Photographing the Solar Eclipse


The last time I had a chance to see a solar eclipse was in 1979. It was 98% coverage where I lived in Edmonds, if I’m recalling correctly. But, typical of Western Washington, we had thick cloud cover on that February day. It was so disappointing. The year 2017 for the next eclipse was impossible to even comprehend for my 17 year-old self.

But here I am, a middle-aged woman in the year 2017. Amazing. The whole thing is still kinda weird if you ask me.

When this eclipse started drawing near I was hesitantly excited because I so much wanted to see it but was dreading another huge disappointment. I figured this would be my last chance to see an eclipse in this lifetime.

The weather gods took pity on me. We didn’t have the typical morning marine layer as the day dawned, only horizon haze, with no clouds to speak of overhead.

I had purchased a $23 eclipse kit online that contained plastic-framed eclipse glasses and a camera lens solar filter. Needless to say, for that price it wasn’t a fancy or durable filter. (A glass solar filter costs around $100.) The filter film was set in a piece of printed cardboard that was round on one side and had a large tab on the other side. The idea was you hold the filter by the tab in front of the camera lens.

Yeah, that wasn’t going to work for two hours.

I trimmed off the excess cardboard in order to fit it to my lens. Once trimmed it fit nicely into the lip of the lens.

Except, being the non-crafty, imprecise clod that I am, I had trimmed one section too much and light could get in on that edge. What to do? It was three days before the eclipse (yay procrastination!) and no way to replace it.

Four tries at cutting a piece of brown paper sack to fit and several pieces of tape later I had kluged together a flappy extension. The filter no longer sat neatly in the space in front of my lens, but some concerted squishing got it in there and by golly it worked! No more light leak.

So with that fancy schmancy piece of photography gear stored in my camera pack I headed out on Monday morning.

I arrived at the Promontory Point area of Magnuson Park about 10 minutes before the eclipse began at 9:08 am. I beat the masses, but there was a steady stream of cars and people arriving after me. By the time of maximum coverage the large parking lot was overflowing.

Pretty much everyone was heading down by the lake, but I decided to set up at the edge of the grass field. I knew I would miss the communal spirit by doing that, and wouldn’t get good crowd shots, but I also wouldn’t feel anxious from the press of people sure to arrive before the eclipse peaked.

For my viewing station I had my tripod, main camera pack, bag with my old camera, folding stool for sitting, and folding chair to hold my gear off the ground. With that setup I must have looked like I knew what I was doing. Ha!

My viewing station.

Once I got all situated I took a look at the sun with my eclipse glasses (very cool!) and saw the moon was just making first contact. Excellent.

Time to determine camera settings. I’d never done any solar photography before so it was a figure-it-out-as-I-go thing. I had intended to do a practice run on the weekend, but…you know…that procrastination thing. Didn’t do it.

My first settings I didn’t bother shooting with. The shutter speed was slow, and I knew from my lunar eclipse experience last fall that those celestial bodies are moving across the sky a lot faster than you think. All my pretty bloodmoons had turned out slightly blurry due to the combination of a long lens and long exposures. I didn’t want to get back home with a camera full of disappointment this time.

Got something workable and took a few shots, tinkered a bit more, and settled on f8, ISO 200, and mostly shooting between 1/250 and 1/60, depending on how much sun was showing. I was also bracketing as insurance.

That’s why my photos here aren’t all uniform in color and brightness. I wanted to demonstrate the variety of results I got from the brackets and adjusting shutter speed. (Though I deleted most of the way too bright pics right away, and they aren’t represented.) I like the dark orange best but I think it’s a matter of personal taste.

First contact with the moon and my first successful shot. A bit too bright, but I kinda like the glowiness.

The lone cloud over the sun during the entire event. I like the effect.

Sun spots!

In addition to my main camera on the tripod I also brought along my old bridge camera to take environmental photos. I’d read that suggestion online and it was a great idea.

So in between firing off tripod camera shots and gazing at the amazing sight of the shrinking sun through my eclipse glasses, I wandered around a little with my second camera to snap some pics and stretch my legs.

Unfortunately, I didn’t notice right away that somehow the settings on that camera had gotten way, way messed up. The time-lapse feature had even somehow turned on and it took me a while just to figure out how to turn that off.

