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Photographing the blood moon

Last week Olympus sent me (and probably a million other Olympus customers) a link to an article by Alex McClure on how to photograph the "blood moon" or supermoon eclipse. A "supermoon" is the full moon when the moon is closest to earth. Because it's closer than usual, a supermoon is actually bigger and brighter in the sky than an ordinary full moon, so it's an impressive sight in itself. A "blood moon" is a total lunar eclipse that coincides with a supermoon. Supermoons occur once every year; blood moons occur every few decades.

Anyway, I read the article and thought, "What the heck, I'll try it!" So I did.


Setup

I started shooting with an Olympus E-M1 body and the Olympus ED 75-300 f4.8–6.7 II lens, mounted on a MEFoto tripod. The E-M1's focus magnification feature helped me get the best manual focus possible. Once I'd focused, I controlled the camera wirelessly from the OI.S app on my iPhone. Triggering the shutter wirelessly means I don't have to touch the camera, and that means I don't risk moving the camera even slightly and thus blurring the photo.

By the time I was ready to shoot, the moon was in almost total eclipse. I shot for about 10 minutes with the E-M1 — until my battery died. At that point I switched the 75–300 lens over to the Panasonic GM1, switched from the MEFoto tripod over to a heavier Manfrotto tripod, and switched from the Olympus OI.S app to the Panasonic app, and kept shooting. 

I shot for over and hour, taking a picture every minute or so. I took well over 100 photos. None of them are very good.

Shooting

For some reason I can't explain, the first photos I took — from the Olympus E-M1 — are really disappointing. Here's the best of the Olympus bunch.

Approach total eclipse. Processed in DxO Optics Pro 10.5

The E-M1 and GM1 are both micro four-thirds cameras, so the 75–300 has the zoom range of a 150–600mm lens on a full-frame camera. Or in simple terms: it's got a helluva reach. It's a well-regarded consumer lens and if you're not planning to submit your images to National Geographic or Audubon, it's capable of doing a fine job, say, shooting birds on the other side of a pond in decent light. But a lunar eclipse is a pretty big challenge. The optics of this lens simply aren't intended to resolve detail at a focal plane distance of a quarter of a million miles. And even if its optics were better, zoomed out fully to 300mm, the lens's widest aperture is f/6.7. Maybe for the next eclipse, I'll rent the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO prime lens, which should be released by then, or the 40–150 f2.8. An extra couple of stops of light-gathering ability combined with superior pro-grade optics will make a big difference.

I should note also that, while for 99% of the work that I do, micro four-thirds really is just about as good as APS-C or even full-frame, last night's eclipse is the kind of rare event that is better shot with a bigger sensor camera. I don't often miss my Sony full-frame A850 or A99, but last night, I did. I think I could have done better with the E-M1. I normally keep the camera set to change ISO in full-stop increments, in other words, when I change ISO, my options are 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400.... Last night it would have been useful to change that so I could shoot somewhere in between 1600 and 3200. Or it might have been better to stay at ISO 1600, let the raw captures be underexposed, then fix the exposure on the computer. Instead I shot at ISO 3200 most of the time — and of course the raw files were quite noisy.

Anyway, you use what you've got, and that was what I had.

While I was shooting, I had to keep adjusting the head of the tripod to repoint the camera, because the moon kept moving higher and higher in the sky. 

Processing

The biggest difficulty with the processing of a shoot like this is culling out the least bad photos from the pile of slightly worse but otherwise nearly-identical photos. Other than that, the challenge is to reduce noise but boost detail and microcontrast. As always I tried processing the files in three different programs: Adobe Lightroom, DxO Optics Pro and ON1 Perfect Photo Suite. 

I shot raw + JPEG. I wanted the JPEGs just because I was curious to see what the internal processing engines of these two cameras would generate. If you grade on a curve (recognizing that this was a big challenge for these cameras), the results are okay. But in-camera processing applies so much noise reduction that the resulting file, while dramatic, hardly looks like a photograph:

In-camera JPEG generated by Panasonic DMC GM1. Capture at ISO 6400.

But not surprisingly I got better results processing the raw files on the computer.

I can't tell which of these I prefer. The first was processed in DxO Optics Pro, and the second, in ON1 Perfect Photo Suite. Perfect Photo Suite is a more complicated app; but DxO corrects lens problems and noise better than anybody else. These are two 'performances' of the same raw capture, but quite different stylistically.

Shot by Panasonic GM1 @ ISO 6400. Processed in DxO Optics Pro 10.5 using Prime noise reduction.

Same raw source file as previous image, but processed in ON1 Perfect Photo Suite 9.5. I accepted some extra noise here in exchange for increased detail.

In the end, I think this is the best of the bunch:

Captured raw by Panasonic DMC GM1using Olympus 75–300 f4.6–6.7 II lens. 1/10th sec shutter speed, aperture f6.7, ISO 6400. Processed in DxO Optics Pro 10.5 but with numerous tweaks to the (usually excellent) default. Lowered luminance noise reduction but kept chrominance high, and fiddled with light and contrast settings as well. Probably about the best I'm capable of doing with the image. A better result would need a better raw capture. 

Incidentally, all of these images were cropped about 50%.

Now, switch over to Flickr and see what others did yesterday. Compared to what I've seen, I might get a C+ or B-, maybe even a B. But check out the A images. They're impressive.



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