A total solar eclipse is the most impressive phenomenon that can happen in the sky. And I’ve seen pretty much all kinds of astronomical events. Nothing comes even close to it.
The total solar eclipse on August 21 2017 was probably the most advertised eclipse in history, And that’s because it was visible from a populated area – the United States of America. We’ve been planning for quite a while to see the eclipse so we booked accommodation around our preferred viewing locations a long time before the event.
I had multiple locations selected for viewing the eclipse with a main one on the Western side of the Tetons and 4 back-up ones in Idaho and Wyoming. We got to Boulder on August 18 then went scouting in Wyoming on the 19th. After weighing all options, I settled for a place in central Wyoming – Castle Gardens. Castle Gardens is basically in the middle of nowhere. Which was good, taking into account that all easily accessible locations were packed with people.
We were a happy group of 10 Romanians (we have a long astronomical history together) and 5 Americans.
We camped at Castle Gardens on the night before the eclipse together with maybe another 200 people and an unknown number of rattle snakes that were more afraid of us that we were afraid of them. No matter how much I tried to see a rattle snake (I’m one of the strange guys that love snakes.), I haven’t managed.
I wanted to photograph the eclipse above the petroglyphs at Castle Gardens but after a bit of scouting around the valley, I concluded they cannot be nicely framed together with the eclipsed Sun. To test my framing, I used the amazing app Photo Pills. I totally recommend it when it comes to planning your shots; it’s a wonderful tool. For my landscape eclipse shot, I settled for what it seemed to be a half dead but aesthetically pleasing tree as a foreground.
On the morning of the eclipse, I woke up around 6:30 and anxiously opened my tent to check the weather. Clear skies with only a few clouds on the North Western horizon. Just like it was forecasted. Hurray! I had made the right choice. I tried having some breakfast but the emotion was so strong that I only managed to eat some bread and jam and drink two cups of coffee. I’m always like that when it comes to eclipses. I’m not an emotional guy by all means, but there are moments when my emotions go crazy. A total solar eclipse is one of those moments.
I slowly carried all my gear on the other side of a barbed wire fence (it was there to keep antelopes away from the Castle Gardens archeological site) and started assembling everything. Anca helped a lot with all this. Thanks a bunch! To shoot the eclipse, I used two photo cameras and one GoPro. My initial plan was to use three cameras, but I finally settled for two as I wanted to spend more time looking at the eclipse than pressing buttons. One Canon EOS 5D Mark III was attached to my beloved Pentax 75SDHF refractor and placed on a Fornax LighTrack II equatorial mount. I used this set-up to take photos of the corona. The other camera was a Canon 6D that I used for landscape shots. I took a fisheye view of the sky during the eclipse with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L lens and a few landscape shots with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L lens. A GoPro HERO4 was used to take a timelapse of the whole event.
For the corona shots, the camera was controlled by Xavier Jubier’s excellent software Solar Eclipse Maestro. I recommend doing this if you plan to shoot future Solar eclipses as the computer will take care of everything and you don’t have to worry about frantically changing exposure times during totality. I started the software 5 minutes prior to totality and it worked great. A big thank you for Xavier for writing such an amazing piece of software.
The GoPro timelapsed for the whole time of the eclipse from a small tripod close to the ground. I kept only the part around totality. Seeing that shadow coming and going is out of this world.
There’s even a photo of me taking the above image, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful images taken there and it’s certainly the most beautiful photo of me photographing the sky. It was shot with an iPhone by my better half, Anca.
Let’s get to some telescopic views now. Here’s the last moments of the first diamond ring, when the corona can also be seen:
The next one is a composite of two images: one taken right after the second contact and shows Baily’s beads and a bit of the chromosphere to the lower left of the solar disk and another one taken a few seconds before third contact and showing some amazing prominences. It was impossible to take a photo like this in only shot, during this eclipse, as the apparent size of the Moon was too large to show the chromosphere all around the Sun. I’m really impressed by the details rendered by the mighty Pentax 75SDHF.
The Holy Grail of solar eclipse photography is, maybe, the image that shows the whole solar corona properly exposed. And it can’t be done in a single shot as the brightness range of the corona is huge. No camera will be able to capture it. I did a stack of multiple photos shot with exposure times from 1/4000 to 4s. The compositing technique is not really straight forward, but it’s very well described in a paper called “Digital Compositing Techniques for Coronal Imaging” by Fred Espenak. I actually altered the method a bit and also used PixInsight for some finishing touches.
You can even see the Earthshine on the Moon, and to the lower left of the Sun we have the star Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo, the Lion.
The corona might look impressive in the photo but it’s not even close to the real thing. I say it again: go and see a total solar eclipse with your own eyes.
The next total Solar eclipse is on July 2 2019 and, most likely, I will be in Chile for that. I will use pretty much the same setup for photography with one big change. The landscape shots will also be taken automatically. Solar eclipses are way to beautiful and awe inspiring to waste those precious few minutes pressing buttons.