I hadn’t used the camera in 6 months and it was no longer familiar. I became frustrated with trying to get settings fixed and finally realized that, duh, I could just switch to Auto Mode to bypass everything. See? Auto Mode can be very useful!

That did the trick but it was almost too late at that point. The vast majority of the pics from that camera went directly into the delete bin once I got home because they were so awful, and that’s one of my two disappointment from the day.

Maybe I should have thought about needing a practice run with my old camera?

I had the lens hood on my main camera as a safety precaution to make sure any breeze that might come up couldn’t blow the filter out of its niche. In between shooting eclipse shots I draped the lens pouch over the front as another safety precaution. Even though the filter is supposed to make it completely safe, I didn’t want to take any chances of frying the sensor with the powerful telephoto lens constantly pointed directly at the sun for two hours.

At some point I wasn’t careful enough with putting the cloth pouch on and off and it must have dragged at the focus ring slightly. A bunch of my shots are a bit soft. Luckily, I did check focus after I’d been shooting for a while and got it corrected.

When using manual focus on an important shoot always remember to periodically double-check your focus!

Just as the moon was reaching maximum coverage (92% here in Seattle) disaster struck. The camera battery was rapidly dying and blinking red at me. I groaned out loud, muttered a vulgarity, and mentally kicked myself. I hadn’t been out shooting for at least a month and hadn’t thought about battery drain, so never checked. All that bracketing along with using the LCD screen constantly for an hour had sucked up the not-fully-charged battery.

I turned off bracketing and turned off the camera in between shots. The camera would power up and then shut down again immediately after I took a single shot. Eventually I couldn’t even take one shot before the camera powered down again.

My max coverage shots aren’t the best of the bunch because I wasn’t able to test and adjust shutter speed while shooting a series or bracket to make sure of getting a best exposure. That was the second disappointment of the day. How could I be so stupid?!

My anguish was based on the fact that I knew my spare battery was in my small camera bag, which was sitting on a table at home. I had never needed the spare before, even after a few hundred shots, so it never crossed my mind to transfer it to my camera pack for this excursion. With the dead battery I wasn’t going to get any shots at all of the second half of the eclipse.

Then I finally remembered, hey wait a minute, I received two spare batteries in the kit with the travel charger. Did I put the second spare in my new pack when I was loading its pockets with accessories right after I bought it?

I did! I did!

But did the backup have any juice after just sitting around unused for so long?

It did! It did!

Disaster averted, though not during the most important part of the shoot. I went back bracketing and merrily taking shots whenever I felt like it of the second half of the eclipse.

Fresh battery installed. Whew!

Maximum coverage was interesting. Based on my 1979 experience I had expected it to get darker than it did. Not twilight dark like totality, but darker than it was. Instead it still looked like a bright sunny day out, with shadows and everything. The brightness with only 8% of the sun showing is testament to just how powerful it is.

But the light did dim somewhat, and it had an odd quality to it, like I was looking at the world through a strange filter. Someone I talked to the next day described it the same way. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to capture how it really looked in my environmental pics. The camera automatically compensated for the odd light.

More dramatic was the sudden drop in temperature. It wasn’t a hot morning thank goodness, but it being August the sun was still pretty intense anyway. One minute the sun was beating down and the next it was much cooler. It felt good! The surprising part was that the cooldown started when there was still quite a bit of sun showing, and not just at the last final bit.

I didn’t stay and shoot the entire second half of the eclipse. As the temperature started to rise again I felt like I’d had enough of the sun blasting me for one day. When about half of the sun was uncovered again I packed everything up and headed back home.

Final shot of the day.

So that’s my solar eclipse story. Even with a few bumps in the road it was a rousing success.

As I pointed out to friends, this has been the year of celestial events for me. In September I watched a total lunar eclipse, in May I witnessed a dazzling display of the Northern Lights, and in August I experienced a solar eclipse. Three items crossed off the bucket list. What a year!

The icing on the celestial cake is that my eclipse photos turned out better than I was expecting using a bargain basement filter and having no prior experience with this specialized kind of photography.

(Note: all the eclipse photos are cropped quite a bit. I have a long lens, but not that long!)

6 thoughts on “Photographing the Solar Eclipse

Leave a Reply to Seattle Park Lover Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s