Solar Eclipse May 20th

The Ring of Fire, ©Dennis L. Mammana (

We’ve been asked by several customers if Pixels was planning a workshop for the solar eclipse on May 20th.  After some discussion we decided not to try and put one together.  This is such a unique event which none of us have any experience in and it’s just a little too far away to take a workshop for a 15 minute shoot.   However, some of us are planning on trekking down south on our own to try and get a shot.

So let me share my strategy for trying to get a good shot of the event, and you can decide for yourself what you may or may not want to consider.  The first question is whether or not it’s “worth it” … after all to get the best location you’ll have to head south past Cedar City and the whole thing doesn’t last very long. This isn’t a solar eclipse as most think of one … where the sun basically disappears and everything goes almost like night.  We do have one of those in the near future, August 21, 2017 to be exact, which is close enough to drive to, basically cutting from Washington down through Idaho and across Wyoming.  That event is a once in a lifetime type of thing, and I’m already making plans for it, including several locations to pick from based on the weather.

This is what’s called an “annular” eclipse.  Huh?  I’m not an astronomer so I had to look it up.  Basically what that means is the moon is far enough away from the earth that it isn’t large enough to block out the entire sun. The result is a “halo” around the moon … pretty cool looking.  To me, I actually think this type of eclipse may make for a better photo opportunity, the full eclipse is something that’s so spectacular you just have to see it.  (I’ve heard that even if you try to shoot it, you’ll probably be so overwhelmed by the experience you may forget to fire off the camera).  I also had a look at google images of an annular eclipse, and there are quite a few cool shots – it definitely looks like something worth going a little out of the way to shoot.

So I’ll be headed down Sunday morning to find a location. But therein lies the big challenge.  If you are photographing something you’ve never even seen before, and the “perfect” moment is probably only a minute or less, what do you do?  First thing I did was search on google for annular eclipses and looked at images others have done.  The main emphasis of this shot is the sun itself … it really will look like a ring of fire in the sky.  But just the sun by itself sounds pretty boring, so what to put in the foreground.  And how do you know you’ll be in the right place?  Pretty tough, and that’s what makes heading down early and doing some serious scouting much earlier in the day important.

Path of annular eclipse

To get a “perfect” eclipse, you’ll have to be somewhere on the middle red line at @ 7:30 pm on May 20th. (You can download a larger version of this map from NASA here). Anything north or south will place the moon off-centered in the sun.  Anything between the outside red lines I believe means the moon will still be contained within the sun.  If you are outside those two lines the moon will cut into the sun but not be contained within it.  In Salt Lake it is at about 88%, so most of the moon will pass in front of the sun.  Even if you can’t go down to the prime location,  here in the valley it’s probably worth trying to get a shot.

Logic says it’s a telephoto shot (in fact probably as much telephoto as you have) – get that sun big with something silhouetted in front of it.  However, it might make an interesting wider shot given the right foreground – sort of an “other worldly” look like something from a scifi movie. I’ll be scouting for both types of shots, obviously close to each other.  I’ll be using both my Phase One medium format gear as well as either my Canon or Sony.  I may even set up all three.  Using the tools on my iPad and iPhone I should be able to find a location somewhere close to the red line, hopefully right at the perfect point so the “ring” is a perfect circle.  One tool I strongly recommend is TPE, which is short for The Photographer’s Ephemeris.  I have it on my iPhone and iPad, as well as my Macs.  It also runs on PC’s and Androids. This is one of the most useful programs you can have as a landscape photographer.  You can figure out almost perfectly where the sun will be in relation to any point on the map.  Coupled with the GPS in my iPad, I think I can get pretty close to the magic red line.  Here’s a screen shot of my calculation on TPE.

The large brown line is where the sun will be in when it sets. (this is assuming a flat elevation).  The dark “purple” line is actually a yellow line (which is where the sun is) and a blue line (which is the moon) on top of each other, the position of the moon and sun at 7:33 pm. This is a little south of the New Harmony exit between Cedar City and St. George.  Notice both the altitude and azimuth are exactly the same for both the sun and moon which means at this point the moon will be directly between the sun and the earth.  They will be at an altitude of 11.5 degrees above the horizon, low enough there should be a chance to get some foreground.

Using this, I’ll head down and look for interesting trees or other objects tall enough to include in the foreground.   The eclipse will happen at approximately 7:30, but from what I can tell the “annular” phase, meaning the period the moon is contained within the sun, may last a few minutes.  Guess I’ll find out!  The exposure meter in the camera might not be too reliable, so I’ll be shooting manual and fine tune it based on the histogram. The key is to try and not blow any pixels, so make sure you have the blinking highlight indicator on so you can easily see if you’ve got the right exposure.  The best exposure meter for a digital capture is always taking a shot and looking at the histogram.

However, this may not work!  When contacting Dennis Mammana, the creator of the terrific image at the top of the page to get his permission to use it in the article, (which he graciously granted) he also informed me it is actually a composite of two transparencies and would appreciate it if I would disclose that. When it was taken in 1992 there wasn’t any other way to get a shot like that.  Whether digital sensors can do it or not I’m not sure, but to play it safe I may be setting up a camera just to capture the sun itself.  I’ll still capture my foreground, but then may have to combine the sun later.  This is similar to what you have to do when photographing the moon in late evening or early morning.  If you expose for the foreground the moon will just be a white blob in the sky, if you expose for the moon, the foreground will be pure black.  So what you have to do is take two exposures, one for the foreground and one for the moon, and then remove the white blob in the foreground shot and place the correctly exposed moon where the blob was.  This is what you see with your eyes when you are photographing the scene, the camera just can’t record it.  I think there is plenty more to learn from him, we’ve exchanged a couple of emails and it’s obvious from those I have a lot I need to study up on.  He hold’s a masters degree in astronomy, has an extensive background in the field, is a writer/lecturer about astronomy and a talented photographer who has created some great images with his skill and knowledge in both fields.  (here is a short bio) He’s offered a few other tips as well as some other ideas for images.  This means it’s time to study a little more to prepare, for example this great image of his would be something that might be worth attempting.

©Dennis Mammara

Here’s his description of this image (which is really cool and a technique that would require some learning and maybe even practicing on a full sun).

“Spectacular annular (ring) solar eclipse in May 1994 over La Catedral de la Asunción in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. This photo combines 18 separate images taken at 4-minute intervals to show the eclipse as it progressed. Dennis Mammana/”

So that’s my plan. As we get closer to the eclipse I’ll share any other tips I’ve gathered.  It sounds like using a special filter would be required to capture something like this scene or just to get a clean capture of the sun itself, so I’ll share what I learn, and if I find a good source for appropriate filters we may be able to offer a special order for those interested. Of course, mother nature could easily throw a curve ball and cloud up the sky so all that will happen is everything getting a little darker for a few minutes.  Unlike the full eclipse in 2017 where I’ll be staying overnight in the area I think will be the best spot, for this one I’m just heading south Sunday morning and hoping for the best as far as the weather  is concerned.

One last thing, just like it’s tough shooting into sunsets, this can be really bad on your eyes, and even your camera.  As you watch the event you can easily damage your eyes.  NASA has a link with some good advice including ideas on focal lengths needed here,  here’s another website with some  recommendations.  I think as the eclipse begins, you’ll be able to fine tune your position … you will be able to see the moon approaching and start to cover the sun.  This probably doesn’t means jumping in the car and moving, but you can move around to fine tune  your foreground.

Good luck to those that decide to give it a try.  Maybe I’ll see you down there!


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