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Spectacular Totality

August 03, 2017

This article was originally published on July 25, 2017 and has been updated to include current information.

Written by Dave Henry and Ken Sklute

“30 minutes ago it was over 90º. Much cooler now. I’m guessing it’s about 80º. Ah, it feels great, and it’s getting a lot darker. We must be getting closer. What time is it? Wow, the birds are chirping. I guess they’re thinking it’s time to head home for the night. I read about that. Okay, I need to check my settings. Oh, yeah, double-check the focus. How’s the battery? Hurry, it’s getting closer. I need to check the LCD screen. Do I have enough storage for all the totality photos? Great, lots of room. Good! I’m ready… I think. Am I forgetting anything? I hope not. My heart’s beating faster. Boy, this is a thrill. It’s taking forever! Okay now, keep calm. Stick to my plan.”

“Who’s calling out the seconds…five, four, three, two, WOW! This is totality? Take off the filter. No, wait for Baily’s beads to disappear. Okay, now take off the filter. Don’t drop it. Quick, grab the remote release. Oh, it’s magnificent. I can’t believe I’m yelling with everyone else. Who has time for clapping? I must keep my finger on the remote release! Thank goodness I’m bracketing. Now’s a good time to look up and watch. Unbelievable! Shoot! Shoot!”

This is what usually runs through a photographer’s mind moments before totality begins. Even for experienced solar eclipse photographers.

Safety

We can’t stress the importance of safety for your eyes and your camera gear enough. Now that we’re actively involved with looking at and photographing the eclipse, we need to pay close attention to the use of the solar filter.

Partial phases absolutely need a solar filter on your camera lens. For maximum safety, once Baily’s beads disappear (which we’ll explain below), you can remove the solar filter for about two minutes until Baily’s beads reappear again. Then replace the solar filter on the front of your lens. Do not remove it again until you’re finished photographing the sun. Always use your LCD screen to position the sun. Don’t use your camera’s viewfinder, even with a solar filter on the lens.

Never look at the sun without accredited and approved solar filtration over your eyes. There are special solar viewing frames that can be used over your eyeglasses or solar viewing glasses for those that don’t wear glasses. Permanent, irreversible eye damage and/or blindness can result in seconds.

Never point your camera into the sun without a special solar filter. All camera lenses need an accredited and approved solar filter mounted on the front of the lens. Not using a solar filter at eclipse magnifications will ruin your camera in seconds.

Never improvise, modify or use general photography neutral density (ND) photography filters regardless of how many stops they are. They don’t block the infrared and ultraviolet radiation and are totally insufficient to provide the protection your eyes, and your equipment, need. There are reasons for this. Review our previous solar filter article if you need recommendations. Buy an approved solar filter. They’re relatively inexpensive and are designed for the task.

Totality Phases

First contact is where the east edge of the moon appears to touch the west edge of the sun disk. At this moment, the eclipse has begun. You need the solar filter in place even though the sun is slowly being obscured by the moon. This phase will last about an hour and twenty minutes, so be prepared with water and a wide-brimmed hat to keep the midday sun off of you and sunscreen. Remember, it’s August!

Second contact refers to the western edge of the moon coming in contact with the western edge of the sun. At the moment of second contact, totality begins — the sun is fully covered by the moon. Within 15 seconds, the moon moves farther into the sun and at that time reveals one last blast of light referred to as the diamond ring effect. The light during the diamond ring and Baily’s beads are still very bright so don’t use your camera’s viewfinder to continue positioning the sun in your frame. Instead, use your camera’s LCD screen.

About five seconds before totality, there are still a few tiny rays of sunlight peeking between the valleys of the craters on the moon. This creates what has been named “Baily’s beads,” after English astronomer Francis Baily. Baily's beads are show in the left photo, below.

Once Baily’s beads have disappeared, we have now entered maximum eclipse. With your solar filter now removed from the camera lens, switch your Mode Dial to C2 (if your camera has “custom” shooting modes, to quickly return to shooting settings we’ve asked you to memorize beforehand), and begin bracketing your exposures like crazy. Check the article on Exposure for more details.

At the end of totality, Baily’s beads begin to reappear leading to the diamond ring effect happening in reverse order. When the light begins to get very bright and the last burst of bright light begins to turn into a sun disk, quickly replace the solar filter, if you didn’t replace it at the onset of the 2nd occurrence of Baily’s beads. The filter will remain in place until the eclipse ends.

  

Two Schools of Thought on Solar Filters and the Partial Phases:

Experienced eclipse photographers, and those willing to accept the risk of photographing partial phases of the eclipse with bright sun visible, will want to remove their solar filter from the camera lens to capture the diamond ring effect, and Baily’s beads which immediately follow.  

They’ll leave the filter off the lens as the eclipse moves into true totality. And, as the totality ends, and Baily’s beads briefly reappear, and the diamond ring effect occurs on the opposite side of the sun, they’ll again capture this without the solar filter on their lens. As the diamond ring effect changes into partial eclipse (more of the sun becomes visible), they’ll re-attach their solar filter to the front of the camera lens. Remember, never position the sun in your frame using the camera’s eyepiece with no solar filter on the lens during the diamond ring effect.

