On Monday night, the moon made its closest approach to Earth for 2014. As the moon was full at the time, this event was called “the Supermoon” and was an opportunity for some great lunar and astrophotography. However, don’t worry if you hear all kinds of doomsday scenarios about a supermoon — instead, read up on what Astronomer Phil Plait has to say about what a supermoon actually is and what it isn’t.
One thing a supermoon is is a great time to get some photos of the moon. Photographing the moon, though, can be a bit of a challenge. Luna, it seems, while being very photogenic, is also very camera-shy. In order to get a good shot of her, you’ll generally want to use a DSLR with at least a 200mm lens (though a 400mm would be better and an 800mm would be perfect if your budget will stretch). If you don’t have a DSLR, there are teleconverters that can help you make it work. You’ll also need to make certain your timing is good and that you’ve noted down when the moon will rise (and possibly when it will set) as well as the phase it will be in (full moons are the best and easiest to capture but waxing or waning can also net wonderful results). Pick a good spot where you can see the moon come up and have it be against or near something in order to get that “the moon is HUGE” effect.
Another thing to be careful of is white-balancing. The moon is a very bright object on a very dark background so it is easy to over-expose it. Use a low ISO setting (start at 200), f/11 for the aperture, and 1/125th of a second for the shutter speed and adjust from there as needed or desired for effect. For more advice, check out this great article over at Digital Photo Secrets.
Lastly, taking photos of the moon is one great way to get started in the field of astrophotography. The night sky has fascinated mankind since our earliest days. While taking photos of distant stars, planets, galaxies, and nebula requires some specialized equipment (telescopes, mounts, tripods, etc), there are some events you can capture with just a good DSLR. Sea and Sky has a great calendar of these events but we’ll list a few of the major upcoming ones for you below.
August 18, 2014 — Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter. Look for this near sunrise. The planets will appear near the constellation Cancer in the sky.
August 25, 2014 — New moon. The moon will not be visible in the night sky making this an excellent time to observe more distant phenomena such as galaxies and star clusters.
September 9, 2014 — Full moon. Though it’s not the Supermoon, the full moon is a great time for some lunar photography.
October 4, 2014 — Astronomy Day. This is a day when astronomy experts and enthusiasts reach out to new people and try to share the wonders of astronomy and the night sky with them. Check out your local astronomy groups to see what kind of events they have planned and make a note to check them out. This is also a great time to introduce children to the majestic wonders of the universe that can be viewed through a telescope.
October 8, 2014 — Total lunar eclipse viewable from most of North America, South America, eastern Asia, and Australia.
October 8 – 9, 2014 — Peak of the Draconids Meteor Shower (the event runs from October 6 – 11). The Earth will pass through the part of space containing rubble from the comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner. Though the full moon may make seeing the meteors difficult, it is still worth checking out if you can get away from bright lights and the light pollution common in cities. The meteors will appear mostly in the region of the constellation Draco.
October 22 – 23, 2014 — Peak of the Orionids Meteor Shower (the event runs from October 20 – November 2). The Earth will pas through the part of space containing rubble from the Halley comet. As the moon will be a waning crescent and then a new moon, these meteors should be easier to see than the Draconids. They will appear in the sky mostly in the region of the constellation Orion.
October 23, 2014 — Partial solar eclipse viewable from most of North and Central America. If you plan to photograph or observe this, please take protective measures such as using aluminum-coated mylar plastic sheets to cover your telescope lens or camera lens (the “Mylar space blankets” are not a suitable replacement!), number 14 arc welders glass, telescope glass filters (sold by astronomy and telescope stores), or pin-hole observation. Do not look directly at the sun without suitable protection (and sunglasses actually worsen the damage since they cause your pupils to dilate to let in more light) and do not point your camera or telescope at the sun without proper protection as you can damage the lenses, optics, and sensors!
November 5 – 6, 2014 — Peak of the Taurids Meteor Shower. Though this is a long-running shower (from September 7 – December 10), it peaks the night of November 5. However, the full moon may make watching the peak difficult. This shower happens when the Earth passes through the part of space containing rubble from Asteroid 2004 TG10 and Comet 2P Encke with most of the meteors appearing near or inside the constellation of Taurus.
November 17 – 18, 2014 — Peak of the Leonids Meteor Shower. Though this is another semi-long running shower (from November 6 – 30), it peaks the night of the 17th and the waning crescent means that observing it will be easier. This shower occurs when the Earth passes through the part of space containing rubble from the comet Tempel-Tuttle and the meteors will appear to be in the vicinity of the constellation Leo.
December 13 – 14, 2014 — Peak of the Geminids Meteor Shower. This is the king of meteor showers. Though it will be occurring during a waxing moon, the Geminids are so bright that the light of the moon should not be a problem. The shower runs from December 7 – 17, peaking the night of the 13th. The meteors will appear in the region of the sky with the constellation Gemini and are from the rubble of the 3200 Phaethon asteroid.
December 22 – 23, 2014 — Peak of the Ursids Meteor Shower. Though this is a minor shower producing few meteors from the rubble of the comet Tuttle, this year will be one of the best to observe it due to the lack of moonlight during the new moon. The shower runs from December 17 – 25 and will appear mostly in the region of the sky with the constellation Ursa Minor (also known as the Little Dipper).
Astrophotography is probably one of the most scientific and interesting fields to get into. The images you can capture doing astrophotography will put awe into anyone. So, get your camera and gear ready and make sure to take a nap so you can stay up and watch the wonders of the nightsky and capture them for the daywalkers to see!
– da Bird
Photo of the 1999 solar eclipse copyright Luc Viatour.
Photo of the M106 Galaxy copyright Robert Gendler