Photo gallery from 2017 total solar eclipse
I was just outside Weiser Idaho, a small town on the Snake river, for the 2017 Eclipse, which was an excellent, if short, spectacle which reawakened U.S. interests in total eclipses. They are, as I wrote earlier, the most spectacular natural phenomenon you can see on the Earth, but due to their random pattern it's been a long time since one has covered so much of the world's richest country.
For me, it was my sixth total eclipse, but the first I could drive to. I began this journey in Mexico in 1991, with the super-eclipse of that year, which also was the last to visit the United States (it was visible on the big island of Hawai`i.) Since then I have flown around the world to the Curacao area, to the Black Sea, to the Marshall Islands (more photos) and French Polynesia to see other total eclipses. And I will continue to do so starting with 2 years from now in Argentina.
See the gallery
I recommend before you read that you enjoy my Gallery of 2017 Eclipse Photos in HD resolution. When going through them I recommend you click the "i" button so you can read the descriptions; they do not show in the slide show.
Why it's impossible (today) to photograph
I did not photograph my first eclipse (nor should anybody) but every photographer, seeing such a spectacle, hopes to capture it. We can't, because in addition to being the most spectacular natural event, it's also the one with the greatest dynamic range. In one small field you have brilliant jets of fire coming off the sun, its hot inner atmosphere, its giant glowing outer atmosphere and a dimly lit dark sky in which you can see stars. And then there is the unlit side of the moon which appears to be the blackest thing you have ever seen. While you can capture all these light values with a big bracket, no display device can come close to showing that 24 stop range. Only the human eye and visual system can perceive it.
Some day though, they will make reasonable display devices that can do this, but even then it will be tough. For the eclipse covers just a few degrees of sky, but in reality it's a full 360 experience, with eerie light in all directions and the temporary light of twilight in every direction. Still, we try.
In the future, when there is a retinal resolution VR headset with 24 bits of HDR light level ability, we might be able to show people an eclipse without going to one. Though you should still go.
That's why these photographs are so different. Every exposure reveals a different aspect of the eclipse. Short exposures show the prominences and the "chromosphere" -- the inner atmosphere of the sun visible only at the start and end of the eclipse. Longer exposures reveal more of the giant corona. The fingers of the outer corona involve 2 or 4 second exposures! The most interesting parts happen at 2nd and 3rd contact (the start and end) and also have many aspects. About 1/60th of a second shows the amazing diamond ring by letting the tiny sliver of sun blow out the sensor to make the diamond, as it does to the eye.
Time to rename the partial eclipse
One thing that saddens and frustrates me is that all of this is only visible in a band less than 100 miles wide where the eclipse is total. Outside that, for thousands of miles, one can see (with eye protection) a "partial eclipse." They both get called an eclipse but the difference is night and day. Yet I think the naming makes people not understand the difference. They think a "90% partial eclipse" is perhaps 90% as interesting as a total eclipse. Nothing could be more wrong. There are really three different things:
- The total eclipse, the most amazing thing you will ever see.
- The >98% partial eclipse (and annular eclipse) which are definitely an interesting event, but still just a tiny shadow of what a total eclipse is.
- The ordinary partial eclipse, which is a fun and educational curiosity.
I constantly meet people who think they saw "the eclipse" when to me and all others who have seen one, only the total eclipse is the eclipse. While the 98% partial is interesting, nobody should ever see that, because if you are that close to the band of totality, you would be nuts not to make the effort to go that extra distance. In a total eclipse, you see all that the partial has to offer, and even a few partial effects not seen except at 99.9%
As such, I propose we rename the partial eclipse, calling it something like a "grazing transit of the moon." An eclipse technically is a transit of the moon over the sun, but my main goal is to use a different term for the partial and total so that people don't get confused. To tell people in the partial zone "you saw a transit, hope it was interesting" while telling people in the total zone, "You saw a solar eclipse, wasn't that the most amazing thing you've ever seen?"
Automating the photography
This was the first eclipse I have ever driven to, and because of that, I went a bit overboard, able to bring all sorts of gear. I had to stop myself and scale back, but I still brought 2 telescopes, 4 cameras, one long lens, 5 tripods and more.
In the past, I have photographed eclipses using a Windows program called Eclipse Orchestrater. It works well enough, though since the market for these programs is very small, it's not a polished professional package and takes time to get working right. It only controls Canon and Nikon. I used to shoot Canon, but switched to Sony, so I had to find another solution.
Sadly, while Sony's A7RII and new A9 are considered by many photographers to be the best bodies out there, there is much more software for use with Canon and Nikon, even though Sony has released APIs. But the A7RII with its high dynamic range, 42 megapixel full frame sensor and other fancy features is what I wanted to use.
