Supermoons attract a lot of media attention. You’ll struggle to scroll through your newsfeed without reading about a big upcoming lunar event, especially if you’re following any of the photography news feeds. I recently photographed the super blue blood moon rising from the London skyline.
A blue moon is a name for a second full moon in a calendar month. It is relatively rare, hence the expression “once in a blue moon”. The last one before now was May 2016. A supermoon is a name for a full moon when the satellite is at the closest point in its orbit around Earth. This makes it appear up to 14 percent brighter and 30 percent larger than normal.
Blood moon comes from the rusty red appearance during a total lunar eclipse, when the moon is in the Earth’s shadow. The color is caused by blue light scattering as the sun’s rays refract through the Earth’s atmosphere. This is the first time in 36 years all three events have been visible at the same time in Europe, and it has not been seen in America for 152 years.
Knowing what a rare event this is, and with just a few weeks’ notice, I started researching where I’d be able to capture the moon rising above any elements of the iconic London skyline. For example, The Shard, The London Eye or some recognizable City of London skyscrapers like the Cheesegrater, The Gherkin or the Walkie Talkie building (yes, we have some funny names for skyscrapers here in London!).
Normally, the first place I visit for this kind of planning is MoonCalc.org; a site that enables you to see when the moon will rise and set in relation to where in the world you are on a given date. I suggested to all my photographer friends that we should shoot it, and one told me that we wouldn’t see a full eclipse in the UK, but mostly just a supermoon that’s 30 percent bigger and brighter than normal. This put a downer on the fact that “the last time it happened was 1982”, but nevertheless, I persisted to see if I could capture something worthwhile.
I love to shoot skylines and share the best viewpoint locations in London (and on my travels) with my Instagram followers. The best views for me are the ones far away, where, thanks to a long telephoto lens compression of distance effect, all the icons and skyscrapers seem squeezed close together. The location I chose was Richmond Park, which seemed like the perfect spot for the moon to rise over London’s cluster of skyscrapers.
There’s a spot at the top of Sawyer’s Hill road in Richmond Park where you can see the unobstructed skyline of London over 10 miles away on the horizon. To see the skyline in detail, you need a big zoom or wildlife prime lens. Armed with the Nikon D850, an AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens, a 2x teleconverter (TC-20e Mark III), and a sturdy heavy-duty video tripod to avoid any shake, I was ready to at least stand a chance of capturing something special.
I reached the location 30 minutes before the moon rose, set everything up and tested my positioning with a few warm-up shots. I worked in manual mode at f/11 (the lens’ maximum open aperture is f/5.6, but bear in mind that with the 2x teleconverter you lose two stops of lights, so f/5.6 + 1 stop = f/8 + 1 stop, or f/11), 1/20th shutter speed and ISO 400. There was some wind and even though I could’ve shot it at the perfect ISO of 100, this would mean a shutter speed of 1/5th of a second, which for me was too long and could be at risk of motion blur. With focus set to manual, I zoomed in digitally on the LCD and focused the best I could.
Considering the distance of the city, the finest details weren’t perfectly sharp, but that’s as good as it gets for this type of shot. There are some atmospheric conditions you just can’t overcome, which is why you must work the focus so it’s as sharp as physically possible. With my setup and settings now ready, it happened – the moon, in all its beautiful redness rose as planned in between the Cheesegrater and the new Scalpel building.
Shooting at the focal end of the 200-500mm zoom, together with the 2x teleconverter, meant I could reach a 1000mm focal length. Through this, the moon was comparable in size to a 50-story skyscraper. There were a few other photographers next to me, as well as some random people walking past the park that just stopped where we were shooting and commented on its beauty. At that moment, I knew I was taking one of the best photos of my career, and one I might never get to repeat.
It’s good to take chances with photography. Even if you think any of the variables that make a good shoot won’t be on your side – prepare, research, take your best shot, and you never know, you might find yourself in a position when you’re taking the best photo of your life.
About the author: Michael Tomas is a London-based skyline and cityscape photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.