Creating A Composite Image – Total Lunar Eclipse

Creating A Composite Image – Total Lunar Eclipse

Creating A Composite Image - Total Lunar Eclipse
A 36-shot composite of an entire Total Lunar Eclipse

Creating A Composite Image – Total Lunar Eclipse

This article is about the ‘How To’ of Creating A Composite Image – Total Lunar Eclipse.

December 2011. A friend suggested we shoot the entire Lunar Eclipse against a heritage backdrop. He was connected and was able to manage the relevant permissions required to shoot after hours at the famed Qutub Minar. It was going to be a total eclipse and I realised we would be discovering a thing or two during the shoot and the post processing. So, I readily agreed.

We did the venue recce a couple of days before the actual shoot to assess the light conditions, monument illumination, vantage for the shoot and how cold we are likely to feel (December = Winters in Northern Hemisphere). After the recce, I studied some more – mainly about the changes in light conditions during the duration of the eclipse and the trajectory of moon during that duration.

On the D-Day, we arrived at the venue before moonrise and realised the monument illumination had been altered (they have multiple spots lighting up the minaret and they decided to switch on the ones that were not switched on during our recce). While this did pose some issues, we quickly re-assessed, selected a new vantage and hastily rigged up our gear.

The Set-up

I mounted an EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 lens on my Canon EOS 60D (a cropped frame camera body, and hence the effective focal length I got at 10mm was 16mm). Camera was secured on tripod and I attached the remote to the camera body to minimise any shake.

I settled on shooting in portrait orientation since I knew the moon would be rising fairly high up in the sky by the time the eclipse was over. I naturally didn’t want to run out of sky in the frame at the final stages of the eclipse.

I fired a few test shots to get a fix on the right settings at the start. The Exif I started off with was:

ISO: 100
Aperture: f/3.5
Shutter Speed: 1.3 secs

I made the choice of staying at the widest open aperture since the foreground – the arch in the Qutub Minar complex – was quite far. In fact, it was much farther than the hyper-focal distance of 1.53 metres necessary at these settings to get a focus till infinity. This ensured that the shutter was not open for too long and that would mean reduced noise. The ISO of 100 was also selected for the same reason of reducing noise.

The Shoot

Soon enough, at around 7 pm, the moon peeped out from behind the arch and I fired the first shot. Since I wanted to play safe and ensure crispness of the final composite, I took a couple of backup shots too. Then on, every 5 minutes, I would click 2-3 images.

In about 30-35 minutes, the sky had considerably darkened. It was time to stop down since the moon was now relatively brighter and would cause a burnout if I continued shooting with the starting settings. I halved the shutter speed to halve the light that entered the camera. This is where I realised it would have been smarter to shoot with my camera tethered to my laptop and control this process of stopping-down through the computer to completely eliminate the marginal camera shake.

But the deed was done and here I was – shooting untethered. I knew that would mean an extra step of aligning these images perfectly during the post processing to ensure crispness of the foreground monuments. Learning: Do a tethered shoot whenever you plan a composite.

From then on, the process of stopping down was repeated every 30-40 minutes (or after every 7-8 shots). My final images were shot around 10 pm. By then, I had stopped down around 6 stops from my settings at the start of the shoot. From a shutter speed of 1.3 secs, I had come down to a shutter speed of 1/50 of a sec.

This meant the monument will get increasingly underexposed in each subsequent stop-down. But that was expected and I knew that the right blending during composite-creation would take care of the underexposed areas of the shot.

Over these three hours, I had shot 36 unique frames (excluding the back-ups). And I knew that I would need some sophisticated post-processing to get the exposures right for every frame before I embark on the task of creating the composite image.

The Post-Processing

I imported the entire set of images into a Lightroom catalogue and commenced the tricky task of creating my composite. Upon review, it came to light that even during the total Lunar Eclipse, the moon is not completely invisible, but turns red when the sunlight gets completely blocked by earth.

I did some initial minor editing in Lightroom. This included cutting down the highlights to address the glow around the moon, some split toning to get the colours right and some luminosity correction to address the much-dreaded noise that invariably creeps in during any low-light shoot.

Then, I selected these 36 images and took them into Photoshop as layers by right clicking and choosing ‘Edit In>Open as layers in Photoshop’ (this also ensured that I did not land up with a locked background layer). The further steps involved in creating the composite in Photoshop were as under:

  1. Choose Select > All Layers
  2. Choose Edit > Auto-Align Layers and select ‘Auto’ as the alignment option. (In extreme cases, you may need to resort to the ‘Reposition’ option here.)
  3. Choose Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object.
  4. Choose Layer > Smart Objects > Stack Mode and select ‘Maximum’ from the submenu.

These steps helped create the composite image. I saved it as a tiff file (without saving the layers since that would have increased the file size inordinately). Subsequently, I imported this tiff file into Lightroom for final minor touch ups. And then created this Black & White version of that final image in Silver FX Pro. So, this was the process I followed for Creating Composite Image – Total Lunar Eclipse!

The next total Lunar Eclipse that would be visible in Delhi (you may want to check the exact date for your city by doing an Internet search) is still about 20 months away (31st January 2018) but you may want to save the date and try capturing it using the method outlined here. I hope you get similar, if not better, results.

In case you have any further technical queries regarding such captures, please leave a comment and I will be happy to address your query to the best of my ability. Thanks.

Creating A Composite Image - Total Lunar Eclipse

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