A new program, called EclipseDroid (for Android) also allows scripting of Eclipse photos. It also is primarily for Nikon and Canon, but it features a mode where it can send infrared remote codes from phones that have an IR blaster. I set to see if I could have it control the Sony. This was far from easy. First of all, only a few Android phones have IR blasters. I had one, but it had a nonstandard blaster, and so I picked up a better phone on eBay -- a fairly high end phone I got cheap because it had a cracked screen. Unlike most, the HTC One M9 also has an IR decoder, and I hoped that would make it easy. The codes for all the Sony remote buttons are not available on the web.
Sadly, the HTC could not read the Sony remote, In fact, many programs could not. The next step was to buy a tinkerer's IR reader called the IR Toy 2 which was able to do the job. I learned the codes, which must be sent 3 times to be effective.
Control for a bracket was no easy task. The remote can fire the shutter, and start and stop movies (with the same button) and it can also do the menus and arrow keys. This makes it possible to, very slowly, change settings on the camera. Because EclipseDroid can only do one action per second, this is barely practical.
The good news is the Sony has a powerful bracket mode that will shoot a 9-shot bracket, each exposure one stop from the others. It can do 9 quick shots in under two seconds with one press of the button. (Sadly, it then writes to the card quite slowly due to a flaw in the camera's design.) For some reason it will not take other command until it has written out the shots.
I could repeat that bracket, but I had other goals, so I used the camera's six preset memories. With 4 presses of the menu buttons, I could switch to another preset -- if I made sure the camera started on the preset selection menu, which was a risk if I made a last minute mistake. I set up 3 brackets. One was the 9 shot bracket. Another was a long exposure 5 shot bracket, allowing me to get 14 different exposure levels. The last bracket was a 3 shot one at 1/60th, 1/500th and 1/4000th designed for rapid fire during 3rd contact.
For the first time, I would do 2nd contact as a video. the contacts are dynamic, and 30 frames per second of 4K video should be a way to capture just the frame you want -- with lower quality and dynamic range. 2nd contact and 3rd contact are generally mirror images of one another, though not quite -- particularly in this eclipse there were several large prominences on the 3rd contact side making 3rd contact much more interesting. I also arranged to shoot some videos at 1/60th of a second (good for diamond ring and inner corona) and 1/500th -- good for prominences and very inner corona.
All this was connected to my main instrument, a 120mm apochromatic refractor. An APO refractor is probably the ideal instrument for shooting an eclipse. Mine is a 900mm f/7.5 which is probably a touch too tight -- 750mm is probably a bit better if you want outer corona and (more importantly) some wiggle room if you drift off center.
This is a 4K video, so click through to YouTube to watch it there.
I still have my Canon 100-40mm zoom, but no modern camera body. In spite of being much shorter in focal length, official high-end lenses will often do better for photos as they are designed for photos, while telescopes are designed for eyepieces. I no longer have a recent Canon body, so I rented one. I decided to use a crop-sensor 80D which would give an equivalent of about 640mm focal length on 24 million pixels, vs. a full frame body with larger pixels, since there would not be much to record outside the crop frame -- turns out that was wrong.
With the Canon I could use Eclipse Orchestrater, though that presented its own issues. Canon cameras have limits on shooting over USB, and I got a remote cable release to fix some of them but it only partially helped. As such I could only shoot every 1.5 seconds most of the time. I build special Perl programs to generate my scripts which had an understanding of how quickly the camera writes photos out to the card to maximize my shots. Sadly something failed and so the scripts did the brackets in the main eclipse but not the 3rd contact shots. However, I was able to get a good HDR from these showing deep corona.
This was a "super zoom" bridge camera with an equivalent focal length of 1200mm. I had this mounted on the telescope and simply shooting a video of the entire eclipse. Like all videos, no exposure is quite right, but I got the two good diamond rings in HD.
Cameras four and five
I set up two cell phones with 4K video of our group from the front and behind. The one in front failed after 2nd contact, unfortunately, but shows the approach of the shadow. The other shoes much of the sky, but not the eclipse itself.
Argentina in 2019 of course. This eclipse will end at sunset just south of Beunos Aires, so many will see it. An eclipse at sunset is reportedly particularly spectacular -- you know how the moon looks more dramatic when low on the horizon? -- but that is also the place with the greatest risk of clouds. Another eclipse appears in Argentina in 2020 north of Bariloche, an area I drove around last year which shows good promise.
Most people though will wait until 2024, when another eclipse will cross northern Mexico, and cross the USA from texas to western New York, where it will then go through Ontario to Newfoundland. It will just miss my childhood home in Ontario, but Texas has much better weather prospects.
Go see the Gallery of 2017 Eclipse Photos if you haven't by now.