The Lunar Eclipse over Rt 66!

The Lunar Eclipse over Rt. 66.  

In 2015 I saw my first lunar eclipse.  I was able to photograph that night at Palo Duro Canyon’s Lighthouse, a 250 ft rock tower.  The photographs don’t do the night justice and any words that I might throw down on paper certainly would not.  In my entire life, I can say that was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.  So, you can imagine my excitement about being able to photograph the most recent Lunar eclipse.

My photo of the 2015 Lunar Eclipse over the Lighthouse at Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

There was a lot of thought and planning that went into this most recent lunar event.  The first question that came to mind was where should I do the shoot?  One big factor that plays heavily on any night time shoot is the weather. So, when I was thinking about where I wanted to shoot, as soon as the long-range forecasts began talking about January 21, I started paying attention.  It looked like it was going to be cloudy here in Amarillo and thus Palo Duro Canyon, so that was out.  Besides, I wanted something new for the foreground of the blood moon.

Currently, I am working on a photo book about Rt 66, I am Rt 66.  I am so excited about this book.   This got me thinking about landmarks on Rt. 66.  I didn’t want to drive too far so as the weather forecasts got closer and closer, I decided on the Famous U Drop Inn in Shamrock, Texas.  The U Drop Inn, is a café and gas station built in the 1930s.  Its classic architecture and neon lighting make it visually stunning.  It is no longer being used as a gas station or restaurant, but it is open as a sort of museum.  You might recognize this iconic building from Disney's classic cartoon, Cars.

U Drop Inn, Shamrock, Texas, Rt 66,  photographed with a Pentax K1 and Irix 15mm Dragonfly

Shooting here presented several problems.  1st was light pollution.  Shamrock, Texas,  isn’t a large city so it would not be like shooting in Dallas. Still, to be able to put the U Drop nicely in the frame meant dealing with a well-lit building and the night sky.

Another issue was the alignment of the building and street to the moon’s transit.  The moon would rise to the east.  This would make the ideal location on the west side of the building but the highway is near the building so I would have to shoot either right up near the building or across the street.  Across the street was out as traffic would interfere with my shots.  Being that close to the building meant dealing with the depth of field issues and a lot of ambient light.

One more issue would be the declination of the moon during the eclipse.  During my last lunar eclipse shoot, the moon was already in the earth’s shadow as it broke the horizon.  This night, the moon would be 60 degrees up in the sky when it was fully eclipsed.  SOOOOOO….   How to shoot near a lit building looking straight up and get a decent shot that included the building?  Shoots like this excite me the most.  The harder the shot, the more I enjoy the challenge.  “You always get great shots…”  Several friends told me.  I explained not always, I just don’t show the bad shots.”  My friends had way more confidence in me than I did.


The Blood Moon or the moon fully eclipsed as seen from across the Street.  My buddy Joe Vasquez is standing there watching.  

Two great friends went with me:  one of the absolute best portrait photographers I know, Joe Vasquez and another fine art photographer, Norman Wade.  Norman has not been shooting long but has embraced photography with such gusto that his burgeoning skill and eye have created some of my all-time favorite pieces of photographic artwork.  Going on a photo hunt with these two great guys made me feel like a 9-year-old about to hit recess!

My buddy Norm, getting his kicks on Rt 66! (iphone snap)

We left Amarillo and drove the 2 hours or so to Shamrock.  Just as we got there, the moon was breaking the horizon.  It seemed huge.  In retrospect, I was so focused on the eclipse, I didn’t even think about shooting the moon rise and lament that we didn’t have a location scouted.  It was gorgeous lifting through the light cloud cover on the horizon.

Shooting the rising moon meant we had to be on the West side of the building.  That put us shooting literally on the street edge.  But it was late at night in a small town, so limited traffic.  Ironically having three burly men with 6 cameras, tripods etc. brought out a few locals who were curious.  Shamrock is a wonderfully friendly town. 

Most of the time when I am planning a photo excursion like this one, I have an image in mind. I will even go so far as to draw it out and list out what needs to happen to get the image.  The image of the moon’s phases was the main one I wanted to get.  So, I had prefigured my settings given the proximity of the neon glow and at least had an idea where I wanted to set up before I got there.

