“A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success.” -Elbert Hubbard


I’ve had the great fortune in my life to see a great many wonderful things with my own eyes, including the rings of Saturn, the phases of Venus, a couple of faint, distant galaxies, and a large number of sunsets, sunrises, and lunar eclipses. But as far as solar eclipses go, I missed the only realistic opportunity I ever had to see — as Cara Beth Satalino would say — that

Shimmering Thing.
Back in 1994, an annular solar eclipse happened just 300 miles from where I was living. While I got to see the partial eclipse that resulted from being off of the ideal path, I’d never seen either a total or annular solar eclipse. But this weekend was my big chance, and I wasn’t going to miss it. For the first time, I set out on an eclipse expedition, hoping to catch a glimpse of the spectacular sights that one of my former astronomy students had grabbed hours earlier from Tokyo.

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(Image credit: Destiny Fox. Thanks, Destiny!)

As many of you know, I’ve been preparing for this for a couple of months, and that started with scouting out a prime location. The one I chose was right on the coast, for the earliest possible view from America, right in the middle of the path of maximum eclipse.

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Choosing the middle of that path means that I was going to get to see — if the conditions were ideal — the Moon pass over the dead center of the Sun, creating a true ring of fire. The place where this was going to happen was False Klamath Cove, a rock-littered area in very northern California. But this place was “only” about 330 miles from where I live today, in Portland, Oregon, and so I made the trip down. About an hour before maximum eclipse, this was the view I had.

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Yes, it was somewhat cloudy, and I knew the clouds and fog would be continuing to roll in, but it wasn’t hopeless. You see, the clouds were thin enough that the “binocular trick,” where you un-cap one side of a pair of binoculars and project the image of the Sun onto a white screen behind it, was still very effective.

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As you can see, you were still able to see the Sun’s disk, as well as the fraction of it that was obscured by the Moon. But I wasn’t going to settle for a projection of the Sun’s disk onto a screen; I wanted to see it with my own eyes. And so that meant bringing a little protective eyewear. In addition to my polarized sunglasses, I also brought along two wonderful pieces of equipment: a pair of shade-5 welder’s goggles and a shade-10 welder’s hood.

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Under sunny, high-noon conditions, you need shade-14 to safely look at the Sun. Thankfully, eye protection is additive, so wearing both of these together meant that I could look at the Sun without concern for safety.

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I’m not going to lie: other than a green tint, this view was spectacular. The Sun was crisp, the clouds could be seen dancing across its face, and the fraction that was obscured by the Moon was cleanly and clearly visible. I’m definitely going to be using both of these, together, to watch the Venus transit in a couple of weeks.

But for photography? That’s never been a skill (or even an interest) of mine, so all I could do was experiment. Placing the shade-5 goggles in front of the camera was clearly not enough.

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While the cloud cover was light, as it was in the early stages of the eclipse, it turns out that the shade-10 hood, on its own, was significantly better than the goggles.

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You could see, with the camera, that part of the Sun was obscured, but the image was still greatly overexposed, making it virtually impossible to see any detail.

I tried using both the goggles and the hood together. But the combination that worked so well for my eyes was a miserable failure for the camera.

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As you can see, the Sun’s disk still appeared overexposed, plus now there were problems of multiple reflections between the different surfaces, ruining the image on the camera.

But as we neared the moment of maximum eclipse, and the Sun dwindled to a crescent, slowly creeping around the edges of the Moon, something both wonderful and horrifying began to happen. Thick, foggy clouds began to roll in, as they do every evening in this part of the world at this time of the year. But it meant something wonderful for my feeble photography skills.

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My images were suddenly less over-exposed. And as the fog rapidly thickened, I discovered that I no longer needed shade-15 protection to watch the eclipse. I no longer needed shade-10, in fact. At the moment of maximum eclipse, I had nothing but the shade-5 welder’s goggles over the lens of the camera, and this was the photo I got.

