Photographing Solar Eclipses
Author: Bill Kramer
Last update: 3 JUL 2014 BK
A Moving Platform
Part 1: Photography from the Sea
When taking a picture from a moving platform, such as a ship, timing is everything. First off you will be taking shorter exposures than you can on land. Even if you have a very stable mount, the ship is moving slightly. And that movement is magnified when you magnify the image.
To get the maximum exposure: As totality grows near check the image (using a proper solar filter) in the viewer to see how much it shifts. Locate where the image holds still the longest and try to center the sun there. Then you will have to time your images to start and end when the image is in that location. Depending on the size of the ship, the sea conditions, wind across the deck, and numerous other factors out of your control at that time: the exposure you might get away with varies.
Most of the time motion on a ship will follow a basic sine wave pattern. This means that the rate of movement will be the least when the roll is at its greatest or lowest points. My strategy: Center the picture at the top of one roll, then snap it on the next.
Sometimes a ship will remain moving during the eclipse itself in an attempt to minimize wind across the deck and to make use of the stabilizers. When that is the case, you can no longer time the roll of the ship and will have to work with even shorter exposures. Vibration and random wave patterns mean that you have to keep your eye on the eyepiece and fire off exposures as they are available. The problem with this technique is that you will spend more time watching the camera viewer with an off center or empty image and less time enjoying the eclipse.
For most the best thing to do when observing an eclipse from a moving ship is to simply sit back and relax, enjoy the view with binoculars, and the fantastic experience of cruising! Because there is plenty of room most people remain seated or in one place making collisions and so forth rare - but they have been known to happen. If you are on the ship with friends and family ask them to sit in places that help block others from obscuring your picture or walking in front of you.
The greatest danger to equipment comes at the end of the eclipse when everyone is celebrating and the captain turns the ship so that the wind is no long negated. At an eclipse in Caribbean we saw tripods and cameras go falling as the ship turned a strong breeze kicked up across the deck. We also saw little kids running around carelessly. My best advise is to set up blockers, pack up quickly when it is over - then celebrate!
It is important to note that you cannot take as many pictures when working from a moving ship, but it can be done. And to the eclipse photographer, that is the important aspect.
Part 2: Photography from the Air
In my experience this is the most challenging type of solar eclipse photography I’ve ever attempted. Airborn based total solar eclipse photography imposes numerous restrictions and limitations. For starters there is a restriction on how much equipment you can carry with you, limited space for the equipment, limited window size, and unpredictable vibration/movement during the eclipse run.
Moving at a substantial speed, with large engines providing the thrust, modern aircraft are not 100% stable as they slice through the sky, not even close. Using binoculars or a long lens you amplify the movement. Couple that with random turbulence (wind and air pressure changes) and you’ve got a real problem getting the longer exposures needed to capture the outer corona. Given these issues it is small wonder that most select to simply view the eclipse.
The good news for the few of us still determined to photograph the eclipse is that it can be done with the right equipment and preparation.
The most basic equipment for photographing from a jet will be a simple hand held camera. Don’t both trying to capture the corona but instead focus on the ground and clouds below. That’s where the sunset colors will be found.
To photograph the corona and prominences you will want a longer focal length lens, image stabilizing, and a decent mount. For image stabilizing use a commercially available lens and camera with the feature included - they do a marvelous job. Enhancements to the equipment might include the use of a floating mount (suspended by cables) along with small gyroscopes to hold it in place and hands free operation of the camera system. Visit Glenn Schneider’s set up for the August 2008 eclipse to see just how far you can go - if you get access to the cockpit.
One of the biggest challenges facing the aircraft based eclipse photographer is the window. Aircraft windows are not very big. On commercial jets, the most likely to be used, they measure under a foot across and just over a foot high. This is not much room for both viewing and photography. Thus when using a larger lens plan on watching the eclipse through the camera view finder. You might be able to fashion a small mount to share the precious window space but it is a very limited space and nearby all surfaces are subject to their own vibrations.
Preparation tip: To visualize how much room you have tape a regular piece of notebook paper on the wall about three foot up at the bottom and then contemplate about how you can point a camera/lens and get a view though that small port hole.
The next problem to consider is a mount. Unlike land or sea based eclipse photography you will very limited room in which to work. The space between seats in a commercial jet is not adequate for a proper tripod meaning that some creativity may be needed such as placing one or two shortened legs on the chair.
Preparation tip: To experiment ahead of time use the piece of paper on the wall from the previous tip. Place a regular chair next to it (facing like it would on the aircraft), and then see how much room your tripod (or monopod) will consume. The smaller the better. Just make sure it is strong enough to hold your camera and lens and does not wobble when vibrated.
One of the more frustrating challenges are the ever changing rules of carry on luggage. Be sure to check ahead of time since you will not want to be surprised at the security barriers. Eclipse dedicated flights can sometimes arrange to have extra carry on. This was the case with our experience. The eclipse flight operator had made gotten clearance for our group to bring more equipment than normal. The best thing to do is ask well ahead of time.
During the eclipse of August 2008 I used a 400 mm f5.6 lens and shot a range of images up to 1/25th of a second in duration. Using the fast lens along with a fast digital camera set to an ASA of 400 the images did manage to show the corona out to two lunar diameters clearly. But it was not without some difficulty we beyond my control. The images are slightly out of focus because they were shot through fogging windows. I had other (uninvited) passengers attempting to see the eclipse that bumped me. Denise was sitting in the chair where one of the tripod legs was positioned. She was holding both a video camera on her knee and a small hand held camera. The chair was being moved by people in the row behind us. And she had little points of frost on the window. All in all - the most challenging eclipse photography we’ve encountered to date. I am very pleased the pictures came out okay making it all worth the effort.