The night was bitter cold.  34 degrees never felt so cold. I don’t think it was much the low temperature and steady breeze but the fact we were standing on concrete for the entire shoot.  I am used to bundling up in the winter for shoots.  Several layers, hand warmers and poncho.  On an off note about ponchos, I don’t get why they are not in fashion.  They are amazingly warm and give me lots of mobility.  Hey if it was good enough for Clint Eastwood, its good enough for me.  My buddies kept teasing me calling me Clint wannabe Jim…  Sheesh… ok it's true but don't tell them that. 

Norm was shooting the night sky at 1 second.  I might be a bit blurry but any photographer knows for this to be a 1 second exposure handheld, its amazing... Clint eat your heart out....

At first, I worried that we would not see the event for clouds.  Right after we saw the moon rise, it became obscured by clouds.  Weather is the bane and joy of all-night photographers.  But I have to tell you, even if we didn’t see the eclipse, the chance to photograph the U Drop Inn at night was pure joy and a bucket list item for me.  (Off on a short tangent.  I strongly encourage every photographer to make a bucket list of shoots.  Since doing that, I have gone out of my way to capture the things I really want rather than wait willy-nilly.  By defining what I want, it’s easier to take steps to get.)

Photo Geek Speak:  I am not going to tell you my settings.  Every time I moved my camera closer or further back from the building my exposure had to change as the amount of ambient neon light changed.  I would have to look at the metadata to tell you.  Here is my way of metering.  I think about the holy triangle of photography, ISO, F-stop, shutter speed.  I choose one of those as the most important for my shot.  For most night shots, it's shutter speed.  High ISO brings grain, so you shoot long exposure, but long exposure reveals movement like as in the movement of the stars.  Being able to accurately judge how long you can keep your shutter open before the movement of the moon or stars is critical to me.  There is a mathematical formula. 

Yes, photography uses math, a lot of math.   F-stop normally is never an issue for my night shots because of the magic phrase hyper-focal distance.  I could write a blog just on how amazing that little trick is in landscape photography, particularly night landscape.  But tonight, my f-stop would be the key.  I needed a high enough f-stop to cut down on Neon Ghost Glow.  And honestly, I can’t tell you how to judge that except to meter.  I have never been one to get much from knowing some one’s settings.  I can move my camera 2 feet and my settings might be radically different to achieve the same visual shot.  My best advice to young photographers is to quit worrying about some other photographers’ settings and learn to meter and use exposure compensation.  Trial and error and amazing teachers. 

Every photograph you see here is part of a sequence of shots for a time-lapse. Given the lights of the building, I had to choose what to expose for.  The thing about photography is that it’s a game of give and take.  Rarely can you have it all. Expose for the building the moon would be to dark.  I knew, in the end, I was going to have to layer the moon on the image so really the reason for the time-lapse was to see exactly where I was going to place the moon.  Purists may gasp but to create this photo, I had to use two different cameras.  One camera with a wide-angle to capture the building.  And a camera with a zoom to capture the moon.  But this is the only way for me to accurately show you what I saw.  Cameras just can’t do all the human eye can.  So first off, I shoot with Pentax.  I use the Pentax K1, I can’t brag on this camera enough.  It is a mule and takes a lot of rough use.  Its weather sealing is legendary.   For wide-angle landscape or architecture, I am totally sold on Irix.  For the money, my Irix, 15mm Firefly is one of the best lenses I have owned.  I didn’t use much of a zoom (Pentax 28-105mm) as I need the proximity of the building in my shots to keep the image realistic. I wanted my final result to be as accurate to what I saw as possible.  The moons in these photos are about the size that I saw being there.  Yes, this is a composite, but I really wanted to be photo-realistic to my experience.  And I could not do that with a single straight shot.

In the end, all the forethought and planning paid off.  I got a lot of shots of the building before the eclipse from as many angles as possible.  But when the eclipse started, I knew exactly where I was going to shoot, exactly what my settings would be (or close).  The end photo came out very close to what I sketched out days before.  Another piece of advice for photographers that most other artists already do is to employ a sketchbook.  I sketch out many shots ahead of time, do the math on that sketch.  It saves me so much time on site for a shoot.

In the end, this bucket list Rt. 66 shot went flawlessly.  I was very pleased with the images.  Thanks, Irix!  Thanks, Shamrock, Texas and thank you U Drop Inn!

This image so made me think of Cars. I swear I kept waiting for this old guy to talk to me.  Photographed with a Pentax K1 and Irix 15mm Dragonfly


Check out our website about the Book we are making in which this image will be in:  I am Rt 66.