This is a full play-by-play of the eclipse with some technical details and minor analysis. Hopefully someone out there reads this and gets an idea of what maybe to do and not to do with their cameras during an eclipse. Click photos for full size ones.
I had identified the totality of the solar eclipse of Monday, August 21, 2017 as one I wanted to see years ago. It was the first one that I had access to see within my lifetime with plenty of options for travel within the United States to see it. I had planned on scheduling a big trip over a year out to see it, but the discovery of brain cancer and complications from it throughout 2016 led me to believe there was a reasonable chance of not being alive to see it. So, I waited until later December, 2016 to decide on a trip when it had become clearer that the tumor, or complications from it, would not kill me in the short term. I ultimately chose the Charleston, SC area, specifically Isle of Palms to the east/northeast as the viewing location. My other options seemed to be western KY or Tennessee, but neither provided a lot of options for entertaining my two kids. Given that my kids love the beach, Isle of Palms seemed like a no-brainer choice for a viewing location even though it would literally be the last place to see it along its path because the parts of SC further to the northeast within totality on the map along the coastline are uninhabited.
Sometime between then and the eclipse, the marketing and excitement within the general public for the eclipse began and the resort I was staying at, Wild Dunes, began a marketing campaign of “Dunes Go Dark”. Eclipse fever was in full effect when we arrived Friday later in the afternoon. For the week before the eclipse, the forecast was for partly cloudy skies with a 20% chance of showers on eclipse day. That was true as of that Saturday morning, but by Saturday afternoon the forecast for that Monday had changed to mostly cloudy skies with a 50% chance of showers. That forecast stayed the same through that Monday, with only the chances of showers varying from between 30% and 50%. Ultimately, the final forecast from forecasters was that skies would be cloudy and showers would be along the coastline for the morning and early to mid-afternoon before redeveloping inland sometime in the afternoon. I had previously decided I would drive to the northwest corner of South Carolina or far western North Carolina if the weather looked like it could be bad, but I decided to risk it and stay put on the beach for the eclipse.
At the time I booked the trip, I purchased a pair of plastic eclipse glasses and four of the cheaper paper eclipse glasses commonly seen. I also purchased an 8’x8″ solar filter sheet of the same material seen in the paper glasses to make a cheap filter for my camera for the partial parts of the eclipse. I definitely wanted some photos of the eclipse in all of its phases. My primary camera and lens combination is a Nikon D7100 with an 18-200mm lens. I had previously taught myself manual modes of DSLRs when I first got a DSLR in 2009, but I lost what I had learned and largely just became a “dad with a camera” using automatic mode almost exclusively.
A couple of months prior to the trip, I made my filters for my camera and took some test shots of the sun. My original plan was to try to do a time-lapse of the entire eclipse, if the skies were relatively clear, by using the filter during the partial phases of the eclipse and no filter during totality. I quickly discovered that a full time-lapse was not even close to possible because the sun moved too quickly across the sky. Even at 50 or 70mm, the sun moved too quick across the frame to be able to make a fairly seamless time-lapse. The test shots of the sun turned out well through the filter, though, and I jotted down some manual settings that I felt may help if there were light clouds or haze even though automatic mode seemed to work pretty well.
I then did some test shots of the nearly full moon at 200mm using some of the settings listed here:
The Nikon guide on photographing an eclipse helped too:
What I found was that all the photos of the moon looked relatively similar, but did not reveal any of the finer details of the moon and its craters, as I felt they should. Historically, my camera has always taken shit pictures of the moon no matter what I tried and this is the reason there was no way I was going to rely on automatic mode for the eclipse. It was only when I jacked up the ISO to 1600 in this series of tests that the details became a little clearer. I ultimately decided on an ISO of 1600, an f/number of 22 and a shutter speed of 1/200 as what I would attempt to photograph the eclipse with and those are the settings that were used to take this photo of the moon. The moon turned out significantly darker than it was to the eyes in this test, but it seemed like the best the camera would do:
According to the chart, those settings would give me some of the corona, which is all I wanted to capture as a memory, but really had no clue as to what I was going to get or if the photos were even going to look good at all. I also decided that since I was not going to be able to do a full time-lapse that I may take the camera off of my tripod right before totality so that I could also snap some quick pictures of the way the sky looked around the beach, as I figured this may look pretty cool too. But, I was bringing my old D70 for that, or as a backup camera in case my primary one somehow failed.
The day before the eclipse, I went on a fossil hunting trip in Summerville, SC and pulled out my old Nikon D70 to take some photos. The D70 game me a “CHA” error after snapping a photograph and turning the camera off and on allowed for another photo to be taken before the error occurred again. The same thing happened a third time. I didn’t try to take any more photos and when I got home, the photos were corrupted, and a quick internet search led me to believe that the CHA error is a result of a corrupt compact flash card or the camera having issues writing to it. So, my backup camera had failed.
