Diamond Ring

August 21, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse, Marble, North Carolina

Behind the Shot

The first time I heard about it was in early July. 

“Hey, you planning on taking any pictures of the solar eclipse next month?” a friend asked as I was packing up after the Sacramento Family Conference Photography Team.

“An Eclipse? No. Sounds interesting.” My August schedule was busy. I wasn’t interested in fitting in anything else.

He probably felt like asking, “Have you been living under a rock?”

Initially, I had no intention of going to see totality. An eclipse? The only mental picture I had associated with “eclipse” was the less-exciting-than-expected lunar eclipses I had tried to photograph in the past.

A total solar eclipse did sound more interesting though, especially after researching it a bit. But still, it sounded expensive. Doesn’t solar photography require specialized equipment? And the longest lens I had was 200mm. How could I expect to get anything worth keeping? Leave it to the professionals. Then there was the location factor. In northern West Virginia, I was 8+ hours from the closest points on the path of totality. And by now, I was quickly finding out, it was way too late to find any place to stay.

So I dismissed it from my mind. I contented myself with watching it in partiality with borrowed eclipse glasses with my family in the backyard.

But then things took an unexpected turn. . . .

A photographer from Ohio said he might be interested in traveling down with me if I decided to go. Another family from Ohio said the same thing. 

I looked into lodging a little more closely. The path of totality passed right over the home of family in North Carolina. I shot them an email. They were already expecting guests and had rented out the apartment above their garage . . . but they said they could fit us in if we wanted!

So I said, “We want to!”

By now I had done more research. It wasn’t as big a deal as I thought it was going to be to photograph it. And with the addition of just a single sheet of solar film, I felt confident I could photograph it well enough with the equipment that I had. And since I could carpool with other photographers, that helped to justify the expense. 

Oddly enough, both photographers from Ohio canceled last minute. And I would have canceled too if it hadn’t been for the even-later-than-last-minute decision for the family from New York coming down and pick me up on their way down.

And so, that’s how I got to totality! 

But really, that was when the story began for me. I still had the challenge of making a good photograph of the eclipse ahead of me. 

And I was nervous.

I had done plenty of research ahead of time, but there’s nothing like actually living through that experience of actually doing it. And it did turn out quite differently than I expected.

So here are my field notes from what I learned that day! Writing it down here I hope will help me be more prepared for the next total solar eclipse coming to a city near you on April 8, 2024.

Instead of being the one caught off guard, I’ll be the one looking forward to the event for years.  

How I Photographed The Eclipse

You can watch my “textbook” approach to eclipse photography that I put together before actually shooting the eclipse here: How To Prepare To Photograph A Solar Eclipse.

However, I specifically wanted to share what I learned about eclipse photography after shooting the eclipse. The information in the first article is still correct and helpful, but obviously, experience trumps everything.

The information below is not meant to be comprehensive. To completely prepare yourself for photographing a solar eclipse, read through the articles provided bJim Doty’s blog.

Safety

The day before the eclipse, I was still confused about exactly which ways were safe and which ways were not safe for looking at the sun. I spent much of the night researching this so I would be 100% sure that I wasn’t going to ruin my eyes. Here’s what I came away with:

  • Do not look at the sun directly. Ever.
  • A photographically safe solar filter is one that cuts the suns brightness and harmful ultraviolet (UV) light, but does not filter out harmful infrared (IR) rays. This means that photographically safe filters will only keep your camera safe when pointed toward the sun, but will not keep your eyes from getting fried. With a photographically safe filter, it is not safe to view the sun through the camera viewfinder. Because it’s habit for me to look through the viewfinder when I take pictures, I covered it up the entire day. It’s fine, however, to look at LiveView with only a photographically safe solar filter. LiveView is only a digital representation of what you’re pointing your camera at, so it’s no different than looking at a TV screen. Same thing with taking the screen on your phone.
  • A visually safe solar filter is one that cuts the suns brightness as well as both harmful ultraviolet (UV) light and infrared (IR) rays. This is what AAS approved eclipse glasses and solar filters are made with. Also called “White Light” solar filters, they are both photographically and visually safe.
  • Filters should be applied to the front end of the lens (or binoculars or whatever apparatus you’re looking through). That way, sunlight is blocked before it enters the optics of the apparatus. 
  • It follows then, that one should never use a solar filter while looking through the back end of unfiltered binoculars, telescopes, or camera viewfinder. The direct light entering the front of the apparatus and passing through the optics focuses on the very thin surface of the filter material, burning through it and instantly burning your eyes. It would be like someone taking a magnifying glass and focusing the sunlight on the surface of your eye. Something like this happened to someone that I know (not in our group) on the day of the eclipse.
  • Even welding glasses are not designed for looking at the sun. If you’re going to use welding glasses, make sure they are of Shade 12 or higher.
  • The only time it’s safe to look at the eclipse with the naked eye is during 100% totality. Because of the dramatic decrease in light, one must take the solar filter off the lens as well. Exactly when totality starts is hard to tell. I think taking the solar filter off the lens can be done right as the first diamond ring effect appears and returned immediately after the second diamond ring effect has appeared.
  • For more information on this, read Safe and Unsafe Uses of Eclipse Glasses and Solar Filter Materials and How to Photograph the Sun (and an Eclipse) with a “White Light” Solar Filter

This doesn’t cover everything, but it was what I needed to know to feel confident that I wasn’t going to burn out my eyeballs the next day.

