Beginning Astrophotography: Day for Night: The 2017 Eclipse

View screen of the Sony α6300 camera during the later parts of the eclipse
View screen of the Sony α6300 camera during the later parts of the eclipse, taken with an iPhone 6S Plus

I had promised myself I wouldn’t bother with photography during the 2017 eclipse. I had figured everyone else would take such far better photos that I shouldn’t bother. But I knew I wouldn’t miss seeing totality for the world, and as the time approached, I found myself bringing all of my equipment, “just in case.”

Detail showing the Sony α6300 camera adapted to the Celestron eleven-inch telescope I used to photograph and video portions of the eclipse
Detail showing the Sony α6300 camera adapted to the Celestron eleven-inch telescope I used to photograph and video portions of the eclipse

I kept having this debate with myself about how I would spend my precious minute and eight seconds (the duration of totality allotted to me where I ended up). Do I passively observe? Or do I try to capture the experience?

Actually, people kept expecting me to take photos. They were excited for them in advance, and each time I tried to let them down gently—”I might just let the experts take the photos and sit back and enjoy the show”—I felt more and more like I was kidding myself. In the end I decided all the hours of solitude at the telescope over the last two years, all the practice, all the writing I’ve done here—they’ve engendered in me the confidence to photograph the eclipse up close, and I’d be disappointed in myself if I didn’t try.

The Night Before

I drove to a friend’s farm for the eclipse, in the area of Molalla, Oregon, in the Willamette Valley (the same place where I photographed the Milky Way the month before). I had been invited to come the day before so that I could stay and watch the event the next day, and my host had also invited possibly a hundred people to come for a pig roast that Sunday. It was a kind of impromptu country fair, and I met a lot of people that day.

As night fell, I set up the telescope and aimed it on Saturn so I could make sure the motors and optics were still in working order. There was a panicked moment when I thought I had lost the control cable for the declination motor! But after some fooling around with collimation and other setup, I got it aimed on Saturn and invited everyone to form a line to see. Nothing impresses quite like it!

People began to turn in, and I stayed up a bit later to look at other parks of the Milky Way’s core. Quite randomly, as I shifted the telescope about the core, I happened upon a smudge I didn’t recognize but was rather bright. I couldn’t make out through the eyepiece quite what it was, so I found my camera and began photographing it for later identification.

The Omega Nebula, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
The Omega Nebula, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

Later, after the whole thing was over and I got home, I turned to a program called solve-field from Astrometry.net. It used the star field in the background to determine the area of the sky this photo was taken in. It plotted the nebula as the Omega Nebula.

It’s one of my favorite photos of the weekend, and it was entirely happenstance!

The Morning of the Eclipse

I was up early, having barely slept—new place, lots of people coming and going. There were dozens of people encamped where I was. I arose by seven and gradually made my way out. I determined where the sun would finally be and moved the telescope out to a prime spot (with the help of some sturdy new acquaintances—thanks, friends!).

Next was putting on a filter. I had a couple of twelve-by-twelve pieces of solar filter sheet from Thousand Oaks Optical. Another couple of new friends lent me gaffer’s tape to secure it in place and cover any small gaps leftover. I wish I had a photo of the result, but believe me when I say it looked crude and took a couple of attempts to get right.

I looked through it at the sun in its fullness to see what it looked like.

Full sun before eclipse, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
Full sun before eclipse, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

I had succeeded. I was ready. The telescope’s motor was tracking the sun. Now all I had to do was wait.

Shortly after 9 a.m., we knew it was real. The limb of the moon touched the sun. We could see something we had never seen before.

The moon's first contact with the sun, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
The moon’s first contact with the sun, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

Things progressed surprisingly quickly from there.

I have photos during several phases of partiality, but I mostly kept the camera away from the eyepiece of the telescope so that people could look through it. I found that as things advanced, the dozens of people in attendance began to line up, look through, and take smartphone pictures through the eyepiece. I didn’t want to interrupt this as much as I could. The closer we got, the more popular the telescope was.

Solar crescent projections through an ordinary colander as the eclipse progressed
Solar crescent projections through an ordinary colander as the eclipse progressed

I got to see other signs of approaching totality, like the growing coolness of the air and the light gradually fading. Someone also brought a colander so that we could see projections of the crescent through its holes.

Totality

About ten minutes before, I began to take over the telescope for myself so I wouldn’t miss the chance to photograph the parts I really wanted to.

The sun itself became dimmer and dimmer—the same settings I had on the camera captured less and less light. I’ve had to play with these after the fact to make them look brighter. Toward totality, the sun began to look very slender.

