Red Moon rising over Oxford

My highly commended image in Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2011


This photograph was taken on June 16th 2011, the day after a total lunar eclipse would have been visible from the UK, had the British weather not conspired to ruin the best-laid plans of skywatchers in many parts of the country. The next day, the skies cleared and, undeterred, I took this photograph of the Moon rising over the Oxford skyline…and I’m glad I did, because it was highly commended in the Earth and Space category of the Royal Greenwich Observatory’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year!

Oxford is such a well-photographed city that it’s very hard to take an unusual shot of it. I think that this photo’s greatest success is its originality, and perhaps explains how it got so far in the competition pitted against many, many spectacular images of the night sky. It also shows something which I think is quite outside most people’s everyday experience: if you’ve not seen the nearly-maroon Moon this near the horizon, it’s definitely something I’d recommend.

So why does the Moon look like this? It’s not a digital trick: the Moon in this image is turned a deep red—and flattened slightly—for exactly the same reason that the Sun is turned red and squashed when it rises and sets. When you’re looking at the Moon or Sun on the horizon, the light is travelling through hundreds of miles of atmosphere before it reaches your eye. Tiny particles of dust floating in the sky scatter green and blue light, and only the red light makes it all the way to you. As the Moon (or Sun) rises, it gradually becomes orange, yellow and eventually white as it ascends into the sky.

I think, serendipitously, this may actually be a better photograph than the lunar eclipse would have made: the Moon would have been much darker and would have risen an hour earlier, meaning the sky would have been much lighter. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have been able to make out the dim Moon behind the bright sky. However, this isn’t going to stop me trying again in 2018, the next time a lunar eclipse will rise over the horizon for UK observers. After that, the fickle clockwork of the heavens probably won’t allow me to take my planned photograph again in my lifetime.

Technical details

The image was taken with a Nikon D90, fitted with a 70–200 mm f/2.8 and a 1.7× teleconverter—so about 510 mm in 35 mm-equivalent focal length or, in non-geek speak, a magnification of a factor of ten from real life.

A lot of people have asked me if the image has been digitally manipulated, and the simple answer is no, not really. In fact, the only manipulation has been to try to make the image truer to what my human eye saw that night: multiple exposure values have been combined to allow the dim, dusky landscape to be visible together with the comparatively bright Moon and city lights. Our eyes can take in this wide range of brightness all at once, but current cameras cannot, so the only way to take a picture like this is to actually take several, and merge them using a computer afterwards. (Incidentally, the image is not HDR in the traditional sense: I merged the images by hand.) It’s also a panorama of several images horizontally.


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