Enjoyment

Totality came and went so quickly. Much more quickly than I thought 2 minutes could ever pass. 

I was ready for it when it came and shot my first sequence of bracketed exposures right off. That’s when I was thinking I would step back from the camera and just enjoy the experience. 

However, there were several factors that caused me to not have nearly as much time as I expected to just sit back and enjoy the experience.

First, despite reciting it in my mind a million times, it still required time to think through and double check exactly what I was doing in terms of removing the filter, removing my eclipse glasses, and adjusting settings for the new, exponentially darker lighting conditions. It was my first time ever doing this of course, and I second-guessed everything I was doing out of a strange combination of caution and excitement.

Second, I was with a group of photographers and we were all learning together. Those were some intense minutes, suggesting settings to each other and asking/answering questions lightning fast, and it obviously distracted me from focusing 100% on exactly what I was doing during those 120 precious seconds. This didn’t bother me, though. We had all come together for that moment and we were all helping each other out. Being with everyone was part of the enjoyment.

Third, I decided last minute to take a second bracket. I wasn’t 100% positive the first bracket was perfectly sharp, and I didn’t want to find out later that one or two (or all!) of the shots in the bracket were blurry for whatever reason.

Fourth, I was unsure why my shots of the first diamond ring effect hadn’t turn out. The diamond ring effect happens right before and right after totality when just a sliver of the sun is still visible behind the moon. It only lasts a second or two on both sides. As the last bits of sunlight pass through the valleys on the moon’s surface, and the faint corona around the sun is just becoming visible, it looks like a ring with glittering diamonds on it. The starburst effect can be captured in this moment by using a narrow aperture. When the diamond ring effect happened the first time, I had the narrow aperture all set, but there was still no “diamond ring” effect visible, not to mention no starburst. It confused me. And since I was really hoping to get a diamond ring photo, and it didn’t happen the first time around, it plagued me for the two minutes of totality. What did I do wrong? What should I do differently to capture it going out? It’s hard to sit back and enjoy a scene when those sort of thoughts are racing through your mind. And of course, they’re colliding with every other thought that was rushing through my mind in those moments.

Fifth, of all things, I was running out of battery power! I know, a very amateur mistake, but it’s true. I made sure I had plenty of charged batteries handy, but I underestimated the amount of juice LiveView pulls. Not too long before totality, I had put in a fresh battery, but evidently, it was one of those off-brand types that don’t last for very long. A blinking, red, low-battery warning doesn’t help one relax very well when under pressure. And I wasn’t just about to spend some of those precious seconds fumbling around in my camera bag looking for a fresh battery.

Lastly, I should also note that I had a second camera set up for taking a wide-angle perspective on totality. I moved over to that camera to snap a shot or two from that camera during totality, but I hadn’t thoroughly set it up beforehand and the shots I took didn’t turn out. Even though I decided to abandon that camera, it still took time away from the enjoyment aspect. 

So, those are some of the reasons why I wasn’t able to really sit back and enjoy the eclipse like I was hoping. Yes, I did intentionally push pause on everything to look directly at the eclipse for a few seconds, and that view will be forever imprinted on my mind, but it wasn’t for nearly as long as I would have liked. 

Next time I’ll be more prepared.

Gear

A 200mm lens on a APS-C sensor camera is fine, but if you can buy, rent or borrow a longer lens, you’ll be glad you did. This is the size of the sun at a far as I could zoom:

With a telephoto lens on a tripod, beware of camera shake! A sturdy tripod is essential more than I ever thought.

A shutter remote also works better than the 2sec timer. Just make sure to release the shutter only after you are sure the vibrations from touching the camera have ceased. This is not an easy thing to do under such an intense time crunch.

I ended up making a rather make-shift solar filter for the lens the night before. It took quite a bit of creative brainstorming and a little trial and error, but we had fun and kind of made it up as we went. Starting with an 8x10 sheet of photographically safe solar filter, we cut it into quarters. I then cut two disposable coffee cups in half at a height that allowed my particular lens to “look” through (without actually “poking” through) where the bottom of the coffee cup used to be. I then put some glue on the inside of one of the cut coffee cups, set the quarter of solar filter on the cut-end of the second coffee cup, and stacked the first coffee cup over the second one. This secured the solar filter in place, kept it taut, sealed out any possibility of light leakage, and when the glue dried, prohibited it from coming apart. When set over the end of the lens, it sorta looked like a lampshade.

To keep the filter from accidentally being knocked off, we hole punched both sides and tied an elastic string between the two, loose enough to stretch out and loop around behind the camera. The moment totality hit, the elastic string made it easy to take the filter on and off, but it was tight enough to avoid accidental removal.

In 2024, we’re going to patent the design and make millions!

Composition

The sun moved much faster across the sky than I originally thought it would. 

