St. Olaf’s Kirke, also known as the Old Rock Church in Cranfils Gap, Texas was built in 1886 by Norwegian settlers in the area. Since those days it has become known as one of the most haunted places in the Lone Star State. This reputation however has not kept it from becoming a well known and often visited astrophotography location by area night sky photographers who contact the care takers for permission to shoot on its grounds after dark. As was the case when a friend and fellow photographer friend of mine called me up a couple days ahead of the 2018 Lunar Eclipse with the idea of heading out to the church as a foreground. While the forecasts weren’t ideal for shooting the eclipse, and the moon would be hitting the horizon right around sunrise as the eclipse reached its peak, it was a better plan that any I had at the moment so in the early morning hours of January 31st, I bundled up and pointed my truck south.
|Date||Jan 31, 2018|
|Location||Old Rock Church, Texas|
|Camera||Canon EOS 6D|
|Lens||Canon EF 24-105mm F/4L IS USM (foreground)|
|Exposure Program||Aperture priority|
Lunar Eclipse Landscape photos most often require a composite of multiple photos to achieve. While it is possible to do completely in-camera shots of an eclipse with film, multi-exposure digital photos in camera are a rare feature in most modern DSLR cameras. Also, to ensure high quality and detailed moon shots, a longer telephoto lens is often favored so that you can both put together a moon-only sequence against a dark black background, but also a landscape included sequence such as this.
The foreground shot was taken during the early blue-hour time just before sunrise, while the moon was nearing its full eclipse phase, the first soft rays of light from over the horizon started to illuminate the front of the church. The EXIF info above gives the full details of the foreground shot: 85mm, f/8, and ISO 200 at 1.6 seconds. I wanted a framing of the foreground with as long of a focal length as possible to make the resulting composite somewhat realistic – a shot at 24mm or less would make the moon very very small or extremely exaggerated in scale. I also was going for as close to a realistic positioning of the moon as possible. As seen in the original foreground shot below, you’ll see the moon under partial eclipse in the general vicinity of where it ended up in the composite.
The moon shots were taken on my Tamron 150-600 at a focal length of 500mm, f/7.1, which is about the longest focal length on that lens before sharpness starts to fall off without having to stop down further. As quickly as the moon moves across the horizon, I had to recompose frequently – something that I look forward not to having to do any longer as I have since purchased an iOptron Skyguider Pro. During the early phases of the eclipse, before the moon starts to take on its blood red hues, a single exposure can be used for the moon, the shadow region simply falling into darkness. However, as the eclipse phase starts to reach its half way mark or further, multiple exposures start to become necessary to get both the illuminated section of the moon as well as the shadow color. The dynamic range between the two is typically far more than any camera is able to capture in a single exposure. I was shooting at least a 1-stop 3-shot bracketed set to ensure I was getting a good range of exposure to work with. However, to ensure that the moon’s movement doesn’t start to affect the final shot, remember to keep the exposure time to 2 seconds or less (ideally 1 second) unless you have a tracking mount setup.
Processing for this shot, as it is an extensive composite, is going to be a fair bit more intensive than most of my landscape edits. Blending photos from different points in the night into one harmonious view requires a lot of fine tuning, and getting a dozen moon phases to merge into the sky takes a LOT of layers (hint, it’s more than 12!). Above is the view of my Photoshop window with most of the layers visible, you’ll notice ‘Group 1’ folder in there, this is the folder that contains all of the moon shots, but more on that in a moment. Let’s start at the beginning (or rather the bottom) of the stack. – larger views of the Photoshop layer stacks are below that are probably easier to read.
Looking at the left hand set of layers above, the first thing I did was mask in a version of my background with a darker sky - I could have also done this with a levels or curves adjustment, but opted in this case to bring a second RAW file in from Lightroom and mask in just the sky. The next layer up, titled 'Merge-Clone' is a merged up layer of the Background and Darker Sky layers, which I then used to clone out the moon, some distracting trees, a dust spot from the lens or two, and a few other items along the horizon that I wanted out of the way. The next two layers are adjustment layers, another curves layer to bring down the overall exposure even further to closer replicate pre-dawn light, and a color balance layer to bring a touch more of a cool and magenta hue to the overall image. This second change could have also been achieved with a light application of a cooling Photo Filter which I've started using more of since this edit.
