An annular eclipse is a remarkable event. The moon appears to be encircled by a ring of sunlight, known as the "Ring of Fire”. The term “annular” comes from the Latin word meaning “ring". This ring effect is caused when the earth’s orbit moves closer to the sun and the apparent size difference looks as though the sun is slightly larger than the moon. If your location on earth happens to be aligned along the path of annularity you would see a perfect “Ring of Fire”. If you are a little to the north or south of this line you will not see a perfect ring.
I started making plans to photograph the eclipse about six months earlier. I envisioned an almost time-lapse looking image that would tell the epic story of the circles of time within a dramatic panoramic landscape. I was not sure how this could all be executed but I felt driven to try. I used Google Earth to scout different locations along the path of annularity. There was only one place that would fit the vision in my mind, the overlook at Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River a few miles south of Page in Northern Arizona.
With the grandeur of the great bend of the Colorado River and the strong red rock peninsula pointing almost directly at the eclipse, it seemed this location would work well. It just happens to be only a few thousand feet off the dead centerline of annularity of the eclipse. This location would render a prefect ring. If this image was to work as I had envisioned, I needed to find some solutions to many photographic challenges. For example: How to shoot a landscape in the middle of the day with blue sky, no clouds and directly into the sun? How to capture the extreme dynamic range of the highlight and details of the eclipse and at the same time capture the shadow details in the canyon walls? Additionally, how do you shoot a five- or six-hour event with the color shift of the heat of the day through the “golden hour” and sunset in one image? This was the beginning of many questions and challenges, all to be solved in less than six months.
I found several good websites that helped with local weather conditions and exactly what time and where the sun would be during each phase of the eclipse. I knew I wanted to use a photographic technique that I was developing that would render images with several improved attributes: high dynamic range, better tonal control, better focus depth, a natural wide angle of view and extreme resolution. So, the next question: How do you shoot an eclipse?
I spent time on the web learning how other great photographers accomplished this. All I knew was that I needed a good solar filter. I didn’t have one. I had a variable ND and a ten-stop Lee Filters Big Stopper, both of which I tried at various times shooting the sun with poor results. So I went online and learned as much as I could about different solar filter options. I settled on a Black Polymer filter 77mm and 82mm screw-on filter made by Thousand Oaks Optical out of Arizona.
I spent time on the web learning how other great photographers accomplished this. All I knew was that I needed a good solar filter. I didn’t have one. I had a variable ND and a ten-stop Lee Filters Big Stopper, both of which I tried at various times shooting the sun with poor results. So I went online and learned as much as I could about different solar filter options. I settled on a Black Polymer filter 77mm and 82mm screw-on filter made by Thousand Oaks Optical out of Arizona. I realized early that this was going to be a two-camera shoot, both on tripods with radio frequency remotes triggers. For the panoramic landscape, I would use my new Canon 5D Mark III, with my mainstay landscape lens the Canon 24-105mm f/4L with a polarizer filter. For the eclipse, I used my Canon 5D Mark II with a 400mm lens and the Black Polymer solar filter.
We arrived in Page on Saturday, the day before the eclipse. I wanted to have a chance to see the lay of the land and figure how this was all going to work. So I scouted out the location. I made several test shots, checking out my exposure and exactly where I needed to setup on the rim of the canyon. I had heard about the late afternoon updraft wind that can be a real problem as the sun heats up the face of the cliff at sunset and blows sand straight up the cliff. Thankfully it wasn’t a problem. In my testing, I discovered, I need about thirty shots to cover the panoramic landscape. Each of these thirty images would be made up of three bracketed-exposures at +/-3 EV to try and capture the dynamic range of the sky and canyon with HDR. This would prove to be critical to record the sun’s position in the sky every fifteen minutes. This would be the foundation for the time-lapse look I was after... For this shoot, I used several fast 64 GB CF cards in each camera. Thankfully, the memory cards rapidly stored each frame and allowing the cameras to quickly recycle ready for the next frame. This would be a long hard shoot, constantly shooting for 6 hours, switching back and forth using two different cameras capturing thousands of frames.
On Sunday, May 20, 2012 at horseshoe bend, the weather conditions were perfect, there was not a cloud in the sky and the wind was calm. By noon, I was set up and started shooting in earnest at 3:30pm and finished about 9:30 pm for a continuous six hours. I think I ended up with about 5000 images between the two cameras. At first, there were a few hundred photographers gathering along the edge of the canyon, by the time of the eclipse was in full view there were thousands of photographers and tourist lined the rim of the canyon. Essentially, I found myself shooting thirty images with three bracketed frames each of the panoramic landscape with one camera and then moving to the other camera for capturing the eclipse where I checked focus and bracketed a series of shots. Then I repeated the process for six hours.