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Digital cameras, of course, get outstanding resolution. So this perfect circle, this ring of fire, actually showed up like this.

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There’s no way to describe what it’s like to see it with your own eyes, but my experience was probably extremely unique, because rather than watching the Moon move off of the Sun, I watched this ring of fire fade away behind some ever-thickening clouds, and disappear from sight.

And that’s why even though there are no more pictures from my first eclipse expedition, you can bet it won’t be my last!

Comments

  1. #1 Nishima
    May 21, 2012

    Annular eclipse visible around the world..beautiful view..http://liveoncampus.com/wire/show/3381998

  2. #2 critter42
    May 21, 2012

    I’m already planning for the total eclipse in 2017 – the site of maximum totality of the entire eclipse will only be a 4 hour drive away.

  3. #3 makeinu
    May 21, 2012

    I live right under the path in Japan, and wasn’t able to see it at all for the clouds overhead. Very disappointing.

    You had an awesome view!

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    May 21, 2012

    Neener, neener. Arizona (typical for this time of year) was cloudless and for the first time ever in my 60 years I was smack under the path. Admittedly, a bit hot for standing out in the sun for any length of time.

    Here’s a safety tip, though, and a much better method than the “binocular trick:”

    Use a small mirror to project the sun onto a flat surface. A projector screen is perfect, but in 1994 I used the side of the building I was working in to let more than 200 people see the (for us partial) eclipse at once. The shape of the mirror isn’t critical, since it’s basically a pinhole projection, but you do have the usual pinhole tradeoff: smaller gives better resolution, larger gives brighter images.

  5. #5 Mu
    May 21, 2012

    This was my second annular, I drove to Bisbee, AZ in 1994. I thought the 1994 one was more impressive as it was in the middle of the day, the temperature effects were more drastic than the more seduced afternoon setting yesterday in Albuquerque. We had great clear sky, and the #14 welding goggles worked well. What impressed me was that even at full eclipse there was no way you could look directly at the sun, even 18% of full sun is too bright to look at.
    The only thing that blew it for me was that I had a camera on wide angle to get a track of the whole event. The interval shots worked great, but I hadn’t dialed down the exposure enough, so unfortunately I have 100 shots of a overexposed, featureless sun in front of a great desert framing.

  6. #6 Artor
    May 21, 2012

    I attempted to view the eclipse from Eugene, using a pinhole camera. Unfortunately, my pinhole was too large, and all I got was a fuzzy blob. While I rummaged around for something to make a smaller hole, the clouds rolled in and I couldn’t get anything at all during the maximum occlusion. I did, however, have one piece of equipment identical to Ethan’s- I was wearing my Utilikilt too. It doesn’t help much with the viewing, but everything is better in a Utilikilt!

  7. #7 Wow
    May 21, 2012

    “so unfortunately I have 100 shots of a overexposed, featureless sun in front of a great desert framing”

    Computer controlled camera would have sorted that out.

    Absent that, a wide bracket exposure would allow you to get a decent amount of detail from the desert and from the Sun.

    However, since the ground isn’t changing much over that time, an over-exposed first short and better exposed sun shots after that should result in images you can composite appropriately.

    Your camera may need locking off for shutter times.

  8. #8 OKThen
    May 21, 2012

    I got nothing, but the smiles of a lot of people around the world who saw it
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-18141006

    But my favorite eclipse photo, about the fifth or sixth picture down. The side of a house with crazy multiple shadows of the eclipse.
    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/05/ring-of-fire-solar-eclipse.html

  9. #9 Mu
    May 21, 2012

    Wow, my camera would have needed a dry run ;). I didn’t realize that the camera would just compensate for my F 32 locked-in aperture with 3 sec exposure. Problem is, by the time the next eclipse comes around I probably have to relearn everything again with a new camera.

  10. #10 Wow
    May 21, 2012

    Aye, that’s always a bit of a bugger.

    The more expensive cameras have a wider bracketing AS WELL AS more brackets, so you can compensate somewhat more.

