Lunar eclipse sequence over the Mesquite Flat Dunes, January 31st, 2018, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Lunar eclipse sequence over the Mesquite Flat Dunes, January 31st, 2018, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

As I thought about locations to photograph last Wednesday’s lunar eclipse, I kept coming back to the idea of putting sand dunes in the foreground. Dunes seemed appropriately lunar.

I initially planned to go to the Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley, but as the eclipse approached the forecast called for high clouds moving through much of the western U.S., so I kept a close eye on the forecasts. Two days before the eclipse it looked like the further south we went, the fewer clouds there would be, so Claudia and I headed for the Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve.

I’d never been to the Kelso Dunes. I found photographs of them online that looked reasonably promising, but when we got there on Tuesday I realized that the dunes were mostly covered in vegetation. Not what I had in mind. With time I might have been able to find a nice, vegetation-free dune to serve as my foreground, but we didn’t have much time, so we decided to head north to Death Valley, a place I know well, and take our chances with the clouds.

Tuesday morning the forecast for Death Valley had seemed promising enough, predicting 5% cloud cover for the eclipse early Wednesday morning. But by Tuesday afternoon the forecast had changed, with the cloud-cover prediction increasing to 25% during the eclipse. Rats. And sure enough, we saw lots of high clouds streaming through that afternoon.

But at that point it was too late to go somewhere else, so we grabbed a campsite and hiked out to the dunes late in the afternoon. We ended up staying out under the moonlight, looking for the right dune to put in the foreground. I found a couple of possibilities, but nothing I was terribly excited about.

We went back to our campsite, ate dinner, and I caught a couple hours of sleep. At midnight I headed out to the dunes again, with enough time to do some further scouting in the moonlight. I tried a different area, and eventually found one dune with a beautiful S-curve leading in the direction of the eclipse. That would do nicely.

I put on my 20mm lens, set up my tripod, and used the PhotoPills augmented-reality feature on my phone to estimate the path the moon would take. I made sure the tripod legs were firmly planted in the sand, and framed a vertical composition, taking into account the estimated path of the moon and putting the dune at the bottom of the picture.

By then the moon was right at the upper edge of the frame, so I started capturing my sequence almost immediately. I continued making exposures of the moon every ten minutes as it went from full, to partially eclipsed, to fully eclipsed, and started to emerge from totality. During the total eclipse I also made some exposures for the stars and dunes, thinking I might use those frames as the background for my sequence. I also made more exposures for the overall scene as the dawn turned the sky blue, cast a faint pink glow on the clouds, and started to illuminate the dunes.

That 25% cloud-cover prediction proved accurate, but despite all the high clouds the moon remained visible throughout the entire eclipse sequence. There was only one brief period near dawn when the moon was almost obscured by clouds; that’s why the third moon from the bottom in this sequence looks a bit fuzzy. But all in all I got pretty lucky with the clouds.

It started out as a bright, moonlit night, but as the earth’s shadow eclipsed more and more of the moon it got darker and darker. During the total eclipse the sky was full of stars, just like a moonless night – except that there was this dim, glowing, reddish moon hanging in the sky to the west. It was quite striking, and a little eerie. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as watching the solar eclipse last summer, but it was a very cool experience.

When assembling the sequence later in Photoshop I decided to use one of the dawn exposures as my background. I blended that with an earlier image of the stars, and with the moon exposures made ten minutes apart. The resulting photograph is, of course, a composite, representing a period of time between 2:50 and 6:30 a.m. as the moon moved through the sky and became eclipsed, the sky got darker, the stars came out, and then the dawn started to illuminate the scene. Although it’s a composite, I didn’t move the camera or change lenses during the whole sequence, so the moon positions are realistic.

I’ve seen many outstanding photographs of this lunar eclipse, so it seems that a lot of people got out to view and photograph it. I hope they all enjoyed it as much as I did. I made sure to take time between exposures to appreciate being out in the beautiful, quiet, mysterious dunes under an eclipsed moon.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: The January 31st Lunar Eclipse; Lunar Eclipse Over the Trona Pinnacles

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.