If you weren’t planning to do any travelling this summer, you might want to do a little rethinking. Unless, of course, you’re lucky enough to live in a 68 mile-wide band that stretches across the US from Newport, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina.
On August 21, 2017 the United States will be treated to the first total solar eclipse visible in the country since February of 1979—although the totality itself will only be visible to people living in or visiting that 68 mile wide band. For the rest of the US, only a partial eclipse will be visible—still a photo-worthy event, but not as spectacular as the total eclipse.
This is the first time in 99 years that a total eclipse will be visible from coast to coast, albeit in a pretty limited region from coast to coast, and the next one won't happen until 2024. So if it's always been your dream to photograph a total solar eclipse, you either have to be lucky or willing to travel.
The eclipse will start on the coast of Oregon, and then will continue over Idaho, the southwestern corner of Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, the southwestern corner of Iowa, the northeastern corner of Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Southwestern corner of North Carolina, the northeastern tip of Georgia and South Carolina. If you're on a boat in the Atlantic, you might even catch the tail end of it, though choppy water and tripods aren't always the best combination. To see how close you are to major cities in the US where the total eclipse will be visible, check the list I’ve included at the end of this article.
The totality will first be visible on the west coast just north of Depoe Bay at 10:15 a.m. It will take just 12 minutes for the moon’s shadow to traverse the entire state of Oregon, and the totality will last roughly 2 minutes at each viewing location. The eclipse will reach its maximum point near Hopkinsville, Kentucky at 1:24pm, where the totality will last for 2 minutes, 40 seconds.
A total eclipse is a significant event, and other than being in the right place at the right time there’s not much you have to do to ensure that you’ll see it. When the eclipse reaches the point of totality, the sky darkens considerably—in a few minutes the light will change from twilight to a blue-black color. You’ll be able to see brighter stars and planets, and it will get colder too—by as much as 20 degrees farenheit. Although the eclipse itself will take a couple of hours to progress from start to finish, the moment of totality will last less than three minutes, and how much less than three minutes varies depending on what point along the band you are when witnessing it.
If you have a choice of where to travel, look for a location where there isn’t likely to be poor visibility on August 17. The coast of Oregon is a great place to visit, but Pacific beaches tend to be pretty foggy and cloudy most of the year, so it might be better to move slightly inland for the big event.
Annular Eclipse (Matsudo, Chiba, Japan) by Flickr user t-mizo
Remember that viewing a solar eclipse is dangerous business, because the light from the sun during the early parts of the eclipse is just as bright as it is from day to day—but the difference is that it’s focused light, so looking directly at it can damage your eyes permanently. Make sure that you always view the solar eclipse with a pinhole projector, which you can make by punching a small hole in a piece of white cardboard and projecting the sun’s image onto a similar piece of white cardboard underneath it. You can also buy a pair of solar eclipse sunglasses, which will protect your eyes from that focused light when viewing the sun directly.
A third option is to attach a solar filter to your camera (which you need anyway if you’re going to photograph the eclipse), and then view the sun through your viewfinder. Please keep in mind, however, that if you are not using a DSLR your viewfinder may not actually be showing you the scene through the lens of your camera, which means that you'll be viewing the solar eclipse without the filter (that’s bad). If you're not sure, turn on live view and use that to view the event. Of course this isn't going to be practical for the entire length of the eclipse, so it's a good idea to have an alternative such as that pinhole projector or eclipse sunglasses for viewing between exposures.
Ottawa Partial Solar Eclipse-0026 by Flickr user David.R.Carroll
A solar filter is basically just a very strong neutral density filter, which blocks out between 14 and 17 stops of light. You don't need one to photograph the total eclipse, which again only lasts a couple of minutes, but you do need one if you're going to shoot any point between the time the eclipse begins and that moment of totality. Again, the amount of light that comes from the sun during the moments leading up to totality is equally as bright as it is during a non-eclipse, so you can actually find the correct exposure prior to the start of the eclipse by taking a series of bracketed shots of the sun. You can then use that exposure right up until the narrow crescent phases just before totality, when you may need to add a stop or two of exposure compensation to get the exposure right. Make sure you switch to manual focusing—the distance between your camera and the sun isn’t going to change so once you have the focus locked on you can leave it where it is. Switching to manual will prevent your camera from hunting when you press the shutter button and messing up the focus lock.
Make sure you have your camera mounted on a tripod—it isn't necessary during the early phases when the sun is still going to be quite bright, but when you get closer to totality you're going to be using slower shutter speeds. Have a remote release on hand to prevent camera shake during those longer exposures—don't rely on your camera’s self-timer feature because you don't want a lot of time to pass between exposures if you can help it, especially during the very brief totality.
When the moon is completely covering the sun, you will need to remove the solar filter—the solar filter is going to block out most of the very faint light that is visible around the edges of the moon’s shadow once the solar eclipse is complete. Without the solar filter attached, you’ll be able to capture the corona, which is the sun’s atmosphere. Because there is a very broad dynamic range between the brightest part of the corona and the edges, it is a good idea to bracket your shots starting with 1/1000 and moving all the way up to one second. You may want to combine exposures later on post-processing using HDR software, so that series of exposures will ensure that you get a complete range of tones. You may also want to zoom out a little bit for a few shots—remember that it's not just the sun that’s beautiful during a solar eclipse but also the surroundings, which will be bathed in very pale light, with the stars still visible in the sky.
100115 大屯山日食 93 by Flickr user enyagene
Make sure you're paying attention to the time when you're photographing the totality because you want to make sure you point your eyes and your camera away from it as soon as the sun starts to reappear. You don't want to get so lost in what you're doing that you end up damaging your equipment or your eyes.
The solar eclipse is a big event, and another one isn't going to happen in the United States for seven years, so if this is something that you want to experience and you are not lucky enough to already live in that narrow 68 mile wide band, make sure you book your hotel early. Don't assume you're the only one with this idea—photographers all over the country who are within driving distance of the solar eclipse totality are going to be making the trip, so don’t waste any time securing your hotel room and make sure you have your plans laid out well in advance. It does help to go through a practice run before the eclipse happens—the last thing you want is to find yourself flustered during that short two-minutes and mess up or entirely miss the opportunity. But remember that the solar eclipse itself is a long process lasting a couple of hours, so settle in and get comfortable and enjoy the experience.
Major US cities with a view of the total eclipse: (check local resources for venues that will be hosting viewing events).
• Salem, Oregon, USA
• Harrison, Nebraska, USA
• North Platte, Nebraska, USA
• Lincoln, Nebraska, USA
• Kansas City, Kansas, USA
• Kansas City, Missouri, USA
• Independence, Missouri, USA
• Jefferson City, Missouri, USA
• Washington, Missouri, USA
• Carbondale, Illinois, USA
• Clarksville, Tennessee, USA
• Bowling Green, Kentucky, USA
• Nashville, Tennessee, USA
• Cookeville, Tennessee, USA
• Anderson, South Carolina, USA
• Taylors, South Carolina, USA
• Columbia, South Carolina, USA
• Kingstree, South Carolina, USA
• Summerville, South Carolina, USA
• Charleston, South Carolina, USA
- When and where
- Ensure you are in the 68-mile wide band for viewing the totality
- Check the list below for major US cities with a clear view of the event
- Use a pinhole projector or eclipse glasses for safe viewing
- Fit your camera with a solar filter
- Equipment and settings
- Use a tripod and remote release
- Remove the solar filter during the totality
- Bracket your shots from 1/1000 to 1 second
- Combine images in post-processing for a complete range of tones
- Zoom out to capture some of the scenery
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