However, for first-time eclipse shooters, or those who want to exercise caution and minimize the risks from viewing and photographing the bright sun, our suggestion would be to keep the solar filter in place until Baily’s beads around the moon have disappeared, and full totality begins.  At that point, it is safe to remove the solar filter from the lens.  Remember, totality will last no more than about 2½ minutes.  As soon as Baily’s beads begin to reappear, cautious users will put the solar filter back on the lens, to begin photographing the 2nd partial phases of the eclipse.

This latter approach will mean that some parts of the eclipse are not captured as a professional eclipse photographer might. But the trade-off is knowing that the process is safer, with the solar filter in place until full totality begins.

Which approach should you take?  It’s up to you.

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

Once totality begins, you’ll realize the importance of rehearsing this sequence over and over again in the days ahead of the eclipse. It’s the small things, like what do you do with the solar filter once it’s removed? You need to plan for that. If you fumble it or drop it, you’re wasting valuable eclipse seconds. Now you see the importance of a tripod tray (see our article on tripods and tripod heads) to set it on for the 2½ minutes of totality. You can’t waste time fumbling with the filter or anything else. Nothing beats rehearsal.

For most of the country there will be less than 2½ minutes of spectacular total eclipse photography. It’s what we live for as eclipse photographers. Before that, you’ve been in the hot midday sun for an hour and 20 minutes shooting the slow process of partial eclipse.

The partial phase is easy. The solar filter is on the entire time and there’s no need to bracket exposures because the intensity of the sun disk isn’t changing. As you get closer to totality, you may want to begin bracketing your exposures. Exposures could change though. What you have to pay attention to, however, is any approaching clouds.

Anticipate Everything

If clouds appear, check your notes on exposures through different cloud cover you’ve shot over the weeks leading up to today. If clouds drift in, change to bracketing your exposures and remain shooting RAW because the light of the sun coming through clouds will vary greatly as they blow by. Even thin clouds can increase your exposure one or two stops. Your notes will tell you what your exposures will be. Remember, always check your LCD screen to confirm whether or not your exposure bracketing range is adequate.

If you are viewing in a metropolitan area and clouds appear, you probably won’t have the time to relocate because everyone else will have the same idea. If you can relocate safely, make the decision well ahead of time.

If you have a smartphone, try downloading a live Doppler® Radar APP such as RadarCast® or MyRadar and they may give you a timeline for the passing of your cloud cover. You should also use your smartphone to check the traffic conditions before you leave. Highway Patrol and State Police will not allow parking along interstate highways, so make your Plan B decision way ahead of the eclipse.

Most beginners don’t shoot a lot during partial because they figure that totality is the big show and why waste the memory card space. Bad idea. Eclipses in any phase are rare and especially when it’s in our own back yard! The next one to travel the length of the United States like the one in August isn’t until 2045. That’s a long time to wait for a “do-over.”

Planning is Everything

Have a plan. Most experienced eclipse photographers shoot a whole series of partial eclipse disks during the partial phase. If you have one of the newer Canon EOS bodies that have a built-in intervalometer, set it to take a photo every minute.

In order to shoot a photo at a prescribed interval, you have to be there to keep centering the sun in your frame. At these magnifications, the sun will drift one sun diameter every two minutes. That’s because of the earth’s rotation.

If you’re not keen on doing this for both partial phases (about 2 hours and 45 minutes) before and after totality, consider buying a Star Adventurer (or similar) equatorial mount for your camera. This is a motorized clock-drive head that fits on your tripod and moves your camera and lens at the same speed as the earth’s rotation.

This means, your sun disk will remain in the same position in your frame for the entire eclipse. This frees you up to operate a second camera during the eclipse and spend more time under your tent and out of the sun. If you invest in one of these mounts, the good news is, it works perfectly for stars too. Instead of doing 20 second star photos at the noisy ISO 6400. How about a one-minute exposure at a much less noisy ISO 1600 or two minutes at ISO 800? It will open up a whole new world for you.

If your camera body doesn’t have a built-in intervalometer, you can use the Canon Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3 to do this; the TC-80N3 has interval timing functionality built-in. These plug directly into the remote control socket of high-end Canon EOS models like the EOS 5D, 6D, and 7D-series cameras (with the 3-pin, N3-type remote control socket). If you’re using the TC-80N3 on an EOS 80D, 70D, 60D/60Da, or any of the Canon EOS Rebels — all of which have a single-pin remote control socket — you’ll need the Remote Switch Adapter RA-N3.  

The first contact of the moon to the sun’s disk, all the way to the beginning of totality, will be about an hour and 20 minutes, depending where you are located. That will give you about 80 images before the eclipse. You’ll have about an hour and 25 minutes after totality and that will generate 85 images of partial eclipse.

