Photographing a Total Solar Eclipse: Results, Rights, and Wrongs

Our planning for the Chile eclipse in Elqui Valley was extremely helpful, but it wasn’t perfect. Here I’ll discuss what I’ve learned, show you the best photos from this amazing astronomical event, and contemplate what I wish I had done differently.

The Final Images

I chose 8 images in the end, these are a mix between single raw exposures, and HDRs blended from the bracketed exposures. The results are better than I expected, but not exactly as I planned them.


The Camera Settings

I wrote on a previous blog post about my camera settings and preparation for this event. I pretty much stuck to this plan, except that after totality was over, I tried some other combinations on the fly. But before and during totality, I stuck to these settings:

ISO 640 - f/8 - 1/10 sec

1/10 sec being the middle of 7 brackets at ±1 exp, so the final exposures were:

1/80, 1/40, 1/20, 1/10, 1/5, 0.4, 0.8

This setting worked best, the ISO being low meant less noise.

ISO 2500 - f/16 - 1/10 sec

This was with the same exposure times of 1/80, 1/40, 1/20, 1/10, 1/5, 0.4, 0.8. Even though at f/16 the foreground hills were sharper, the extreme amount of noise at ISO 2500 made things blurrier in the end, I much prefer the f/8 versions. I only used this for the 400mm shots, not at 100mm, but I wish I had kept it all to the first setting.

If I could change something here, it would be to have more brackets. I think my middle point was spot on, I would not change that at all, but I wish I had one more stop of light towards each end for extra control. My 5D IV only allows for 7 brackets, but if I could’ve had 9…


Google Earth preview vs. Reality

Google Earth was very accurate, the only major difference was that the exact silhouette of the mountains was off by a bit due to the low resolution. I matched my mockups to my final shots here as a comparison. The position of the sun is off by a tiny bit, which could be critical if I was trying to line it up to something with more precision, but good enough for this shoot.

In my original plan, I wanted to have the sun right in the center of the V of the mountains, but I realized that would make us miss part of the totality, as the sun would move a full sun-width in 2.5 minutes and be partially occluded before totality ended. Because of that, I chose a slightly safer spot in which the sun would keep dropping to the bottom-left even after totality was over. In the end, I much prefer this un-centered composition, my gut was telling me to go centered, but it would’ve been a boring choice.

We scouted locations the day before, and only had one sunset and we happened to be at a different scouting spot for it. Next time it would be better to plan for 2 scouting days at least, something like this:

Day 1: Scout all possible locations, and decide which one is best.

Day 2: Do more scouting, but make sure to be at the pre-selected location at the time of the eclipse to make sure everything lines up exactly right.

Day 3: Eclipse time.

Overall the mockups were darn accurate. I didn’t shoot anything wider than 100mm, it feels like the sun is too small in the frame with something that wide.

Overall the mockups were darn accurate. I didn’t shoot anything wider than 100mm, it feels like the sun is too small in the frame with something that wide.

Last-Minute Calculations

After our single scouting day, I wanted to know how different the sun position would be the day after, during the actual eclipse. Google Earth doesn’t show a precise sun shape to calculate from, so I used the app Sky Guide and took screenshots of different times and overlayed them in Procreate on my mobile phone, all while on the road with no cell data. I found this out:

IMG_5613.JPG

The sun moves about one sun-width every 2.5 minutes, which was the duration of this eclipse. This image shows a 10 minute period, where I hand-drew some intervals.

IMG_5614.PNG

The sun’s relative position in the sky shifted only a little bit between each day (here are July 2, 3 and 4).

This simple info helped me visualize things better. It’s good to have a round number and clear idea of how fast things will be moving. Knowing that the sun would be at about the same spot the next day eased my worries too, no surprises.

Other Software

In hindsight, I should’ve been using The Photographer’s Ephemeris 3D for some of this planning. I only had the 2D version and didn’t consider looking into the 3D one until after someone mentioned it, after the eclipse had passed. I tried it today, and it’s simple and could’ve come in very handy. I still would’ve used Google Earth because it lets me import KMZ files and sync to my custom maps, but TPE 3D is much more accurate with sun position, scale, and shadows.

See how much simpler TPE 3D this is? The path is there, the sun/moon are the right size, the lens type is indicated and can be changed with a pinch, and it’s all on a mobile phone. It still is hard to navigate though, much easier to do that with a mouse in Google Earth.

See how much simpler TPE 3D this is? The path is there, the sun/moon are the right size, the lens type is indicated and can be changed with a pinch, and it’s all on a mobile phone. It still is hard to navigate though, much easier to do that with a mouse in Google Earth.