Monday, August 21 arrived and the weather was mostly shit for viewing an eclipse. Skies were almost completely cloudy as a whole, a result of partly cloudy skies at the low, mid and high levels. There were even some sprinkles later in the morning, but a look at the radar showed the near-stationary thunderstorm bands to be forming about 20 miles inland and about 20 miles offshore, leaving us in the middle to be largely rain-free. The radar couldn’t be completely trusted, however, because the Charleston radar had failed the day before due to a lightning strike and wouldn’t be fixed until at least Tuesday, and the radar I was looking at was from far-away Columbia, SC. Regardless, my wife and I both remarked that it was great beach weather, if it wasn’t eclipse day, as the clouds made it feel nice without the sun beating down on us.
By partial eclipse start time, the sun had become mostly visible through the high clouds and I got some photos on a five second timer. They weren’t nearly as good looking as the test shots I had taken back at my house in Baltimore in clear skies, but they don’t look terrible either. Also, the videos didn’t show the transit of the moon nearly as well as I had hoped they would.
Here’s one just as the eclipse started:
Here’s another that seems overexposed after I manipulated the f/number and shutter speed in an attempt to make it look better through the clouds:
The last video shows the sun going behind a cloud deck and the sun continued to not be visible at all back behind cloud decks at all three levels:
It was especially the mid-level cloud deck that was the problem. This lasted for 45 minutes until about 10 minutes before totality. At this time, the low-level clouds started to dissipate and the mid-level cloud deck started to move away resulting in the sun being visible through the high cloud layer. People began cheering as the sun was now visible and nearly totally obscured by the moon. The low incoming solar radiation had made the sky look weird, too. It wasn’t like the evening; it was just different and a little eerie as pale sunlight came down from above. In the week before the eclipse, I had read a number of articles talking about animals acting unusual, like dolphins coming up to the surface of the ocean, starting about 15 minutes before totality. I can totally see why a more intelligent animal, like a dolphin, would come up to check out what was going on given the unusual light. This Gull’s behavior was not abnormal, however, as it was flying low looking for food in the low light that the crowd may have dropped on the beach:
I took my camera off the tripod. At this time, I snapped this photo without a filter and the time index indicates it was nine minutes before totality. Playing with the .nef file revealed just how many high clouds were remaining in place for the approaching totality:
Within a minute, photos without a filter were too bright because the clouds low and mid-level clouds continued to dissipate. I then snapped this photo with the filter. It didn’t turn out as well:
I kept briefly looking up at the sun, hoping that I didn’t blind myself. The photo through the filter overexposes the sun making the crescent look bigger, as I could see, and the previous photo showed, that it was just a small sliver at the time. With only a minute or so to go to totality, some younger women a few beach blankets towards the ocean started playing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler:
Then, totality came and the dunes went dark. The sun’s corona was clearly visible to the naked eye, despite the high cloud cover and the crowd continued to cheer. I had switched to the manual settings that I had wanted and snapped a quick picture as it entered totality. When I looked at it later, I wasn’t sure what was going on in the bottom left quadrant of the picture in the reddish area, but research leads me to believe the camera was picking up the chromosphere. As to why it’s blurry, it could easily be caused by the clouds, it could easily be lens shake from me, it could be features of the chromosphere itself, it could be blurry bailey’s beads, or some combination of all four:
Subsequent photos clearly show red solar prominences extending out from the sun:
Both the chromosphere and solar prominences being visible in the photos were completely unexpected to me and these were not visible to the naked eye. It’s curious that neither my wife or I saw them, yet they are clear in the photos and that they are clear despite the high cloud cover. It’s also curious that Mr. Eclipse’s chart believes a much quicker (in fact, 10x quicker) shutter speed is necessary to capture prominences. Did the high clouds somehow bring them out? But also, the corona was a little less expansive in the photo than I was expecting. Surely the clouds were an inhibiting factor for that?
I then switched to automatic mode, just to make sure those pictures weren’t better and snapped several. They were shit, as expected, and this is by far the best one I got:
I then very quickly snapped a few photos of the way the sky looked towards the ocean, which was similar to sunset:
The bright spot in the sky in this photo is not a star, but someone’s drone filming totality:
But then, the color in the sky was lost as we entered the middle of totality:
At this time, my daughter noted what was likely Venus shining brightly in the sky. But, we couldn’t see any other stars given the cloud cover. We could also see flashes of lightning from the thunderstorm band to the north. At first, I thought it might have been people’s flashes on their camera, but it was definitely lightning without the thunder. This is what some people call nighttime heat lightning, which is a misnomer. I switched back to photographing the eclipse on manual and snappedtwo more photos.
