Back in 2010, I was curious when the next total solar eclipse in the United States would happen. After looking it up on Wolfram Alpha, I learned that it would take place in seven years. I also found that the path of totality would pass near where I lived at the time. At that point, I decided that I would go out to see the total solar eclipse when the time came. Fast forward to 2017, and I had moved from Alabama back to Colorado, so my totality viewing location had moved from Tennessee to Wyoming. I think I always intended to photograph the total solar eclipse, but as the day approached, I realized I had little knowledge on how to shoot it.
From my photography of the moon, I knew I would need my tripod and remote, as well as a lens large enough to fill the frame with the subject. Fortunately, I already had this equipment, so the one piece I was missing was a solar filter. Since the diameter of the two lenses I would consider up for the task were quite different, I had to make a decision about which one I would buy the solar filter for. I ended up going with my 500 mm mirrored prime lens (which has a diameter that was almost 90 mm across) because I also had a 2x teleconverter that could essentially increase the magnification to that of a 1,000 mm lens.
About two weeks before I made the trip up to the totality zone, I attended an astrophotography get-together where the subject of photographing the total solar eclipse was the topic of the night. Most of the people there had seen the eclipse in 1979, so they had plenty of good advice that I took to heart in my preparations for the event. On top of things like practicing with the solar filter during a sunny day, bringing a headlamp (that I didn’t end up needing), and reminding me to bring a light jacket (which you’ll likely put on prior to totality), I learned the all-important settings to have on my camera to ensure the best photographs. They were as follows:
- ISO at its native setting (essentially, as low as it can go)
- F-stop in the range of f/8 to f/16
- Shutter speed in the range of 1/30 second to 1/4000 second
- Lens focused to infinity
- Stabilization and other time-consuming settings turned off
- Bracketing turned on to ensure at least one picture of each set is correctly exposed
I ended up using an ISO of 100, f-stop of f/8, and a bracket of three shutter speeds: 1/1000 second, 1/250 second, and 1/60 second. While these settings did allow me to take many great pictures, they seemed optimized for the lead up to the moment of totality. It would be neat to take a picture and be able to see the features of the moon with the solar halo behind it, but I’ll have to wait for the next total eclipse to try for that picture. Similarly, I had a high definition digital camcorder set up to record the entire eclipse (the solar filter for this camera was just a pair of eclipse glasses taped over the lens), but it was zoomed in so much that I had to perform the same adjustments each time the sun moved across the frame. Next time I might keep it in a wider setting to show the entire progression across the sky.
Because my 500 mm lens needs an adapter, the “infinity” setting on the focus ring wasn’t entirely accurate. Furthermore, this lens is quite finicky in its focus, so after focusing to infinity, I taped it in place, assuming that it was as sharp as I wanted. I’m not sure if it just wasn’t focused to begin with, if it was the Wyoming wind jittering my tripod (I ended up taping my camera strap to the tripod), or if the addition of the solar filter tweaked the focus, but most of the pictures I took ended up being slightly blurry. They still convey the essence of the eclipse, just not to the sharpness I may have wanted. What I may do in the future is add a ring on this lens that would create a new “full stop” for the focus ring at infinity so it would be easier to ensure a sharp focus. I’d also have to make a ring for the lens in its 1,000 mm configuration since the teleconverter is another addition to the focal length. Either way, I have time before the next total eclipse to figure it out.
One of the other problems I had during the eclipse was with my tripod. I may need to invest in a higher-quality one because there were a few problems I encountered with this one that made aligning the sun in the frame a frustrating chore. Each time I adjusted it, I held the tripod with my free hand; therefore, when the picture was composed, I would release my hands, and the subject would move in the frame, often quite dramatically. Since the earth rotates significantly at the distance I was zoomed to, I needed to continually adjust the camera’s aim to keep the sun in the frame. Being able to do this quickly and smoothly, with as little re-adjustment as possible is the ideal, but my tripod was so “stiff” that I was always tweaking the alignment to get the sun in the frame. If I had the money for it, an automated tracking setup would be helpful, as it uses computers and motors to follow the sun.
Logistically, viewing the eclipse is easy in theory, but a nightmare in execution. The event is much like any large sporting event: people will arrive at different times, but they’ll all leave at the same time. It took us 8.5 hours to get back to Fort Collins, and I still had a 2.5-hour drive back to Colorado Springs. What we should have done from the start was use the printed maps of the back roads of Wyoming to make our way home, since even the state highways were almost immediately backed up following the end of totality. If I were to do it again, I’d go up a day ahead of time, watch the eclipse, and then leave the following day when all the “day tripper” traffic dissipated.
Finally, even though part of my focus was on photographing the eclipse, it was important to take a moment to just soak in the experience of it. If you’re too focused on getting the “perfect picture,” you’ll likely miss out on all the little things you wouldn’t usually notice. From the crickets slowing down due to the drop in temperature to the birds chirping and cows laying down, the full experience of the total solar eclipse is in the awe inspiring sight above you as the day instantaneously turns to night around you. Words are inadequate to describe the experience. If anything, a total solar eclipse shows the awe-inspiring brightness of the sun. Even at 99% partial coverage, it was still pretty light out. I didn’t need sunglasses to look around, and the “gray” light almost seemed fluorescent. But once that totality hit, the darkness was practically instantaneous.
The eclipse is a practically indescribable event. You have to see it to believe it!
I’m at an age where I have the potential to see five more total solar eclipses if I can live to be 94. After this experience, I know I will try to be in the path of totality for every one of them. I know where I’ll be in seven years. What about you?