds the final image, not a preview, is viewable within the app, you can zoom in and carefully check exposure and focus with much more accuracy than you ever could on the camera preview screen. If you need to adjust all the settings are there in drop down menu’s easily accessible and more importantly, you are never touching the camera at all. Even at 400mm the moon takes a couple of minutes to travel through the FOV so you have a good few opportunities at settings before you’ll have to adjust the camera’s position.
With Sofortbild I can also set it to auto import into iPhoto where I catalogue all my RAW files. All shots are stored on your laptop not on the memory cards which for me is a win situation. At the end of the day all the shots will end up on the MacBook for processing anyway so it cuts out a step of my workflow process.
I’ve certainly found this a cheap and highly functional alternative to using a normal camera remote. It might not be suitable in all conditions but if you can use it it will provide benefits the traditional methods won’t. For the outlay of an extra long USB cable it’s transformed the way I’ll be taking astro pics in the future and it’s yet another part of the astro photography learning process ticked off!
Here are a few shots of the moon taking with this method.
One thing about Astro-photography, you’re totally at the mercy of the weather. No matter what’s going on in the night sky, you can only see it if the clouds let you see it. There’s nothing you can do about it other than cross your fingers and hope that as darkness falls the skies clear. Which predictably they don’t 9 times out of 10. The conjunction of Venus and Jupiter last month being a perfect example. The night the 2 planets were at their closest in the sky thick cloud hung about all night over Edinburgh spoiling the celestial display.
With the weather rollercoaster central Scotland was experiencing yesterday I held out little hope of even seeing, let along photographing 2 meetings of night sky objects last night. All afternoon the weather swung from heavy snow/hail showers to broken cloud and back again. As the twilight approached this was still the case so getting anything was going to take timing and a hefty dose of luck.
With this in mind, I set up the camera and tripod in the garden shed. This is the kit I’ve been using until I finally get my telescope. It’s a Nikon D7000, fitted with a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM and 2x tele converter which gives me a 400 f5.6 lens, 600mm on the Nikon crop sensor. The D7000 is fitted with a Hahnel Giga T Pro remote receiver so I can use the powerful IR remote to trigger the camera. Exposure delay mode is on the try and minimise any shake. At 400mm the slightest movement will be obvious, more so when the subject is many thousands of light years away.
The first object to try for was the conjunction of the planet Venus and the Pleiades open star cluster, also known as M45 or the Seven Sisters. Venus has been steadily getting closer this month and on April 3rd it was sat right on the edge of the cluster to our view. 400mm fills the frame nicely and even though M45 wasn’t visible in the twilight sky, the camera could see it. There was just the small issue of the passing torrential hail shower to wait out first. As the dirty ominous clouds passed I got my first few shots at the target which was made difficult with a biting strong wind. 18″ long lens setups and strong winds don’t go too well together.
So, high ISO of 1600 and 1s exposure to try and keep the stars as dots rather than oblongs and the full 400mm was the order of the day. The wind affected a lot of shots but this was the pick of the bunch. Venus is of course very bright and the star cluster much dimmer, so I exposed for the stars and let Venus appear as an attractive starburst. Exposing for Venus would leave the stars not visible at all.
This shot was taken later on in the night with a darker sky and the 2x teleconverter removed to try and combat some of the “wind wobble”. ISO1600, 200mm and f5.6, 0.8s exposure time.
The 2nd object of the night was the close proximity of the Moon to Mars and the star Regulus forming a celestial triangle in the constellation of Leo. The clouds hadn’t parted at all over this part of the sky and it took a while to get any hope of photographing it. With the 2x tele removed due to the distance between the objects around 9.45pm the clouds moved and I got my first shot at the Moon. The final shot had to be a blend of 2 shots, one for the Moon and one for the planet and star. To expose for the very bright Moon left Mars and Regulus nearly invisible, to expose for Mars and Regulus burned out the moon totally and worse still caused huge lens flares.
As the clouds rolled over again the final shot of the night was a closer shot of the moon with the clouds looking all atmospheric. ISO800 at 400mm, f5.6 and 1/25th exposure time done the damage. It’s hard to get decent focus with clouds moving over the moon so I consider this a fairly lucky shot.
An enjoyable, if cold, night but hammers home the need for a telescope again, even just for tracking purposes it would be invaluable. I’ve pretty much decided on a Skywatcher Explorer 150p Newtonian on an EQ3-2 mount which I’ll fit with the optional motor drives. Hopefully I’ll have it soon when the real fun and steep learning curve will start.