Supermoon 2015

The phenomenon of supermoon eclipse is quite rare. A supermoon is the coincidence of a full moon or a new moon with the closest approach the Moon makes to the Earth on its elliptical orbit, resulting in the largest apparent size of the lunar disk as seen from Earth. A lunar eclipse (also known as a blood moon) occurs when the Moon passes directly behind the Earth into its umbra (shadow). This can occur only when the sun, Earth and moon are aligned (in "syzygy") exactly, or very closely so, with the Earth in the middle. Hence, a lunar eclipse can occur only the night of a full moon. While neither supermoons nor eclipses are rare, the occurrence of both at the same time seldom happens – the last time was in 1982, this one in 2015, and the next one in 2033.

I felt the urge to go out and experience it, since who knows, I may not be in shape to enjoy it when the supermoon eclipse happens again. I debated with myself about whether to just go to the park next door to see it over the lakes and hills, or go to a more iconic location. At the end, I decided it was worth it to drive the 40 miles to Marin Headlands to catch the event with Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco as the foreground. I left home midafternoon in hope of scouting the area to set up the tripod and cameras. I made the mistake of scouting an area that I’ve never been before and got sidetracked with taking snapshots, thinking to myself that with the moon being the subject, people would likely spread around the whole bay area and I would not need to worry about the crowd. As it turned out, the photographer crowd was the worst I’ve ever experienced even in comparison with Fourth of July’s when people tended to flock to hilltops along Marin Headlands to watch fireworks. There was hardly any parking. I saw cars parked dangerously on the side of the road, semi-blocking traffic. Finally, I copied the guy in front of me and drove half of my car over the curb at a legal parking area. Families with kids, photographers with backpacks and tripods wandered all over. Not knowing for certain where the moon would rise from, I opted to climb down the hill so I could catch the moon with some distance from the bridge so I could use it as a foreground. None of those I spoke with had any idea which direction the moon would come from. Everyone pointed their cameras toward the bridge, and as luck would have it, I was the first one to spot the eclipsed moon over the hill, and not the bridge. Even though it was not the best position, we were able to capture a few decent shots.

Lessons learned

  1. Determine direction and time of moonrise: I should have researched more about the moonrise direction. By the time I found it, it was too late to move to a different location given how far I was away from the car, and how much trouble it was to find a parking spot. There are several website providing moon and sun rise and set directions and time. provides such information by city location.
  2. Bring a compass or install a compass app on your smartphone. There are several free compass app for iphone and Android. This will allow one to find the most optimal location. In my case, aside from driving to a different location, there was no way to get a better view – I was as close to the cliff as it was safe to do.
  3. Scout ahead if possible – With the information about moonrise direction, you could theoretically use a map and plot out where best to be to catch moonrise with specific foregrounds. However, it’s best to scout ahead to make sure the foreground is not obstructed, and to determine how long you might have to hike to reach the photo spot. Keep in mind the perspective of the subject versus foreground. For celestial bodies such as the moon, it’s important to estimate where the moon would be relative to the foreground, in my case the bridge, so that you can frame with adequate foreground/subject proportion. Even at a mile away, I was still too close and too high up to the bridge to use larger focal length without losing the foreground.
  4. Things to bring – aside from the obvious such as tripods, lens, batteries etc., make sure to bring flashlights and warm clothing. I had to climb down a slippery slope to reach my photo spot, and would have a difficult time to climb back up in the dark without the aid of the flashlight. A phone flashlight may be enough, but that’s no substitute for a powerful flashlight when you were on a Cliffside trail at night. Walking sticks would help if you have to negotiate slippery hillsides. I had to use my tripod for support a few times.
  5. Other obvious things – familiarize yourself with where various controls of your camera and lens so you can manipulate them in the dark. With my telephoto lens, I had to use the phone light to ensure I turned the right switch to turn off autofocus, which was necessary when composing against a dark sky. Doing so often may annoy nearby photographers and even destroy their shots.
  6. Plan to arrive hours ahead of the event – so that you can claim the best spot. Especially at popular location such as the Marin Headlands, parking may be a big issue. Whenever possible, travel with companions so that you can leave the spot for a short time without losing it or your equipment.