Yes, mere mortals can photograph tonight's lunar eclipse—the first time a total eclipse and a Winter Solstice have coincided in 372 years. Though it's not at all obvious that I will get to do so. We've been getting pretty steady rain and while I can see the sun at the moment, it's the first time all day, and tonight is predicted to be 70% chance of showers and 90% cloud cover. I am keeping my fingers crossed but not exactly getting my hopes up.
But if your weather is predicted to be better, go for it.
Don't know if you'll be using film or digital camera, so I'll talk generally.
The full Moon is normally quite bright. At ISO 400, a good exposure is around ƒ/8 at 1/500th second. But it gets a lot darker during an eclipse. Even during the early phases of a partial lunar eclipse, you'll want to be going to exposures around 1/125th second. By the time the moon is mostly covered, it will be more like ƒ/4 at 1/60th second. Full totality is really, really dark, much darker than it looks to the eye. It varies wildly depending upon the atmospheric conditions on earth, but you're going to be talking about exposure times anywhere between 1 and 20 seconds at ƒ/4 at ISO 400. If you've got a digital camera, this is a good time to crank it up to 1600; at least then you have a plausible chance of getting something with exposures no longer than 1 second.
You will either need a tripod or something you can brace the camera on. I make a lot of photographs, ad hoc, at night by just finding a flat surface that I can prop the camera on. If you're worried about jiggling the camera when you press the shutter for the exposure, use the self timer setting. Then you press the button, step back, and after a couple seconds it makes the exposure. Handy simple tricks.
Obviously, make lots and lots and lots of exposures. And bracket like crazy. Film is cheap. Electrons are cheaper.
If you have a zoom lens on your camera, make a bunch of photographs at the normal setting for the lens; the moon will be a very small disk, but you'll have a much higher percentage of reasonably sharp photographs. But also make a bunch zooming the lens out to its maximum telephoto setting. Much harder to get sharp photographs that way, but the moon will be much bigger and you'll probably be able to see some detail in the surface.
For more, see this article by Chris Lane from the archives.
Totality will last 72 minutes beginning at 2:41 a.m. EST (on Dec. 21st) or 11:41 p.m. PST (on Dec. 20). Good luck and have fun and don't freeze yourself too badly.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Bob: "Bob's Law of Astronomical Events.... Anytime there is something interesting happening in the sky it will be cloudy. The probability of clouds is directly proportional to the rarity of the event. Bonus points are given if I spent $$$ to travel to some location to observe the event. Corollary Bob's Law of Mountains.... Anytime I am near a mountain (or any scenic viewpoint for that matter) it will be cloudy and I usually can't see more than 100 yards. This rule is null and void if I left my camera at home. And then of course there is the law of scaffolding, construction etc. around monuments and buildings. Anyway you get the idea."