My Most Important Tool

Having a printout of our scouting locations and the camera settings was critical. During the scouting route, signal was sparse, and the printouts offered all the info that was needed for each location. And as the eclipse approached, and I was doing the last checks on the camera, I couldn’t remember the settings, I was too nervous, but I had this handy sheet in my pocket and it served me well.

I also had printouts of my custom map and planned compositions and locations.

I also had printouts of my custom map and planned compositions and locations.

Those Who Didn’t Plan

Our location was close to the Varillar cemetery, which is on top of a hill and with plenty of parking space. We knew from our planning that the cemetery would be under the shadow of the nearest hill during the eclipse, only 2 minutes before totality hit. I warned a lot of people who were going to park up there that they needed to hike up the hill behind them or they would miss the eclipse, and they did so, but more and more people kept showing up later, and I could only warn so many. At some point we had to hike to our spot on our own hill and leave the poor souls behind.

Our Location.jpg

As totality approached, and the shadow of the hills draped over the cemetery, we could hear the distant and wretched howls of people realizing their terrible choice. A few lost souls escaped the graveyard, chasing after the edge of the shadow and catching a partially occluded glimpse of the eclipse every time they turned around during their sprint, but most of the unlucky and unprepared mortals clung high to the cemetery walls as if the extra few feet of height would make a difference.

May that image serve as a cautionary tale.

Photographing a Total Solar Eclipse: Best Camera Settings and Planning

Next week (July 2nd, 2019) there will be a total solar eclipse in Chile and Argentina. We will be traveling to Chile to see it, and I’ve done a lot of planning to hopefully get a good viewing location and photo. I shot a total solar eclipse in Wyoming in 2017, and thanks to the bracketed exposures I made then, I’ve been able to calculate what my optimal settings should be. Though this can vary widely depending on cloud/haze conditions and the angle of the sun, it’s a good starting point, better than trying to find the exposure as totality happens, and missing the experience of seeing it with your own eyes. Here is my plan:

Bracketed Exposure - 7 shots at ± 1

I’ll shoot with an intervalometer/tripod to avoid camera shake and being able to shoot without even looking at the camera. It will be pre-set in full manual mode and ready to go, all I need to do is hit the shutter at the right moment, and enjoy the show with my own eyes the rest of the time.

I calculated that there’s a 3 stop difference between the optimal corona exposure and the optimal sky/ground exposure, so bracketing is needed if you aim to shoot more than just the sun and nothing else. 7 brackets is the max for the 5D IV so that’s what I’ll use. Last time in Wyoming I shot at ±2 and that was overkill, most shots end up being trash. ±1 gave me the right range with a little extra on both ends.

I made a chart to compare the sun size with different lenses, assuming a full-frame DSLR. Anything wider than 50mm is useless if you want to actually see the corona with enough detail. My preference is towards 200mm for a landscape shot. You can also use this guide if you are shooting the Moon! They are the same relative size.

Best Settings

7 brackets at ±1 exp
ISO 640 - f/8 - 1/10 sec

This is optimal from what I calculated. The middle point is favoring the corona by a third of a stop, it’s a perfect starting point.

Windy or 300+mm lenses
ISO 1250 - f/8 - 1/20 sec

If I’m afraid of the camera shaking too much due to wind, or because of the long exposures (the longest exposure will be at almost a whole second), I’ll bump the ISO by one stop and get a faster shutter speed.

Telephoto needing sharper fg/bg
ISO 2500 - f/16 - 1/10 sec

If I happen to have a relatively near object as foreground, like a tree or house, and I want it sharp enough to read when using 200+mm. I need a smaller aperture, so I sacrifice the ISO and add some noise, I don’t want to sacrifice my shutter speed with a telephoto.

All of these settings are assuming a 7 brackets exposure at ±1 , so be careful! It’s just the middle point between the brackets. These are my optimal settings (no bracketing) for either just the sun corona or land/sky:

Optimal SUN/CORONA exposure
ISO 640 - f/8 - 1/20 sec

Optimal LAND/SKY exposure
ISO 640 - f/8 - 0.4 sec

Google Earth / Google Maps Planning

I used Google Earth to preview the sun angle. You can specify a date, and go to ground level view to see the angle, and quickly toggle between Street View (if available) and the 3D view with a single button, so it’s super handy. I start by creating a map in mymaps.google.com, then export that as a live KMZ and import it to Google Earth. Once the points are imported, it looks like this:

Google Earth view.jpg

And Google Maps (after adding colors and images to every point) looks something like this:

Google Maps points.jpg

The biggest issue with Google Earth is that the sun shows up as a huge flare that is deceiving in scale, so I created Photoshop overlays with the actual sun size so I could visualize it better:

Google Earth overlay.jpg

The general location for the best viewing spots was decided based on lots of searches from eclipse sites like Eclipsophile, NASA, and other random sites found with Google. The goal was to find the area with the least likelihood of having cloud coverage, that still had an interesting view for photography, and that wouldn’t be too crowded. In this case, the Road 41 is the main choice in Chile, near Vicuña (where it is driest and least likely to be cloudy). Vicuña itself doesn’t have the best mountains to contrast against the eclipsed sun, that’s where Google Earth came in handy to find nearby areas that could look better.