Next layer is captioned 'Stars', no guessing what this was for. Yes, it's a sky replacement frame from a shot taken earlier in the night when the stars were still out, that I wanted to blend into the image for two reasons. First, to give the sky an overall appearance of deeper in the night rather than blue-hour, but also because the original shot had some high thin clouds through much of the area I was planning to place the moon shots. The clearer sky resolved both goals in one. I started with the same mask I had used for the 'Darker Sky' frame at the bottom of the stack (Cntrl+left-click-and-drag the layer mask to copy it from one layer to another), then blended the original layer more along the horizon for a more gradual transition from the stars to the original foreground shot. The exposure between the two wasn't perfect, thus the use of the curves layer which is set as a clipping-mask to the Stars layer. Another Merge-Clone layer was then added (Stamp-Visible = "Cntrl+Shift+Alt+E") to gather up all the layers below it in a new pixel layer which I could then do a little more clone / healing work on.
Now comes the moon sequence... but first, we need a guide for the path for the moon to follow. For this I create a very large Eclipse shape, sized and rotated to get a path that I like, then duplicated and moved so we have an upper and lower bounds for the moon to follow. Once the path is defined (which since it's on their own layers can be modified and hidden later!), I start with the first moon in the sequence I want to show. With these early sequence moons, I can edit them in Lightroom to be on a nearly black background, open as a new Photoshop edit, make a rough selection to copy and then paste as a new layer in my main image. I then scale the moon down from its original size to one that fits well in the image (though still a tad larger than real-life by around 20%, but still in the realm of realistic looking), and set the moon blend mode to lighten. Since the moon was originally on a nearly black background, and my sky is a deep rich blue at this point, only the moon shows up with this blend mode. This works well for any of the moons that are not going to be the 'Blood Moon' color. Oh, and as noted in the right hand layer stack shown above, it's a really good idea to name/label your moon layers as you bring them in. It makes it a lot easier to keep track of while you're positioning them! In this case 'ML' just means 'Moon Layer'
For the blood moon phases, things get a bit more complicated. First, you will need to get much more accurate with how you're selecting the moon out of your original shot frame. I use the elliptical marquee tool, with a couple pixel feather, and try to get right up along the circumference of the moon. For these, I usually paste in two copies of the moon, one is set to lighten, and the second layer to normal. I then adjust the opacity of the two against one another to get the balance I want with some of the moon's dark regions showing slightly darker than the background. This is also when sometimes I'll need a third layer from a darker frame to bring back details from the bright still illuminated portion of the moon. Hint - once you've got the moon layers positioned exactly on top of one another, link them together so any time you move one, the others come along with it.
For this composite, knowing that the moon was setting along the horizon that had a significant amount of haze, I used a gradient mask on the entire group to blend out the entire moon sequence as it neared the horizon. To keep the moon from being too bright overall in the image, the group's opacity was also dropped 7% to 93% just to give the feel of distance and atmosphere between the view point and the moon itself.
The final set of layers are creative and stylistic additions, a very subtle glow around the moons / Orton effect across the image at an extremely low opacity, and a final minor adjustment of levels across the mid-tones. The top layer 8 is a burn-dodge layer, simply an empty layer set to soft light, which I painted in a very soft large brush at very low opacity around the steeple of the church just to brighten up the sky around it just a bit. It's barely noticeable even when toggling the layer on/off in Photoshop, however brings a small re-balance of exposure and light to the overall image. The final step was to turn off the two ellipse layers that were used for the guides, and then save the full stack image to my Master Files directory, and a flattened image back to my main archive folder for use in Lightroom for export.