Hindsight 20/20: Eclipse Photography

by Kevin Shank | Jun 1, 2024 | 0 comments

April 8, 2024, has come and gone. Many of us had our calendars flagged on that date with “The eclipse” penciled in. Looking back, our vision is 20/20, as they say. The best time to learn from mistakes is right away. But, the next total solar eclipse that crosses the mainland of the United States is a long time away—twenty years. I don’t expect to be reading this then for a memory jog. But, none-the-less, I think I’ll jot down some things I learned that I would like to have in mind next year if I were seeing an eclipse then.

Start preparing early. We knew our plans included photography. I did not begin practicing solar photography anywhere near far enough in advance. My intentions were good. I wanted to be very familiar with all the equipment so that using it would be second nature. But we were busy trying to get an observatory up and running. Until the nighttime goals were met, I couldn’t concentrate on the sun, or maybe I should say I DIDN’T concentrate on it. We were down to a couple of weeks out, and the realization that I needed to scramble on this hit me. But, the forecast only showed one day with some sunshine out of the whole ten-day forecast.

I soon had my hands full. Sunshine was at a premium. I had just enough to learn my Celestron NexStar mount was not tracking as accurately as I could have hoped, and the camera wasn’t performing successfully. Concerning the mount, my friend Morris suggested it may be because the mount was not level. He was right—one problem solved.

The ZWO 1600MC camera had horrible dust spots and smudges apparent on the photos. While these are commonly cured in astrophotography by using flat frames, I could not learn how to successfully take flats for the solar scope. (From what I’ve read since, it sounds like they are very hard or virtually impossible to get.) After several failed attempts, I ordered a new camera, the ZWO 174MM. It was the only way I could make something happen before the eclipse would be upon us.

Plan for problems. I packed three camera mounts for the trip. Two were CGEM II equatorial mounts, and one was the Alt/Az NexStar mount. The EQ mounts would be best for carrying our equipment, but if clouds prevented us from aligning the mounts during the night prior, the NexStar mount could be aligned during the day using the sun.

Do research. In my research, I considered what exposures others had used successfully to capture the diamond ring, Baily’s beads, and the corona.

Our base plan for exposures was to use ISO 100 throughout, and to use f/8 for the aperture. However, for the diamond ring, f/22 would be the goal. Cameras would be fired using a cable release. Exposures would be set on manual. Focusing was set to manual in advance of the eclipse. Tape locks that down so it does not easily get bumped off. To change exposures while feasting our eyes on the sight, our fingers would roll the shutter speed control. By practicing in advance, we could learn which way to roll for a faster/slower shutter speed, and for a wider aperture/smaller aperture.

For the diamond ring, I was reminded the star burst look comes from a small aperture. I would have known that previously, but that detail had slipped my mind. I appreciated the refresher. My preferred exposure was f/22, ISO 100, and 1/80 second.

And then for the Baily’s beads, moments after the diamond ring, I used 1/500 second, f/22, and ISO 100. That movement of the shutter speed would need to occur on the fly without hesitation. That’s where practice in advance became valuable.

Thankfully we had clear skies the night prior to the eclipse, so aligning the EQ mounts to the north was possible.

Baily's beads and sun prominences
Baily’s beads and prominences. Photo © Adrian Shank.

Work the plan. The morning of Eclipse Day was busy setting up gear. The plan was to put two cameras with long telephoto lenses on one mount, and a long telephoto lens and a solar telescope on the second EQ mount. As anyone who uses an EQ mount knows, the gear and the counterweights need to balance out. One of the counterweights we brought along ended up being for a larger counterweight bar. There was just no way to use it, so we could not achieve balance.

Thankfully we had a backup plan. Out came the NexStar mount for the solar scope. The heaviest of the three camera systems, by itself, would balance on one EQ mount, while the second EQ mount could handle the remaining two cameras.

While the intent was for notebook computers to fire the ZWO camera on the solar scope as well as two of our 35mm systems, the connection to the 35mm cameras had not been tested back home. After attempts to connect them failed, we made the decision to fire them manually using cable releases. That is the background leading up to our scramble to learn the movement needed to change shutter speeds and apertures by hand while eyes were focused on the sun during totality.

About twenty minutes out from totality we changed battery packs in all the cameras. We did not want them going dead during totality.

As totality neared, Cheryl, Adrian, and I stepped up to our 35mm cameras to hit the action. During the partial phase leading up to this moment, I had been firing the solar scope camera at regular intervals. Now, at the camera, alas, I spied a problem.

Cheryl and I shared the same tripod. Her lens was a fixed focal length (400mm with 1.4x teleconverter), while mine was a 150-600mm zoom. With Cheryl’s camera centered on the sun, my camera was showing the sun in between center and an edge. Very quickly I thought about the possibility that the corona would be trimmed off. This is one possibility we had thought of earlier, and one I planned a contingency for should I need it. Quickly I turned the zoom from 600mm to 500mm. The picture would be a little smaller, but I assumed that would be better than nipping detail off the corona.

About thirty seconds before totality, we removed the solar filters from our camera lenses. They would need to be off for us to be able to capture the diamond ring and Baily’s beads successfully.

corona at 2024 solar eclipse totality
Sun corona, 2024 solar eclipse totality. Photo © Cheryl Shank.

Lessons learned. We have a lot to be thankful for. For one, many who put a lot of time and effort into this eclipse were clouded out. We had clear skies, and all of us were healthy and could do the trip together as a family. So I’m not going to complain. But if I could do some things differently, I would.

As already noted, equipment checks were not adequate. We should have known how to pair cameras to computers in the field. We should have had the right counterweight along.

Several of the potential problems we thought about actually did become problems, and the contingency plan for those problems was utilized. Those times were examples of things that went right.

One thing I did not give any thought to pertained to the manual operation of the camera. Since rolling a wheel to change shutter speeds was necessary, and since some exposures were to be two seconds long, I should have thought about the importance of lifting my finger during exposures. By not doing that, a percentage of the slow shutter speed photos were blurry due to my finger on the camera.

But that is a small thing. I still got to experience the eclipse. And, whatever photos I may have missed, Cheryl and Adrian may have captured. In a real sense, we were all backups for each other. We would have to miss something three times before we missed it altogether.

Help Your Family Explore the Wonders of God's Creation

Full color magazine delivered to your door + digital access. Subscribe now for just $5 a month!

Buy Magazine: $5/month

Buy Magazine + Study Guide: $7.50/month

Buy Gift Subscription