I then took some wider angle shots on the same manual setting in the hopes of picking up Venus and perhaps some of the clouds, but that didn’t happen:
What’s noteworthy, though, is that the solar prominences are still visible, indicating that their visibility was definitely not a function of my lens extending to 200mm, as these shots were taken around 32mm.
A closer look at the eclipse at 32mm, still showing the prominences:
I then went back to 200mm as the eclipse was exiting totality and got a series of shots, ending in the diamond ring effect:
Every year or two I take a photo that becomes my new “favorite photo” that I’ve taken and one of the final photos of the diamond ring effect, with the “diamond” flanked by solar prominences on each side is my new favorite photo. My imagination tells me it’s a diamond surrounded by rubies. I like that it also highlights the fact that clouds were there, as that was part of the eclipse experience. I made a quick widescreen wallpaper out of it with some minor adjustments:
Here’s an animated .gif of all the photos taken of totality at 200mm. I tried to line them up, but it’s not perfect:
The sun came almost fully out shortly after totality and I was able to snap some pictures that were closer to the original test shots of the sun at home:
Here’s a last video as the sun was lowering in the sky:
With about 20 minutes of partial eclipse left, the thunderstorms started migrating south towards us slightly, as they reformed on their own outflow boundary, and threw some more high and mid level clouds over the sun, obscuring it. I could tell that was it for the eclipse, so I turned off my camera and started packing everything up to head back to the resort and make some backup copies of all of the photos.
Analysis of the photos taken around the beach indicate to me a possible reason why the low level clouds dissipated shortly before the eclipse and that is because the eclipse itself was occurring. I believe the significantly reduced solar radiation prior to totality may have broken the convection currents happening at the time causing the low level cumulus clouds to dissipate. From a general perspective, a daytime convective current at the beach looks like this:
At the cloud level, lower level cumulus clouds form as a result of the sun heating the surface of the earth. The air rises, causing the cloud to form, then the air descends on either side of the cloud in return flow. With the solar output reduced, the surface of the earth wasn’t warming, thus the convection currents may have been broken.
I’ve circled and drawn some arrows on one of the previous photos on a set of clouds that I believe shows this. While the clouds’ initial convective structure is still intact, these clouds out over the ocean are clearly in a dissipating stage, as they look tilted, jagged and weak:
Photos looking east/northeast still show some thicker lower level clouds and even a sprinkle out over the ocean, so it doesn’t fully explain the dissipation over my exact locality, and it doesn’t explain the mid-level clouds luckily departing, either.
Taking the photos and looking at them later has been fun. While I did a little bit of homework prior to the eclipse, I would say it was still about 95% luck that the photos turned out as well as they did with the low-level clouds dissipating and mid-level clouds departing and the chromosphere and prominences unexpectedly turning up in the photos. If you’re a dad or mom with a camera, amateur or novice DSLR user and I had to summarize some bullet points for photographing an eclipse, they would be:
- Make sure your camera is set to write raw files (.nef files for Nikons) or jpg and raw files simultaneously. I had gotten away from this practice, but made sure raw output was being written prior to the eclipse.
- Make your own cheap solar filter if you want, or don’t. The pictures are only a little better than taking a camera phone and snapping a picture through eclipse glasses. The photos are impersonal and difficult to take if there’s any clouds.
- The time-lapses would be cool, though, if the transit of the moon can be shown clearly. Obviously, get a tripod if you’re going to do this. My interval was five seconds and I don’t think there’s such a thing as taking too many photos in a time lapse, so the interval could have been shorter. It’s just dependent on the total number of photos the camera allows in a sequence and how long the battery is going to last before you have to switch it.
- Do your homework and find the best possible setting for taking a photo of the moon with your DSLR. Hopefully this translates well to the low light of eclipse totality.
- I totally forgot to test out bracketing of shutter speeds or set this up before the eclipse. This is something that should be done.
- Write all of your settings that you decided on down on a piece of a paper so that you don’t lose track of what you’re doing. There’s only several minutes, at best, to see a total eclipse and capture it and you’ll want to look at it with your own eyes too.
- Get yourself a pair of plastic eclipse glasses, not the paper or cardboard kind. It will be much easier to work with them in the partial eclipse phases.
- If your camera lens doesn’t have the eclipse filter on it, but it’s pointed at the sun on a tripod, cover it with a towel or something so it doesn’t get overly hot.
Before this one, the last total solar eclipse visible in the contiguous United States was in 1979. The next one will be in 2024:
Looking at the map, I can’t be the only one thinking a trip to Niagra Falls is in order? Maybe I’ll get some even better photos when the Falls Go Dark.
Here’s a few more photos from the Isle of Palms and Capers Island: