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Monday, October 13, 2014

A bird on the face of the Moon, October 9, 2014

Early in the morning of October 9, about eighteen hours after I had photographed that morning's Lunar eclipse, I went out to get photos of the just-past-Full Moon.

I prefer to use a manual setting when I take pictures of the Moon when it is close to Full. The manual setting takes sixty frames per second and creates images that are a bit dim compared to the automatic setting. This reduces the blinding glare of the Moon and allows subtle details that would otherwise be washed out to be visible.Unfortunately, it also puts the camera into a "widescreen" mode that reduces the overall image area to something that some of this Summer's "Super Moons" haven't been able to fit in. So it's very easy to cut off the top or bottom of the Moon in a standard landscape photo.

I was interested in capturing the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in the shadowed regions (on the right in these photos.) I set up the shot as best I could, centered it as well as I could, set the ten second timer, pressed the button, stepped away -  and watched with annoyance as the image on the screen showed that the Moon had slipped slightly out of the frame.

I also noticed something else - a speck that appeared after about five images, moved across the face of the Moon, and disappeared halfway through the shot.

I had captured a bird crossing the face of the Moon.


The Moon is big, really big. But it's quite small in the sky. Even in its extra large "Super Moon" state it still appears barely larger than an aspirin or the eraser at the end of a pencil held at arm's length. Now, look at how small that bird appears against the face of the Moon, and imagine how incredibly tiny it appeared in the sky. And yet I caught it as it flew between me and the Moon!


Photos of birds crossing the face of the Moon are not uncommon, which tells you something about just how many birds there are flying around at night. Still, the odds of getting one crossing your shot as you take pictures of the Moon seem...well, literally astronomical.


This bird appeared in twenty-six of the sixty images in that burst of photos. In most of them it isn't doing anything very interesting. In fact, it seems to be dropping like a rock with its wings either edge-on to the camera or completely folded back against its body. Starting with the first image and ending with the third image above, here is every third image in the sequence. (No wing flapping is apparent between any of these images.)










Sunday, October 12, 2014

An account of the Lunar eclipse of October 8, 2014 and the sunrise that followed

I was going to post this on my Lunar photography blog, Shoot the Moon, but then I decided it would be more appropriate to post it here and link to it from there.


I woke up extra-early on the morning of October 8, 2014. The weather forecast had not been promising the night before, and clouds had been thundering across the face of he Full Moon when I went to sleep a few hours earlier. Still, I dragged myself out of bed, took a shower, made coffee, ate some breakfast, and took a peek outside to see if I could see anything. A red glow in the West suggested that if nothing else, I might get some interesting cloud photographs. I made my lunch, gathered up my gear, walked down to the car, and headed for the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge, where I would have a pretty good view of the Western sky - and maybe the eclipsed Moon.

Threading my way through the pre-dawn traffic in Nanticoke, including taking a detour caused by an ambulance parked outside of the local senior high-rise, I caught occasional glimpses of the Moon. The first seemed shrouded in clouds, but those that followed appeared to be clearer. I parked in the semi-paved lot on the Naticoke side of the bridge, grabbed my coat, a hat, my tripod, and a camera, and walked out until I was over the Susquehanna river.


6:26 AM: The Moon was there! Clouds darted around it, but I could see it.


6:31 AM: My camera was having a hard time focusing on a low-light target at infinity. I played with the settings a bit and realized that the standard Landscape mode would work best in this situation - but only once the eclipse had reached totality. Before then, everything was an unfocused blur. After totality, the Moon brightens up a bit, usually. (There was one that I remember from sometime in the late 1980's when the Moon actually became a dark purplish shade, and hung in the sky like a burned-out cinder. Through binoculars it looked ridiculously three-dimensional, like it was a ball hanging just out of reach.) Clouds were still present, but I decided they added a nice touch.


6:32 AM: I was on the walkway of the bridge, which is several feet wide and separated from the automobile traffic by a thigh-high guardrail. I had my tripod positioned so two of the three legs were touching the guardrail. Even in the hour preceding sunrise there was still quite a bit of traffic on the bridge. In this image, a car drove by just as the shutter opened. The reflected sodium vapor lights on the bridge created an eclipse-colored blur.


6:32 AM.


6:32 AM.


6:34 AM: I tried to establish context for these photos by pulling back to include the nearby disused railroad bridge. The camera did not take kindly to the change of state and lost focus.

