Photograph the Lunar Eclipse on January 31st, 2018
In a week there will be a very rare and long-awaited celestial event: a supermoon and lunar eclipse combo. On this night, the sun, Earth and moon will align and provide us with a stunning deep red moon – a blood moon! How it gets this color is neat. Simply put, while Earth is blocking the sun from the moon, the moon still receives indirect light refracted off Earth – in other words, some sunlight gets through Earth’s atmosphere, bends, and “lands” on the moon. Earth’s atmosphere blocks a lot of the sun’s spectrum but not the longer wavelengths. Colors that are redder have longer wavelengths while colors that are more violet have shorter wavelengths. Shorter wavelength colors scatter more easily than longer wavelength colors, so red is the color that “makes it through” our atmosphere. The exact conditions of Earth’s atmosphere (dust, clouds, etc) will change exactly how red or orange this blood moon will look. So each occurrence is very unique!
The Supermoon Explained
As if all of this isn’t cool enough, January 31st is also the night of a supermoon. This means the moon is closer than usual. The moon is about 238,000 miles away and travels in orbit in an imperfect, elongated circle, with the far and close points changing every lunar month. Refresher: a lunar month is the time between successive full moons. It lasts roughly 29.5 days, which is how long it takes for the moon to get through each phase (new, half, and full) and back again. These near and far points change because there are forces “tugging” at the moon and sometimes that means it gets a little closer to us than usual when on its “approaching Earth” stage of orbit.
Now, it doesn’t actually take that much to be considered a “supermoon” – the moon just needs to be new or full and coinciding with this close approach. It should come as close as about 224,659 (or so) miles to get a “supermoon” designation. Any new or full moon that gets that close gets to be a supermoon! Supermoons for everyone!
On the 31st, the moon will be about 223,068 miles away – even closer than the minimum closeness required to be a “supermoon”. This shorter distance makes the moon appear larger and look brighter. This won’t actually be the closest it gets to Earth this year, however. There are closer approaches in 2018. But they won’t be eclipses and full moons and the closest full moon of the year already happened on January 1st. Speaking of that, this full moon is the second in a single month (a blue moon) so January 31st continues to rack up specialness points: blood and super and blue, oh my! All of this is extra, extra special considering supermoons are going to get smaller and smaller. The moon is distancing itself from Earth (do we smell?) by just under 4 centimeters a year.
The Name “Supermoon”
And, for the sake of due diligence, I have to mention that some people really bristle as this whole supermoon moniker because it is kind of a rebranding of a phenomena we’ve enjoyed for years but without the (what some call) silly name. What’s so bad about a name? Well, many people have taken that name and let their imaginations go way too far with it, thinking that a supermoon will cause major tides (no, sorry, the change is pretty slight), more earthquakes (no more than on any average night), and changes to our bodies (if only). My colleague, Jim Goldstein, has a good write up about the rise of the “supermoon” and Phil Plait (not a colleague, but seems very smart) has a good write up on the dangerous beliefs surrounding supermoons.
Reserve Your Super Telephoto Lenses Now
So what does any of this have to do with photography? Well, you can take fuller-than-normal advantage of the moon illusion by finding something compelling in the foreground to shoot and capturing this “massive” moon near the horizon for those stellar Melancholia-esque shots. Then, get one of those sequence shots of the eclipse. Yes, I know, it’s been done, like, a lot – but everyone kind of wants their own capture of it, right? That’s a completely normal feeling, embrace it.
Now that you’re inspired, below are some great resources from my work to help you out. If you want to rent from BorrowLenses, I created a page for the best moon photography gear. If you’re on a budget, I recommend the Nikon Coolpix P900 and its otherworldly 83x zoom and built-in 24-2000mm equivalent lens.
Moon Photography Tutorials