Eclipse with No Tripod


Today’s Question: Just saw your lunar eclipse picture on Instagram []. Would you please explain how you got this with no tripod? What was the exposure? I assume that it was a relatively long exposure and if so how did you get a sharp picture? What lens did you use? The other issue I had in trying to photograph this was that at the point of total eclipse the moon was almost directly overhead here in Florida. How did you position yourself for this? Were you able to use autofocus or did you focus manually?

Tim’s Quick Answer: While my lunar eclipse photo was captured without a tripod, I did use a beanbag set on a railing to help stabilize my camera. I also adjusted camera settings to try to achieve as fast a shutter speed as I reasonably could, which in this case was 1/10th of a second. And as luck would have it, I was in Honolulu, Hawaii during the eclipse, which provided a lower angle to the moon than you experienced in Florida.

More Detail: I feel that first I should point out that I did not intentionally set out to capture a photograph of a total lunar eclipse without a tripod. Rather, I am currently on an extended trip during which I wanted to travel relatively light. I will have relatively few opportunities to photograph at night during this trip, so I made the decision to leave my tripod behind. I did, however, bring a beanbag with me.

I happened to be in Honolulu, Hawaii, during the total lunar eclipse, and in that location the full eclipse occurred while the moon was still relatively low in the sky. This made it relatively easy to get a good angle from which to photograph the moon. I set the beanbag on a railing to help stabilize the camera, and then tried to achieve the fastest shutter speed possible.

In this case I was using the Tamron 18-400mm lens, and the photograph in question was captured at the maximum focal length of 400mm. On my camera with a 1.6X cropping factor that translates into an effective focal length of 640mm compared to a full-frame 35mm SLR camera. The maximum aperture size was f/5.6, and so I increased the ISO setting to 6400 in order to achieve a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second. This represented a compromise between movement of the camera during a relatively long exposure, and the risk of even greater noise at a higher ISO setting.

As the shadow of the earth started to recede, revealing the brightness of the moon in full sunlight, it was possible to achieve faster shutter speeds. However, at this point the contrast started to become too great, resulting in either a very dark moon or blown out highlights. In addition, during the full peak of the lunar eclipse the moon was especially dark, making it difficult to achieve a sharp exposure.

Even with a tripod, the task would not have been much easier. That is because the moon is moving across the sky at a surprisingly fast rate, so that a long exposure would result in motion blur for the moon. This is why many photographers who are serious about astrophotography use a special tracking telescope combined with a camera so the lens can pan with the movement of the moon or other celestial object.

It is worth noting that even under ideal circumstances, the considerable amount of atmosphere you are photographing through when capturing images of the moon often means the effective resolution is reduced, leading to a lack of especially crisp detail in photographs of the moon.

In any event, the circumstances worked out reasonably well for me, and I was able to capture a photograph of the moon during the recent lunar eclipse without a tripod. You can view the photo on my Instagram feed here: