Early on the morning of April 15, 2014, people around the world watched as the lunar eclipse produced a blood red moon. Thanks to the help of my awesome husband, I was able to photograph the event while lounging with my injured foot propped up beneath a pile of blankets. That night has been the only time in the last month that I have been physically able to shoot anything so it was a rare treat. Another thing that made that 2AM shoot so special was because it required all of my understanding of shutter speed and ISO to actually successfully capture the moon.
Let’s Get Started
As I discussed in my 2/3/2012 Flashes of Perspective lesson: Illuminating a Camera’s ISO, the ISO setting controls a camera’s sensitivity to environmental light. This in combination with the camera’s aperture and its shutter speed will affect how light or dark a specific photograph develops. If you are unfamiliar with camera ISO, I highly suggest you read the Illuminating a Camera’s ISO lesson before you continue this article, otherwise what I have to say won’t make much sense. Also keep in mind that since the article was written two years ago, the ISO range on professional series cameras has increased quite a bit (50-102400 ISO range on some models instead of the ISO range of 100-6400) even if the general principles remain the same. For now, let us discuss shutter speed.
Shutter speed, also known as exposure rate, is the measure of how quickly a camera takes a photo. It is usually measured in seconds. Let’s say that I want to take a photo of a flower on a sunny day. I already know that I need to set my ISO at 100 or 200 because there is so much light available, but what should I use for a shutter speed? I cannot afford to make my shutter speed too slow, otherwise the photo’s subject will have too much light exposure and look washed out (also known as a blown out photo). Therefore I need to set my shutter speed to something fast like 1/2000 of a second to make sure that the photo isn’t too light or too dark and has a good color balance.
Shooting photos at night are much trickier than shooting photos during the bright day because nighttime shots tend to require a camera’s light sensor to overcompensate for the lack of light. This often creates very grainy photos that have a lot of noise in them. To try to reduce noise in their shots, most people tend to turn on the camera flash and let it flare. Doing this, though, can kill a shot just as easily as sun glare because it means your photo will be blown out even though it was actually taken in darkness. I don’t recommend this. Not only will a flash flare look unprofessional, it also will not work on subjects as far away as the moon.
So how did I successfully shoot the lunar eclipse? Well, I used my knowledge of shutter speed and ISO to cheat the system, so to speak. On a cloudless night, a normal full moon gives off enough light that you can shoot it using 100 ISO (the same ISO used on a bright sunny day). The trick to getting all of those lovely crater details is to manipulate your shutter speed so that your camera shoots just a little slower than it would during daylight (1/1000 or 1/800 will likely work well for this). My experimentation with this technique during the eclipse’s beginning produced some very good shots; however, as I lost more and more valuable light in the end stages of the eclipse, I had become more and more drastic with the ISO settings and shutter speed that I used.
Let’s Break It Down
I shot the photo seen at the beginning of this article at an ISO of 6400 (my personal camera’s highest light sensitivity setting) and a shutter speed exposure of 1/25 of a second. For anyone unfamiliar with 1/25, this is a shutter speed that is slow enough to cause very serious camera shake if you don’t brace the camera. I usually don’t recommend using any shutter speed below 1/125 of a second without having the camera properly braced on a tripod or you’ll likely produce a blurry photograph.
However, as I’ve mentioned before, sometimes the Rules of Photography are more like guidelines than actual rules and on the morning of April 15, I was definitely treating them as such. The photo seen below is of the blood moon as shot with an ISO of 6400 and an exposure of 2.5 seconds. I purposely set the shutter speed so low because I wanted to blur the moon and its sidekick star. I started the shot by placing the moon in the upper left corner of the photograph. I held my breath to reduce camera shake and then moved the camera in a swirl to create a pattern with the moon’s afterimage.
I love both of these photos, but for different reasons. The first is far more of a standard photography shot documenting a specific event. The second photo is far more whimsical in its style and presentation. Both photos have equal merit, but I would expect to submit the first to a newspaper and the second to an art gallery. This idea of these contrasting images of the same subject brings me to this lesson’s homework.
For this assignment, I want you to shoot four different subjects using different ISO and shutter speed settings to photograph each. Each of these subjects must be photographed in low light. You must photograph them in such a way that you show your understanding of how to use ISO and shutter speed to achieve the best possible photograph in low light conditions. This means that there should be very little noise or camera shake evident within the photo. Once you have achieved at least one photo of each of these subjects that any newspaper would be proud to feature, you can purposely blur the subject in creative ways to show off the wild side of shutter speed. I want to see a minimum of 12 good photos captured of these four subjects. I highly suggest using static subjects for this bit of homework, although that is not manditory. Good luck and have fun!
Until we meet again, I wish all of you brilliant flashes of perspective!
[ O*] Alycia