It’s better to have too many images than not enough. Keep in mind, it’s easier to throw away images than wish you had more. Remember, there are no “do-overs.” As they used to say in the film days, “Get it on film, then decide what you want to do with them.”

When you’re setting up on eclipse day, remember to tape all your lens rings down to prevent accidently bumping them during the course of the eclipse. But, remember to occasionally recheck your zoom and focus. Heat accumulation and glass expansion during the heat of the day can change your focus, and zoom lenses may have a tendency to experience “lens creep” as the lens heats up and as a result of being pointed almost straight overhead.

One very important point:  many modern AF telephoto and super-telephoto lenses are intentionally designed to focus “past” true infinity focus.  Don’t just turn your focus ring until the distance scale either hits the infinity mark, or until it stops moving — verify by your own eye by magnifying the image on the LCD screen (or AF system) that you are truly focused sharply at a subject distance equal to infinity.  You can easily end up with slightly soft images if you just rack the manual focus ring to the end of the distance scale’s travel, without visually confirming sharpness!

Likewise, modern zoom lenses will often shift focus (sometimes slightly, sometimes significantly) as you zoom.  In normal, everyday shooting, if autofocus is used before each shot, this is not anything to worry about.  But in a fixed situation where most camera settings are nailed down, zooming your lens and shooting another set of images can sometimes cause focus to drift and no longer be sharp.  

KNOW YOUR GEAR!  Practice ahead of time by focusing upon distant subjects with detail (at or near infinity), zoom to different settings, and take some test shots (ideally, at wide-open apertures, so any focus changes are more obvious).  Check sharpness of these test images on a computer screen, so you know whether your lens(es) are susceptible to focus changes if and when you zoom from one focal length to another.

Five to 10 minutes before the beginning of totality, consider whether or not you need to eat, drink water or go to the bathroom because you don’t want ANYTHING to distract you from the big show.

The Diamond Ring, Baily’s Beads and Totality

Seems like a lot of jewelry involved, but there’s a sequence to go through moments before totality.

About 15 seconds before second contact, you will see the diamond ring effect where the moon almost completely covers the sun. Then about five seconds before second contact occurs, you will begin to see Baily’s beads where the sun shines around the jagged edges of the craters on the moon for a few seconds. Then, totality begins.

If you are willing to accept the risk of shooting without the solar filter in place, you can photograph these effects.  Remove the solar filter as the diamond ring appears. This will allow you to capture Baily’s beads as well.

The end of totality is approaching when Baily’s beads reappear. Within a few seconds, the diamond ring effect appears for a second time. As the light becomes more intense, replace the solar filter. Ideally, you need to do this before the sun becomes a sliver of very intense light. The solar filter will remain in place for the remainder of the eclipse.

In the diamond ring phase, switch your camera from C1 to C2 where you’ve previously set your camera for longer, bracketed exposures to capture the sun’s corona. Shoot like crazy. There’s less than 2½ minutes of totality and you don’t want to miss anything. Review our article on Exposure for C1 and C2 camera settings strategy. (Parenthetically, this is an example of a time when investing in compatible, high-speed memory cards can pay off… in some instances, you can shoot more RAW image files in a continuous burst before the camera has to slow down.  And, when the camera has to write those RAW files to the memory cards, CF or SD cards with fast write speeds mean less time with the “card-busy” light blinking on and off, before you can return to normal, full-speed shooting.)

The moment the last diamond ring effect appears, quickly replace the solar filter and reset the camera to C1 exposure values. Wait a moment for the camera and lens to stop vibrating, then continue shooting continuously for a couple minutes.

Again, we’ve explained two ways you can work with the solar filter removed. Maximum safety suggests leaving the filter on your camera lens, until Baily’s beads disappear at the start of totality, and replacing it at the moment Baily’s beads reappear after totality. You won’t get the same images of Baily’s beads and the diamond ring effect, but you’ll have a little additional peace of mind about having possibly better-protected your camera gear, and your eyesight.

Once a sliver of the sun’s disk appears, you can return to shooting a frame every minute. You’ll do that for about an hour and 25 minutes until the eclipse ends.   

Once the eclipse ends, you’ll be out of breath, thirsty, hungry and exhilarated that you’ve photographed the greatest natural event on earth. Rejoice in knowing that you’ve captured the rarest of all eclipses and it happened in our own back yard.

Lastly, remember to take a few moments away from your camera to view totality with your eyes because only your eyes can see the full dynamic range of the corona. Something that a photograph can’t quite do justice to…yet.

If you have questions you'd like Dave and Ken to address in an upcoming article, email them at: info@theeclipseguys.com.


Click here for more information on photographing the solar eclipse!

SAFETY FIRST: Never look at the sun without accredited and approved solar filtration over your eyes. Permanent, irreversible eye damage and/or blindness can result in seconds. Never point your camera into the sun without an approved solar filter over your camera lens(es). Not using a solar filter at eclipse magnifications will ruin your camera in seconds. Never improvise, modify or use general photography neutral density filters.

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