After a lot of work traveling on Street View and Google Earth, I came up with these potential locations, and created a nice printout that will come in handy when we go scout the area next week, especially if we don’t have cell data:

Notice the last page: it has my optimal camera settings, and also all the relevant info about the timing of the eclipse. I want that handy, in print with a backup, not on my phone. I don’t want to fumble with the camera at the last minute, I’ll have it preset and ready to go. If light conditions vary I might adjust accordingly, but it will be all preset to what I already calculated.

Map Color Coding

I color coded the map in the following way:

💛 Best spots, sun setting over a mountain
🧡 Second bests, backups
❤️ Good but risky, sun might be occluded
💙 Sun will be too high with no foreground
💚 Not a great view but nice trees as foreground
💜 Places to rush to after totality, for partial eclipse photos
🖤 Spots I don’t like anymore but didn’t want to delete yet

A really important set is the 💜 markers. Because most of my locations are planned with the sun almost touching the mountains, as soon as totality is over, the sun will drop and we’ll be in the shadow, not able to enjoy the rest of the partial eclipse. The 💜 indicate areas to drive to so we can see the rest of the eclipse for an extra 40 minutes or so, and each 💛 has a nearby 💜 location that is easy to get to. These also will serve as backups, in case there is a miscalculation or clouds and the 💛 spots actually have the sun occluded, then we can rush to the backup location so we don’t miss the event.

I also gave each general location a letter, so they are easy to identify the areas. So there’s a B1, B2, B3, and also a Bx (the 💜 or extension for the B area). This makes it easy to focus on just one area after we decide which general area we’d prefer, and be certain that each area has a backup plan.

I also added lines to indicate the max totality (green), angle of the sun (pink) and the edge of totality (blue, outside the range here).

I also added lines to indicate the max totality (green), angle of the sun (pink) and the edge of totality (blue, outside the range here).

Enjoying the Eclipse

The most important part of this amazing phenomenon is to be able to enjoy it, to see it with your own eyes (after totality only! Don’t burn your retinas!). Of course I would love to get an amazing photo from this event, but if the choice is between a great photo and a great experience, I’ll take the experience. This is the reason for so much planning, it ensures that at the moment of totality, I will be set up, looking up, not looking at my camera. I will hit the shutter with an intervalometer already in my hands, not having to double-check my settings or previewing my shots, and my eyes will be focused on the corona.

There will be 2 minutes and 30 seconds of totality. Every millisecond is precious. I need time to look up, to look around, to feel the breeze created by the sudden temperature shift, to listen to the sound of birds quieting and disquieting, to let my eyes adjust to the new light levels. I can’t be messing with a camera during those precious moments. At most I’ll sacrifice 10 seconds to zoom in (blindly) and take another series of shots, but the goal is to be there and experience the eclipse.

And what if it gets cloudy? Then we are fucked. Try again in 2024.

Painting over photographs using 3D models

I’ve been working on a series of photo illustrations using my not-so-good photos from Mono Lake tufas. They are the photos that aren’t strong enough for a portfolio, but have something about the composition that I wanted to rescue, and that had a sense of scale and form that reminds me of ancient ruins.

I’m not done with the series yet, but I want to share my process. I use a mix of photo collage (replacing skies with other photos I’ve taken, for example), painting by hand, and 3D renders. Here’s how I do it:

1. I start with a photo that has potential, but is not quite there for me. In this case, I liked the shapes, they reminded me of obelisks, so I went with an Assyrian theme. I also thought that snow for a desert theme would be an interesting contrast. I develop the image in Lightroom as usual, just minimal basic touches.

2. In Maya, I place and scale cubes in a general idea of what the scene looks like, making sure I’m using depth properly too. I make the cubes semi-transparent.

3. I match my camera focal length in Maya to my original photo. Then I tumble the camera around until the angle roughly matches my photo. The vertical tilt is the most important, matching the convergence to the up axis really makes a difference.

