OP – The Blog

May 30th, 2012

Winging It Through the Eclipse

Posted By Michael Frye

Annular eclipse sequence, Manzanita Lake, Lassen Volcanic NP, CA

Annular eclipse sequence, Manzanita Lake, Lassen Volcanic NP, CA

Right after the annular solar eclipse on May 20th I went to the Google+ Photographers Conference in San Francisco. This was a really fun event—I posted a couple of images from RC Conception’s photo walk on Google+ here and here. But I mention this because I got involved in the conference, and then had a computer problem, and didn’t have a chance to look at my eclipse photos, much less process them, until now. So here, finally, is a photograph showing an eclipse sequence.

I felt completely unprepared for this eclipse. I’ve never photographed a solar eclipse before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have a solar filter, and I wasn’t sure whether I could even photograph the eclipse without one. I’d read some dire warnings that photographing the eclipse without a solar filter could ruin your camera’s sensor, but this didn’t make sense to me. I’ve included the sun in hundreds of photographs and never had a problem. Exposures are short, and when the shutter is closed the light bounces off the camera’s mirror, up through the prism, and out through the back of the viewfinder. Staring through the viewfinder at the sun is not a good idea, just as it’s not a good idea to stare directly at the sun. But we have a natural defense mechanism for this known as pain: it hurts to look at the sun.

To add to my feeling of unpreparedness I planned to go to a place I’ve never visited before: Lassen National Park. My wife Claudia and I weren’t able to leave until the morning of the eclipse, and didn’t actually arrive in Lassen until 4 p.m., while the eclipse was due to start at 5 p.m., with the peak at 6:30. I’d done some virtual scouting using The Photographer’s Ephemeris, and picked a couple of likely locations. Our friend Glenn Crosby was also able to help describe the terrain, as he had spent considerable time in the park. Based on this information I picked two possible spots: Manzanita Lake, and the Devastated Area.

We looked at Manzanita Lake first. It seemed like a good spot, but I wondered whether it might be better up the road. However a conversation with a ranger ruled that out: parking near the Devastated Area was full, and it sounded like there were a lot of trees blocking the view there anyway. We decided to stay put.

Next I needed to test whether I could actually photograph the non-eclipsed sun. If so, then I could try to capture a sequence of the sun going through the stages of the eclipse. If not, I would only be able to photograph the sun when it was fully eclipsed, or close to it. I put on all the neutral-density filters I owned: a four-stop plus an eight-stop variable. I set my camera’s fastest shutter speed (1/8000th of a second—I don’t think I’ve ever actually used this before!), an aperture of f/22, and made a test image. Perfect—no blinkies, and no flare. A sequence might work.

Then I tried to figure out what path the sun would take. Lacking the internet connection required by The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I used another iPhone app, Astromo, along with a compass app, made my best estimate of the sun’s path, and set up my camera and tripod to include this path and a bit of the lake below.

I set my interval timer, and auto-bracketed nine frames every five minutes. Yes, nine frames—how many eclipses will I get to photograph in my lifetime? I kept checking the exposures too, as the sun dimmed considerably when most of it was blocked by the moon.

My plan was to capture a sequence of the sun, then expose more frames of the overall scene at sunset, and blend all this together in Photoshop. The first part of the plan, the sun sequence, worked perfectly. But when the sun disappeared into the cloud bank I realized that I hadn’t framed the scene correctly to capture the sunset, so I moved the camera slightly. The purist in me would rather keep the camera locked down the whole time, but this photograph is obviously not a literal rendition of one moment in time, and I felt a little artistic license was acceptable. You can see the resulting composite at the top of this post.

In between checking exposures I took time to appreciate the event—and what an amazing event it was! It was eerie watching the light dim slowly well before sunset; it seemed like someone was pulling a curtain over the sun. As the eclipse neared its peak the shadows underneath the trees turned into crescents, and when the moon blocked all but the outer ring of the sun those shadows turned into circles. I didn’t have time to photograph that phenomenon, but Claudia captured some wonderful images of those shadows with her iPhone which you can see at the bottom of this post.

The eclipse gave me a new appreciation for our sun. What an incredibly hot and bright star it is! It’s so bright that we can’t look at it for more than a split second without blinding ourselves. And even though the sun is 93 million miles away—93 million!—we can feel it’s heat directly. How many times have I shivered through a sunrise and then, like a house cat, sought out the nearest patch of warm sunshine?

A total eclipse of the sun will be visible over a wide swath of the continental United States in August of 2017. Fred Espenak of NASA says that if you were to rank visual spectacles on a scale of one to ten a partial eclipse would be a five, an annular eclipse like the one that just occurred a nine, while a total solar eclipse would be a million. You can bet I’m already planning where to go for the 2017 eclipse.

I’ve seen many wonderful images of the annular eclipse already. Here are links to photographs by Jennifer Yu, Lewis Kemper, William Neill, and Eric Leslie.  I’d love to see more, so if you captured some eclipse photos please post a link in the comments.

—Michael Frye

Related Posts: Lunar Rainbow Images, and the Upcoming Annular Eclipse; Eclipse

Self-portrait with crescent-shaped tree shadows during the eclipse, by Claudia Welsh

Self-portrait with crescent-shaped tree shadows during the eclipse, by Claudia Welsh

Self-portrait with ring-shaped tree shadows during the eclipse, by Claudia Welsh

Self-portrait with ring-shaped tree shadows during the eclipse, by Claudia Welsh

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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  1. Maurice Hamilton Says:

    Nice composite image. One caveat that might be added is that absence of pain when viewing the sun cannot be relied upon as an indicator of safe viewing. By the time pain is experienced, permanent retinal damage may have occurred. Particular caution is advised when viewing the sun through a telephoto lens. A filter that may provide adequate protection when viewing the sun with the naked eye (non-magnified) may not be safe for viewing the sun through a telephoto lens. An arc welder’s filter #14 is considered safe for viewing the non-magnified sun; it would be interesting to know the neutral density filter f/stop reduction needed to provide comparable protection, considering not only the intensity of the light but also the solar spectrum. (Remember when we used smoked glass to view an eclipse? It was dark but is not recommended anymore.)

  2. Maurice Hamilton Says:

    Addendum: I explored the neutral density issue further and found that, as with smoked glass, it is not recommended to use ND filters to observe the sun VISUALLY due to transmission of nonvisible (infrared and UV) light, which can damage the retina without causing pain. So the solution I would recommend is to use the camera’s LCD screen (as in Live View) to visualize the image when using ND filters to photograph the sun. Another alternative is to use a threaded black polymer filter from Thousand Oaks Optical or to cut visual solar film available from this or another reputable company–apparently out of stock at present due to the recent annular eclipse and the upcoming transit of Venus.

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