(Editor’s note: Marie Tartar and her husband Steve Eilenberg have been getting ready to photograph the eclipse on August 21st. In this concluding installment, she chronicles their dress rehearsal for the event. Practice makes perfect. Read her first three posts here: Preparation, Eye Protection & Photographic Considerations.)
Preparation meets practice
Over the preceding weeks, I’ve been reading everything I can find to prepare myself for the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. My eclipse glasses and solar filter have arrived and I am practicing putting it all together. When I first starting writing this piece, I was anxiously awaiting one more piece of equipment, a sun finder, as my early experiments in sun photography showed me what experienced celestial photographers already knew: the sun is surprisingly difficult to locate in a viewfinder through a solar filter! After it finally arrived, I anxiously awaited the sun itself, as day after day of overcast in normally sunny Southern California thwarted my efforts to try it out. Making lemonade from lemons… My first attempts to shoot the sun with my new solar filter were exercises in frustration and a humbling experience. The sun was frequently concealed by a heavy marine layer. It would peep out long enough for me to point the filtered lens toward it and then it would disappear. This is my first “successful” attempt at even recording the sun in the image; when I zoomed up to make the sun larger in the frame, I lost it. This is cropped and processed with Silver Efex Pro 2. In the original image, the sun occupied a corner of the frame. (Editor’s note: Learn what focal lengths work for eclipse photography.)
(sun finder straight image) (Caption: A sun finder makes proper aiming of a solar filtered lens MUCH easier. Unless it is directly pointed at the sun, all you will see looking through a solar filtered camera is BLACK! This 3D printed version from Shapeways (Solar Alignment Finder) fits into the hot shoe of the camera. The sun’s light shining through the tiny front hole projects a tiny image of the sun onto the back “screen” (a piece of frosted plastic cut from a translucent drink cup, in this case.) This is a tiny pinhole camera. The camera’s lens is properly aimed when a tiny sun is projected on the “screen.” It’s so MUCH easier than trying to locate it looking at the back of the camera.
This is only my second total solar eclipse. I have been speed reading a variety of sources. Each passing day, more and more material presents itself. As I write this, this morning’s Sunday New York Times has an entire special section on the eclipse. The PhotoPills app for smart phones has a free downloadable pdf called “A guide to the August 21, 2017, Total Solar Eclipse: When, Where and How to Shoot it.”
e-books from Apple and Amazon
Another source I found particularly helpful, complete with inspiring examples, is Alan Dyer’s website. His e-book ($10 through the Apple iBooks store), How to Photograph the Solar Eclipse. Dyer’s book, subtitled “A Guide to Capturing the 2017 Total Eclipse of the Sun,” is comprehensive including material for those wanting to capture and view the eclipse using telescopes, which is beyond the scope of this series. Since my last post, I discovered a series of eclipse guides for $4.00 each on the Kindle e-book store. Each is devoted to eclipse photography in specific locations along the path of the eclipse. I’ll be in the Grand Tetons. I chose the Jackson Hole Total Eclipse Guide by Aaron Linsdau. It discusses the merits and potential downsides of possible perches for viewing and shooting the eclipse in and around Jackson, Wyoming.
Photography of the eclipse
After selecting a site in the preceding week for the big day, we need to have a photographic plan. Totality will only last 2 minutes and 20 seconds; there won’t be time for a do-over. What parameters maximize our chances of success?
What photograph do you want to create?
The first decision, as I see it, is to decide what type of photographic souvenir wants to be made. Far simpler than close-ups of the eclipsed sun would be a wide-angle scene, with a nice foreground element, in which the eclipsed sun will be a secondary, small but interesting, element. The technical requirements for this type of shot are comparatively simple. Essentially, you are shooting a twilight scene. Your camera on a tripod, with a wide-angle lens, using a semi-automatic shooting mode (Aperture priority) and matrix metering, should produce good exposures and results. Your foreground elements could also be your friends and family in the landscape looking at the eclipse. The difficulty level ramps up considerably when it comes to taking close-ups of the eclipsed sun. This will require very stable tripod support, with a ball head capable of a steep enough angle to align with the sun, and a longer focal length lens. Depending on the size of sun you desire, focal lengths from 300-600 should do the trick. Understand how big the sun will be by focal length here. Don’t forget that since you are working on a tripod, you want to disable the vibration reduction or image stabilization on your lens.
