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Lunar Eclipse over Star Dune

Lunar Eclipse over Star Dune, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Lunar Eclipse over Star Dune, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

I began planning my photograph of the January 31st, 2018, lunar eclipse months in advance. First, I looked up the azimuth (compass bearing) and altitude (elevation above a level horizon) of the moon at first contact, the moment when the limb of the moon first enters Earth’s umbra (the region of darkest shadow) and it looks like a bite has been taken out of the moon. I planned to start shooting five minutes before that moment. Next, I looked up the azimuth and altitude of the moon at the beginning and end of totality, and learned that the moon would emerge from totality just a few minutes before it set, still partially eclipsed. Armed with that information, I calculated how much change in azimuth and altitude would occur during the visible portion of the eclipse. That, in turn, dictated what focal-length lens I would need to include all the stages of the eclipse that would be visible before moonset.

The next step was to decide where to go. I wanted a location where I would be at the same elevation as the western horizon, so I could see as much of the eclipse as possible before moonset. I also wanted something interesting in the foreground and mid-ground. After much consideration and obsessive study of the weather forecast, I settled on Great Sand Dunes National Park.

I arrived the afternoon before the eclipse, hiked to the top of High Dune, and began scouting for a shooting location. I wanted the dunes that I would include in the foreground to fit gracefully into the composition. As I explored, I carried a mirror-sight compass in my hand, checking constantly to see what part of the dunes the moon would be above when the eclipse started, and where the moon would be when it set. After choosing a tentative location, I dug out my Brunton pocket transit, a highly accurate, tripod-mounted, compass and inclinometer. Using my knowledge of the angle of view of my 50mm lens, I determined precisely where the moon would be in terms of both azimuth and altitude during the eclipse, which in turn dictated where the left and right edges of my frame, as well as the bottom of the frame, would have to be placed when I set up in the dark.

After shooting some amazing lenticular clouds at sunset with frozen Medano Creek in the foreground, I napped for a few hours in my truck, which I’d parked at the Zapata Falls campground. I got up again at 1:15 a.m., drove back to the park and hiked by moonlight to my shooting location, using my GPS receiver to guide me to the exact spot. I set up the camera and shot test frames to confirm I had the composition dialed in. Precisely when I expected, the moon dropped into the frame. I shot a bracketed series of exposures every five minutes to record each stage of the eclipse. Half an hour before moonset, the moon vanished into the gathering clouds near the horizon, never to return. I shot a spectacular sunrise from the same location where I shot the eclipse, then hiked out and drove home. Driveway to driveway, my sunset-lunar-eclipse-sunrise blitz had lasted just 30 hours.

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