The clouds settled in for a bit. I took a few more shots and got some fuzzy images. After a few minutes I heard and felt someone approaching on the bridge from the Nanticoke side. I was wearing a black longcoat but had made sure I was wearing relatively light-colored jeans and a beige baseball cap for contrast and increased visibility. I moved against the guardrail, pressed my tripod against it, and eyed the stranger warily: A stocky redbearded fellow, mid-30's, appeared somewhat unkempt. Could be some homeless guy, could be someone out for a morning constitutional. Could be someone who would want to steal my $400 camera and $30 tripod and sell them for enough money to get his next fix and maybe the one after that. 

"Morning," he said.

"Morning," I grunted back.

He walked past silently, then stopped and looked at my setup. "Whatchu lookin' at?" he asked, looking at the Western horizon.

"The Moon," I said. "Lunar eclipse. Snedeker's been going on about it all week." Joe Snedeker is a local meteorologist whose TV forecasts involve more clowning than actual weather information. But he had actually been talking extensively about the eclipse for most of the last week.

"I don't see it," the stranger said.

"It's - " I looked towards the horizon and the Moon was mostly hidden by clouds. "Aw, heck," I said, and hit the playback button on the camera. I had to go back a bit to find a decent photo. "Here," I said.

"Huh. That's pretty neat," the stranger said. "Well, have a nice day." He resumed his walk across the bridge.


6:43 AM: Nine minutes after the last shot the clouds cleared out for a while. The Moon was now much lower but the context was much easier to capture. Many outlets had been referring to this dramatically as a "Blood Moon" - apparently, that's another term for a total lunar eclipse. Despite the hype, I found this one had a rose-pink hue.


6:44 AM: I zoomed in a bit to capture the Moon as it sank closer to the treetops.


6:46 AM: The "Moon Illusion" in a photo. I pushed my zoom all the way to capture the dawn-faded and mist-shaded eclipsed Moon full size, and then I decided that wasn't a very interesting image. I backed off a bit and dipped the camera to include the trees. Reviewing this picture later I thought "My God, the Moon is HUGE there." It's not. I routinely take pictures of the Moon that fill much more of the image. But in this one you are clearly seeing foreground objects - trees that are less than half a mile away - and you're looking at the Moon in terms of them. Trees are big; the Moon is bigger than trees!


6:46 AM: Clearly, the end was near. The Moon was still well above the horizon, but about to pass below a local obstruction that would block it from view. Fun fact: by this point the Moon might have been much lower on the horizon, but its image was refracted up by the atmosphere. This can - and did - result in a condition called a selenelion, a situation where the setting Full Moon and the rising Sun are 180 degrees apart but both appear in the sky at the same time, due to both of their images being refracted above the horizon.


6:47 AM: Going...


6:47 AM: ...going...


6:48 AM: ...going...


6:48 AM: ...going...


6:48 AM: ...going...


6:48 AM: ...OK, we're gonna call it "gone" and move along.

So that was the end of the eclipse for me. Well, I thought I was seeing a bizarre atmospheric effect as the Moon began to peek up over the treetops again, much larger than it had been before. But this turned out to just be a cloud.

And there I was, with a tripod and a camera on a bridge over a river, on a crisp Autumn morning with the Sun rising in the east and some time to kill before I had to head to work. So I hiked out farther onto the bridge to get a better look at the Eastern sky.

I saw this:


6:50 AM: These beams are crepuscular rays - think of them as anti-sunbeams, shadows cast by clouds on the water vapor in the atmosphere.


6:52 AM: The crepuscular rays were strong and clear. A friend in Williamsport got almost the same images, so atmospheric conditions were similar across the area.


6:52 AM.


6:55 AM: Some of the gold-rose hue is leaving the horizon. The Sun will soon clear the trees, but that will be fundamentally uninteresting. Plus, I knew I should head home, review my images, and get to work.

As I walked back towards my car I realized that with such strong, clear crepuscular rays, I might be able to see the rarer phenomenon of anticrepuscular rays, shadows cast by clouds that stretch across the sky and converge on the antisolar point - creating a "dark Sun setting" effect. I turned to the West toward the railroad bridge that had given some context to my images, and...


6:58 AM: Yep.


6:58 AM: Exactly as expected.

I walked back to my car, went home, and got ready to head to work.