Believe it or not, one of the hardest things was capturing a well-exposed, cleanly- focused image of the eclipse (with the Canon 5D Mark II, 400mm and solar filter). I figured out that the best way was to shoot bracketed frames in “Live View” with a wireless remote and the mirror lockup to keep motion to a minimum. (Although, with the heat of the day and small gust of wind, it would throw everything off no matter how massive your tripod was.) I knew when I had achieved focus correctly when I could clearly see three sunspots … then I fired the shutter. Color temperature shift through the day was no small matter. I figured the only way I could deal with that is setup both cameras white balance to manual, day light and figure it out later in post.
Throughout the day, I used a shot list and an iPhone timer to help me keep track of exactly where I needed to be in each phase of the eclipse. I didn’t want to miss totality, when the moon would fit perfectly inside the sun to create the “Annular” or “Ring of Fire” around the moon. When it happened, it was a remarkable experience… an eerie twilight cast across the red landscape. A ghostly dusk, impossible to capture by camera. Even with the moon covering 90% of the sun you still could not look directly at the Ring of Fire peeking around the moon. Viewing the eclipse through a 400mm lens with a sun filter was beautiful. I had many tourists take a peek in-between my shots. At totality, I must have shot thirty bracketed images within one minute. I was very lucky to have captured the precise moment of crossing, a perfect “Ring of Fire”, visual proof just how close I was along the dead center line of the path of annularity. As the magic of golden hour approached, with the sun sinking onto the horizon, I was absolutely amazed at the intense red glow reflecting off the vermilion walls of the canyon. That scene was to become the foundation panoramic image I envisioned months before. That view for me was an intense burning in my soul, one of those never to be forgotten visual experiences I was privileged enough to capture.
After the shoot I was completely drained. It was a week later back in Salt Lake that I finely opened Lightroom to take a look at what I had. It took me another week just to sort through the mountain of images I had captured. When I found that there was a few good images, I thought that perhaps I could bring these together to tell the story. I started to work by sorting the good, the bad and the ugly.
Starting with Lightroom and then opening in Photoshop and back into Lightroom again, I tried out various HDR techniques like blending, fusion and color mapping. I stitched together the panoramic in Photoshop and Kolor and made several versions of the main body of the image from different times during the day. I found that the color temperature shift during the day was a problem. On top of that, shadows were also shifting. After another week or so of playing around and experimenting with various solutions, I found that blending techniques in Photoshop worked to overcome most of these issues. Stitching together the HDR images produced from the Mark III formed the foundation image. Things were coming together.
Then I started on the sun and the eclipse. The dynamic range was like 100,000 to 1. There was no way any camera could have captured that kind of range. So the only way was to use two cameras and merge the series in software. Thank goodness it was a perfectly clear sky. The Image would not have worked if there were any clouds. Looking through my images there were a lot of shaky exposures, caused by wind, heat or me. Luckily there were enough good frames to make a full series of images.
What really helped was having an accurate record of the location of the eclipse at every fifteen minutes in relationship to the landscape. In post I pasted eighteen sun images into the image of the Horseshoe Bend location, using shots without the typical sun flare except for the very bottom image of the sun on the horizon. That was the time-lapse look I was after. The final image was made from about forty-eight images. Thirty frames were shot with a Canon 5D Mark III at 24mm with a three-frame-per-shot exposure to make the body of the image and I used eighteen frames shot with a Mark II and the 400mm for the composited eclipse of the sun as it appears over the canyon.
On my computer, my working file turned out to be about sixty-gigabytes in size. That size takes a fairly good computer just to edit it and move it around. The finished master file ended up to be 22500x14250 pixels (or 75”x47.5”-inches) at 300 dpi in 16-bit ProPhoto for a file size of 1.79-Gigabytes. That file size is the equivalent of creating this image with a 320-megapixel camera. When everything finely came together on my computer monitor, I saw once again the image seen many months ago in my mind’s eye. – Clinton Melander
You can find Melander's photography at MelanderPhotoArt.com and a print is available for sale at this link or by contacting him directly. (He recommends a metallic substrate for printing this image.) Stay updated on Melander's work by following him on Facebook, Flickr and 500px.