Crescent of the sun, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
Crescent of the sun, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

From this point, everything happened so quickly that the sky and earth changed from breath to breath. I watched the crescent thin almost perceptibly quickly, each photo different than the last.

Just before totality, the entire grassy field was covered in shadow bands, which I remember clearly—we could see we were all at the bottom of a vast ocean of air, now that the light from the sun had grown point-like and highly collimated. Muted ripples of white crossed the pale grass quickly, as if we were sitting on the bottom of a shallow pool.

I kept photographing as the eclipse continued, until I could get the barest crescent detectable through the filter.

The smallest possible crescent I could photograph before totality proper through the filter, showing an irregular pattern, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
The smallest possible crescent I could photograph before totality proper through the filter, showing an irregular pattern, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

In that slight crescent, there are some places at the sides where the light seems almost mottled. It doesn’t form clean points. I can’t say that either the atmosphere nor my focus cooperated perfectly in that moment, but I suspect some of the irregularities (evident in other photos as well) are from the surface of the moon itself—its mountains and valleys interacting with the surface of the sun. Here I believe I captured the profile of the lunar geography along the edges of the crescent.

Finally, the view in the camera went pitch black, and I looked up from the viewfinder with my bare eyes. The sun appeared to be an emptiness on fire. There is an ineffable quality to the experience, and I did my best to linger, knowing my time was so short with it.

I was surprised how much color and dynamism I saw—a kind of unnatural fierce fire fringe lay just inside the corona of blue-white which feathered out, all of which circumscribed an inner full blackness. The sky beyond was deep blue-black.

Outside of that, I saw Venus to the right. I looked for other planets, but I could not see Mars or Mercury (too close to the corona or sun, I suppose). I did not see Regulus, either. I saw other stars in the distance. It was not a full, pitch-black night around us, but it was a swirling night. I felt it palpably begin to get dewy, so quickly did the temperature plunge.

In a moment, I ripped off the filter from my telescope. Once off, the camera could see again, and it saw spectacularly.

The sun eclipsed in totality, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera.
The sun eclipsed in totality, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera.

I took as many photos as I could in the time allotted—about a minute. I didn’t dare mess with the settings I had. I simply set them as if I were photographing the moon (which I had practiced some weeks before) and took as many as I could in burst mode. I figured later I’d just try to process what I could and see if anything turned out okay.

Incredibly, they did, though even these could not capture what the eye saw. I was amazed to see the solar prominences in my photos as well as I could. I found that if I processed some of the photos a particular way, I could even get a clearer view of these prominences and of the fierce orange I recalled.

As totality ended, the light began to overwhelm my sensor again. If I had had more practice, I would have backed off the exposure length or ISO to capture a diamond ring effect, but I did not have this practice, and it happened so quickly that I did not adjust in the moment. Instead, the light began to overwhelm my sensor, revealing the sun in all its power as dramatic distortions.

The sun re-emerges from totality, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
The sun re-emerges from totality, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

I liked the drama of it, even if I missed the special diamond ring effect. The color was really interesting (that’s more or less how it came out of the camera).

Within seconds after, totality had ended, and I had to race to slam back on my lens cap on my telescope before I damaged my camera or optics.

How I Spent the Eclipse

Now I have hindsight to think about how I spent the eclipse: about whether I should have put all the equipment away and let the experts do the photography so that I could enjoy the spectacle itself, or if I was right to join in by photographing it myself.

I think if I had had less practice, I might have come away frustrated, with poorer photos to show, and I might have missed actually looking down to see shadow bands (I yelled out, “shadow bands!” to call them out to others) or missed out on looking up. I might have ruined the moment.

But all the time I had spent with the stars and moon had prepared me, and I came away with photos that didn’t disappoint me, nor did they detract from the experience in the moment.

In fact, having the telescope set up at all was the best part, and it is the reason I do not regret the attempt. Dozens of people came and went, looking through it to see what they could, using their smart phone to take away their own photos, including lots of children. If I had not bothered, they would not have gotten to see that. I’m glad I could provide a close-up view that only a minority got.

I’m not sure if “beginning astrophotography” fits me, still, but I’m keeping it. I’ve come a long way in the last two years, but I know I have so much to learn. I spent so much time wondering if I should “let the experts” handle the photography of the eclipse, only to learn I had somehow become one of the experts at some point. This eclipse marked for me an incredible turning point as an amateur astronomer, and I hope I keep learning and growing.


Addendum

If I had one regret, actually, the journey home might be it. It took a couple of hours to get home, and I found myself stuck still in a line of cars like this.

Stationary in traffic northbound on Oregon highway 213, taken with an iPhone 6S Plus
Stationary in traffic northbound on Oregon highway 213, taken with an iPhone 6S Plus