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