    What may turn out better for the next one are two things that IMO are far more worthy than pixel count:

    1) Hight Dynamic Range images in-camera
    2) Much lower noise and hence better linearity

    You can always look at a new camera as an opportunity…

  11. #11 Planetary Paul
    May 21, 2012

    Congratulations!

    In 1999 I got to a spot north of Paris with a few touring cars full of people, smack in the middle of the path in an elevated village with one cafe with five coffee cups and a hole in the ground for a toilet.

    But the clouds got thicker and thicker. By the time the shadow was close the cloud layer worked as a perfect projection screen over our heads on which we saw the shadow racing towards us from the West. During the more than 4 minute totality we witnessed nature shutting down in seconds and the clouds started dissolving fast. In the distance sunbeams shone through holes in the cloud cover.

    Then we saw the edge of the shadow approaching and when it reached us we could see the diamond ring. Nature switched on again and it was all over. Although I missed the eclipsed sun itself, it was a great experience. Some people felt they had been conned though…..

    I still hope I’ll see a total eclipse someday.

  12. #12 Cobb
    May 21, 2012

    http://imgur.com/a/qS77O

    I was about to head over to the coast in the exact spot as you, but the weekend came and my plans changed. Heard there was a large fog bank on the coast. Anyway I headed up to Pyramid Lake, NV to check it out and was not disappointed in the view.

    The tools, Sony point and shoot, tripod, and cheap eclipse viewing glasses held over the lens.

  13. #13 S. Williams
    May 21, 2012

    I volunteer at the local observatory, which saw about 84% coverage of the sun. (Oakland CA). I did the whole telescope thing with purpose-built filters and an attached camera taking regular pictures. Now I have an embarrassment of riches (over 300 images) to sort through and do something with, but since I pretty much automated the technical parts, I was also able to take the time to enjoy the experience at a more visceral level as well.

  14. #14 Marcus Ranum
    May 21, 2012

    I love the shot where you’re wearing the welding mask and it looks like you’re saluting the sun. :)

    (Is a utilikilt the proper wear for eclipse-viewing? I should have broken out my lastwear cargo hakama, I guess…)

  15. #15 ERV
    May 23, 2012

    Am I actually first, or am I going to look like a dork screaming ‘FIRST’ when Im really like, #482?

  16. #16 OKThen
    United States
    May 22, 2012

    Yet, this is a test. I can’t see any comments on this blog. Hope it’s fixed soon.

    But now I’m testing if I can post.

  17. #17 Ismenius
    May 22, 2012

    Aaw man, it was totally cloudy up here on the Sound. Missed all of it. The green tint really provides an eery feel to your photos.

  18. #18 Warren
    May 23, 2012

    Nice, you got a better totality than I did, with the moon nicely centered over the sun’s disc. In our area it wasn’t quite so perfectly aligned. I was able to get some tolerable shots with a 200mm lens and a #11 welder’s glass, the green of the glass offset by a +3 coefficient sepia filter:

    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.422276027797665.100244.100000458153698&type=3&l=62fb047519

    That was from the Grand Canyon’s south rim, which isn’t too far away from me – about a 3 hour drive. It was more than worth the trip!

  19. #20 Chuckinmontreal
    May 29, 2012

    Glad it worked out, Ethan. I watched live eclipse webcasts from Japan and the western States. The seven-day forecast here calls for rain and cloud on June 5, so that may be the way I watch the transit too.

  20. #21 rfguy
    May 29, 2012

    We drove down to the Black Rock desert in Nevada – looking at the weather forecast, I wasn’t going to risk the coast! We lucked out too – Saturday evening, big thick clouds rolled in, but Sunday was clear. We were all prepared too – 20×70 binoculars with solar filters, and a 70mm refractor telescope with solar filter and adapter for the DSLR. We got some decent photos, but the live view through the binocs or telescope was amazing!

    pic link

    -mark.

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