4. I add an image plane to the camera with the original photo, set to 50% opacity, so that I can line up all the blocks very clearly. Once The alignment is close enough, I make sure to lock the camera so that I won’t touch it ever again by mistake.

5. I download a lot of free 3D scans from sites such as myminifactory.com, thingiverse.com and cgtrader.com. I download a ton, everything I can because I’m not sure what I will want to use or not yet, but I make sure they match the theme and time period I’m looking for.

6. I import these (usually STLs) into Maya and do some cleanup. Normal process is: rotate/scale, merge vertices, mesh cleanup, reduce (they are way too dense usually), delete parts I don’t care about, and apply a 3D noise material that looks like rock.

7. The fun begins! I love finding shapes that remind me of other shapes, and puzzling everything together. I try to think about the space, what it would’ve been, what I want to feature and how I can make it fit in the context of the original photo. Sometimes I need something to balance the composition, such as making the pillar on the right side much larger, so I scale them but try not to overdo it. For this series I want to keep the original compositions, otherwise I’d go nuts and add a lot more elements.

8. I add some lights that roughly match the original photo, mostly directional lights, and some point lights with which I take some liberties to highlight certain areas that otherwise would lack contrast. I do a quick hardware render at full size (6400x4267) with antialias, ambient occlusion, and alpha channel. I found that a fancy render is not needed, as these will not need much detail later, they will pick up the detail from the underlying layer of rocks and snow. Then I bring the renders into Photoshop.

9. I position the renders in Photoshop carefully, and I rough them up a bit (a bit of blur, break some chunks off, etc). Then I make a selection from that render layer (Cmnd+Click on layer thumbnail) and I start using the clone stamp tool over the original photo, within the new selection, to add the chunks of rock that have changed the silhouette. Then I invert selection and do the same when I want to paint sky in the opposite side. I also clean up weird holes and shapes that are distracting here. I removed all the plants from this one since they gave away the real scale of the area, and I wanted it to feel much bigger.

10. I change the blending mode of the renders to Hard Light, and use Levels to control how bright and dark things are. By reducing contrast, I reduce the effect. I prefer using levels to opacity since I can control lights and darks and midtones separately. I also mask parts out, blur some things, use dodge/burn, whatever is needed to integrate the parts better. I tend to do these in parts, only one major structure at a time so I can focus on it, then later merge them all back into one layer when done.

11. Since I have all these layers split already, I can easily make a selection from them and I use that to paint a black and white depth map. I use that as a mask for a layer with the sky color, making the distant object recede a lot more. Haze is one of the main tools I have to cheat the scale, so I abuse it.

12. I add a lot of light effects, glows and highlights (usually layers in Linear Dodge/Add mode), sometimes I add cast shadows (layers in Multiply mode), and all sorts of noisy effects like snow and dust that hide my mistakes. To get the color, I usually create a LUT (Layers > New Adjustment Layer > Color Lookup), try out all the presets, and then try changing its opacity and blending mode from Normal to Overlay or anything else, just to see the effect. Once I find the mood, I add more LUTs, mix them up, find a combination that pushes what I like, and then tone it down by painting a mask for the LUTs with soft brushes. I also add Levels and Curves layers to increase contrast where I want.

And that’s it! It’s a complicated process, but I enjoy mixing 2D painting, 3D, and photography all in one. I’ll keep working on a few more images for this series.

Glowworms in Australia

Last year we did a south-east Australia roadtrip. One of the highlights for me was visiting a few of the glowworm areas deep in the night: at Melba Gully (Great Otway National Park) and at the Glowworm Cave (Wollemi National Park).

 

I became fascinated by the miniature cosmos these creatures create, a humble echo of the magnificent Milky Way you could see by staring up through the tall jungle canopy.

 

The glowworms (Arachnocampa richardsae) are fly larvae from a fungus gnat of the Keroplatidae family. This species is tiny, the worm about 1 cm, the gooey web cave they build around 3 cm wide.

The larvae build a structure composed of a horizontal mucous tube suspended by a network of threads attached to rocks, bark or soil. They build snares, much like spiderwebs, decorated by sticky droplets that glow in the blue light emitted by their tails, attracting small insects.

 
 

There are multiple locations in Australia and New Zealand to see glowworms. What I liked about Melba Gully, more than anything, was being out in the middle of a forest walk instead of inside a cave. We even spotted a platypus in the wild, hunting in one of the creeks.

I named this series after combinations of biological and cosmological terms, trying to bridge that gap between the micro and macro worlds.


Here is the full series, after clicking on any image, use the arrow keys to navigate through them.