Embracing the Clouds at Griffith Observatory During A Total Lunar Eclipse – 26 May 2021

We always want that perfect eclipse condition – clear and calm with no clouds blocking the Sun or Moon. But typical of May and June in Los Angeles, a developing cloud mass on a humid night would not only add drama to the the night, but adding character to the images I ended up taking!

Date: May 26, 2021
Location:Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, CA
Time1:45-5:50 (UTC – 7)
Weather partly cloudy, humid,
Bortle Scale9

Equipment Used

  • 8″ (203 mm) f/4.9 Newtonian Telescope
  • Atlas II EQ-G Mount
  • Nikon d5300

What Did I Shoot?

The first total lunar eclipse visible over North America since 2019, and the first of four lunar eclipses within an 18 month period.


Normally, eclipses visible over Los Angeles draw people in droves to come up to Griffith Park to catch it. On a normal night, there’d be many telescopes set up by the Observatory outside and by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society for the public… however, the pandemic is not quite over yet! The park remained closed, but the Observatory could still do their virtual show and live stream presentation.

I had been asked by Griffith Observatory to be one of two staff telescope operators tasked with showing the moon for a live stream hosted on their YouTube Channel. in the month leading before, I had been testing cameras on possible telescope setups that could be used, as the main goal was not only keeping the Moon steadily guided in frame, but the footage used for the live stream would be condensed into a 60 second time lapse, and it needed to be as smooth as possible.

The team setting up.

Eventually, it was decided that instead of guiding with a donated Celestron 11″ Edge HD on a CGEM mount, one that is similar to my Atlas II, we’d use a much more heavy duty mount owned by a colleague who is soon going to move to Australia and operate telescopes at the Siding Spring Observatory. Because it was his mount, that left it open for me to operate my own telescope and do astrophotography stills.

Why did we not use the historic Zeiss telescope? Because due to the Moon’s position low over the SW sky during totality, from the Zeiss vantage point the moon would have set behind the Samuel Oschin Planetarium dome and we would have had to cut the stream short.

After everything was set up, including our telescopes and the streaming equipment, we felt optimistic as the night began with clear skies – clear enough to use our polar scopes to polar align. However, we could see the approaching cloud mass coming in from the west, which at first was just thin enough high altitude clouds. The stream began as these clouds kept marching on and making their presence known, but as soon as we were approaching the moment where the Moon began “touching” Earth’s umbral shadow, the clouds began to thicken, and they appeared to stay fixed above us!

The banter between all the staff members throughout the eclipse was entertainment enough…

What made it worse was that we could see from our vantage point that there was a steady clearing just a few degrees south of this cloud mass, almost as if appearing to mock us as this mass barely appeared to move. But as we gazed towards the rest of the sky, we realized it could have been much worse! Many viewers of the stream were depending on us either because their side of the earth was in daylight, or because their location was clouded out! A lot of people in Southern California could only see layers of clouds when they woke up to catch the celestial event. Overall, the stream had as few as a thousand, and as many as 12,000 people viewing it at the same time, depending on what stage the eclipse was in.

The clouds gave us a bigger clearing about halfway through the partial eclipse phase, but about 20 minutes before totality began, we dealt with a “cloud blob” that grew directly in front of the moon from our vantage point, and unfortunately we missed nearly all of totality, which was only going to last 14 minutes due to the Moon not traveling very deep within the Umbral shadow. But the clouds cleared just enough where I could snap the moment that totality ended, which was about 4:25am local time. Through processing, I could generate a clear picture of totality that the stream couldn’t get.

But once again, the clouds kept rolling over. As much as we hated dealing with them, our Director who was there to watch the event with us, encouraged us to “embrace” the clouds, as not only could it have been much worse, but we also could see that a lot of people watching the stream were actually enjoying the clouds, saying it made the eclipse look more dramatic.

Sure enough, the best shot I managed came from us spotting the incoming clouds about to blanket the moon. We noticed it added a lot of character to the shot, and it took a total of 6 framed shots of various exposures that were layered together to capture how it would have looked without cameras overexposing the light – expose enough for the white you lose the red, expose enough for the red you overexpose the white.

All in all, a fantastic experience shared with fellow staff, and I can’t wait for the next one! Hopefully more people will have better luck for the November 18 eclipse this year!


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