Although I live right outside Yosemite National Park, Monday night’s lunar eclipse didn’t seem to line up well with any of Yosemite’s features, so I started looking for other locations – preferably someplace with clear, dark skies, and an interesting foreground. Death Valley came to mind, but then I thought of the Trona Pinnacles, near Ridgecrest. I’d never been there, but it seemed like an appropriately “lunar” landscape – so much so that the pinnacles have frequently been used to represent alien landscapes in sci-fi movies, including Star Trek V and Planet of the Apes.
My wife Claudia and I drove down there on Monday and arrived about an hour before sunset. And what a great spot! I wondered why it had taken me so long to visit this striking landscape. The pinnacles are actually ancient tufa towers, like those at Mono Lake, left high and dry by the evaporation and shrinking of Searles Lake.
I’d photographed three total lunar eclipses before, but each time some of the partial-eclipse sequence occurred out of sight, below the horizon. This time, however, the entire sequence would occur during the middle of the night, high in the sky, giving me a chance to see and photograph the beginning, middle and end of the eclipse. So I kept this in mind when scouting for a location, looking for a foreground arrangement that would fit below the path of the moon during the entire sequence.
I finally settled on a spot with a nicely balanced formation of pinnacles, but then, as I set up my tripod and calculated the exact path of the moon, it became apparent that all the elements wouldn’t align correctly. But moving about 50 feet to the right revealed another view that would line up with the eclipse better, with an even more interesting arrangement of towers.
I composed, focused and started capturing images of the full moon about an hour before the eclipse was due to start. Claudia and I set up camp chairs and took turns tripping the shutter every ten minutes. In between exposures for the moon, Claudia opened the shutter for some additional frames as I light-painted the foreground towers.
When the moon became fully eclipsed, I made several additional exposures for the sky, with bright stars on the suddenly moonless night, and some thin clouds lit by the orange glow of distant lights (Mojave? Los Angeles?). And since the composition for the pinnacles demanded a very wide lens (17mm), I had to keep photographing the moon long after the eclipse ended, so that the sequence would stretch across the whole frame. The entire sequence shown here began at 9:55 p.m. on the 14th and ended at 4:08 a.m. on the 15th.
The wide-angle lens made the individual moons small, so this photograph needs to be seen big – bigger than I want to post online (though you can see it a bit larger here). The separate frames were assembled in Photoshop, with the exposure for the sky as the bottom layer, and all the other layers (the moons and the light-painted towers) set to the Lighten blending mode. (Again, if you missed it, I posted an article about how to photograph a lunar eclipse on the Borrowlenses.com blog last week.)
Needless to say, Claudia and I didn’t get much sleep that night! But it was such a beautiful event, in a spectacular and peaceful place, so we’re glad we did it. We’re already planning for the next lunar eclipse on October 8th. If you’d like to photograph that eclipse, or the two lunar eclipses visible in 2015, I posted an article on how to photograph a lunar eclipse on the Borrowlenses.com blog last week.
— Michael Frye
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.