USE A SOLAR FILTER!!! If you don’t have one, don’t point your camera at the sun. It will damage your camera’s sensor. During the partial eclipse phases, before and after totality, your camera must be protected with a solar filter on the front of the lens. You will have plenty of time as the partial eclipse progresses to work out an optimal exposure and to check and double check your focus. As more and more of the sun in covered by the moon, the sun will become an ever thinning sliver. When it is the thinnest possible sliver, take off the filter. Continue shooting without changing exposure or refocusing or looking directly at the sun. This is the first “diamond ring.” It’s the transition from partial to the total eclipse. During these transitions, shooting in Continuous or burst mode may help to capture transitory phenomena.
Exposure & focus
While good results for a wide-angle scene can be obtained shooting in an automatic mode (Aperture priority), the consensus recommendation for shooting the sun itself is to shoot in Manual. I normally shoot in manual, so this is second nature for me, but if this is new territory for you, NOW is the time to start practicing. Plan to manually focus on the edge of the sun, as auto-focus will likely be unreliable in this setting. A tip I heard from San Diego-based veteran eclipse chasers Les and Mary Anderson is to practice shooting the moon, and note where infinity is on your lens, which may not necessary perfectly coincide with the infinity symbol. Focus on the moon. Use a piece of tape to show the infinity setting to use during the eclipse. The sun finally appeared long enough to shoot some tests with my solar filter and the sun finder. Different manufacturer’s filters have different color casts. Here is a sample image straight out of the camera, racked out to 400 mm, with a 1.4X Fuji teleconverter:
These images were taken with a 400 mm focal length with a 1.4X teleconverter, on a Fujifilm X-T2. Its crop factor is 1.5. This is more focal length than I plan to use for the eclipse; I wanted to push it for these tests to see if I could obtain sharp sun images while maxing out on focal length. I do not intend to use the teleconverter, so the exposure will a stop brighter (f/11 instead of f/8.0.) The sun and the moon are moving targets. The east to west motion of the sky will carry the sun its own diameter across the frame in 2 minutes. We also have to plan for the sun’s corona. It will be visible during totality. It will be slightly larger than the sun itself. This won’t be a problem with focal lengths less than 2000mm on a full frame camera or 1100mm on a cropped sensor one.
The sky will suddenly be darker (an eerie Twilight-like, 360-degree sunset effect) and cooler. Since it is darker, adjust your shooting parameters to increase exposure, either bumping up the ISO to 400 or 800. Bracket, bracket, bracket!
There are a lot of moving parts to shooting this singular event. For simplicity, I plan to start with ISO: 200 (my Fujifilm X-T2’s base ISO.) I’ll use an aperture of f/4.5-f/5.6. That’s the maximum, wide open aperture for my Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR Lens. I’ll bracket the shutter speed from 1/1000-1/2 second, using auto bracketing set to acquire 3 shots, +/- 2 stops by varying the shutter speed. Some cameras allow more frames of auto bracketing. Check your manual. A two stop bracket is a good starting point. During totality, I’ll likely bump up the ISO to 400, since I’ll need longer shutter speeds to capture the detail in the corona. I’ll be using a long focal length I need to keep my shutter speed faster than ½ second to avoid blur from the sun’s motion relative to the earth.
Shoot in RAW to have the maximum dynamic range for post-processing.
- A wide aperture (f2.8, f/4, f/5.6, what your lens allows) will enable you to keep exposures shorter.
- During partial eclipse, bracket using shutter speeds from 1/125-1/4000, slowing down to 1-2 seconds during totality.
- Bracket-I plan to bracket extensively and may use auto bracket. During totality, there can be up to a 12-stop range in exposure from the inner shadow to the outer corona.
- When the scene brightens enough to be uncomfortable, the second diamond ring is imminent. It’s time to quickly replace your solar filter.
- Synchronizing watches to the correct time and setting alarms to alert you a few minutes before totality is a good idea. Watch out for bumping your set-up or that of others.
- Only during totality can you look at the sun directly without eye protection.
- Safety first: Never look at the sun directly without eye protection, which means eclipse glasses.
- You must have a solar filter also for the front of your camera lens to shoot the partial phases before and after totality.
Easiest enjoyment option: Watch it and savor the moment. The steely purple light of a total eclipse is other-worldly, a unique and unforgettable experience and one I can’t wait to repeat.
Preparing for this trip has been a fun challenge. One of the challenges, besides synthesizing many sources and opinions and practicing with unfamiliar pieces of gear, has been not to become too crazed in the process. Of course, we hope for a splendid eclipse, but we can’t control the weather-we can only hope for auspicious conditions, free of clouds and smoke. It will be wonderful being in Grand Teton and Yellowstone again, with friends, and we hope for a grand totality finale. Here’s wishing you all clear skies, safe eyes and memorable images!