Since I had a solar filter, I could photograph the entire eclipse from beginning to end and piece it together later in a sequential collage. 

With the telephoto lens, I just composed the sun in the bottom left corner of the frame, snapped a shot, waited a few minutes, snapped another shot, and so on as it moved across the frame to the top right corner. Once it started moving out of my frame, I just recomposed to put it in the bottom left corner of the frame again.

In retrospect, it would probably be better to reframe the sun to be in the center for every shot. It would be sharper this way, and there would be less chance of barrel distortion from disturbing the perfectly round shape of the moon. 

To do this, a pan head would be more desirable than the one-knob ball head that I had.

Shooting the eclipse using a wide-angle lens is a completely different story. I was not in a location that worked well for a wide angle shot so that’s why I opted to spend most of my time perfecting my telephoto shots, and thus have precious little experience in this area.

But I did have a second camera on a second tripod that I was hoping I could get at least one wide-angle shot with during totality. And I did remember to trigger the release for that second camera few times during totality. Problem was, I had it set to Aperture Priority, so even though it was very dark, the camera compensated automatically for the darkness and took exposures so bright that they looked no different than photos taken in the middle of the day.

Camera Settings

Ok! So here’s how I actually ended up shooting this eclipse:

1. I’m glad I shot in RAW! 200mm on an APS-C sensor camera, I needed all the information I could get! I shot some test shots of the sun first. I wish I had shot a whole lot more test shots days if not weeks before, so I would have been comfortable with the entire process of finding, composing, focusing and shooting the sun without looking at it through the viewfinder. It would also have been nice to experiment with different lenses to see which ones would create the best starburst effect at it’s furthest zoom. I feel the starbursts in the shots I got of the diamond ring are just unpleasantly wide and strong, and wonder how different lenses would make the starburst look. I should also note here that I’m glad I manually set my White Balance to 50000K. Shooting a blue or whitish sun just feels so boring! (Obviously, this exact Kelvin number would vary depending on what solar filter you’re using.)

2. Focusing manually is so important! Automatically focusing on a distant object before switching the lens to MF may be one way to do it, but I felt better about using LiveView at 10x to manually adjust the focus ring until I achieved the best focus possible. I manually focused on the sun at the beginning, made sure the focus ring was never bumped, and double checked the focus periodically throughout the event. There was plenty of waiting time as the eclipse progressed.

3. I shot in Manual all day. (It didn’t make sense to use any other mode.)

4. My ISO throughout the entire day was 100. (I would have shot ISO 50 if my camera had that expanded setting.)

5. My base aperture was f/8 during partiality as well as during totality. (Whatever is sharpest for your particular lens.) For the Diamond Ring and Bailey’s Beads effects (on both sides of totality), I temporarily raised the aperture to f/22. In retrospect, even though I had the aperture set to f/22 when I shot the diamond ring the first time around, I think the shots didn’t turn out (were either blurry or didn’t show the starburst effect) because I hadn’t removed the filter yet.

At f/22 with the filter on, I was frantically trying to adjusting the shutter speed to find a good exposure, ending up with speeds between 1/20th and 1.3sec as that first diamond ring effect was happening. This definitely caused blur. Evidently, the filter affected the starburst (somehow). And it rendered the appearing corona invisible too. If I had removed the filter earlier, then I think my shots of the first diamond ring would have turned out. But I didn’t realize that at the time, and I moved into totality totally unsure what I was going to do at my second chance for the diamond ring.

6. During the entire event, I adjusted the shutter speed until I got an exposure I felt was proper for the scene. During partiality, I exposed for the details on the sun. In retrospect, I feel I was slightly underexposing most of my shots (1/1250sec) out of fear of overexposure, but I wasn’t getting the white “blinkies” until around 1/125sec so I probably would have been better off at around 1/800sec. The important thing during partiality was that I wasn’t washing out the sun.

7. When totality came, and with the filter on, nothing was visible in LiveView. I took the filter off and moved the aperture back to f/8.

8. Now it was time to bracket! I knew I only wanted to bracket using shutter speed, but I forgot all about how many stops I was supposed to overexpose or underexpose. Instead, I just started with a super bright exposure and bracketed down to a super dark exposure, 1 stop at a time. I found that a very bright exposure was at .5sec. At .5sec, the overexposed corona looked like a flaming torch around the moon. I bracketed down 1 stop at a time until I got to an exposure that looked very dark. It happened to be 1/500sec. At 1/500sec, the delicate details of the inner corona were visible with the solar prominences, those electric-pink tongues of hot hydrogen gas leaping tens of thousands of miles above the surface of the sun. When I saw those prominences for the first time, it sent chills down my spine. They weren’t visible with the naked eye.

9. There was so much going on during those 2 magical minutes. Near the end, I stepped back to enjoy totality with my naked eye. It was awesome. After gazing at if for a few seconds, I decided to take a second bracket. At the end of that bracket, I knew the end had come. It was my second and final chance for the diamond ring. I jammed aperture back to f/22. I knew that much. But I had no idea what to use for a compensating shutter speed. Nasa’s Solar Eclipse Exposure Guide recommended 1/4000sec for Baily’s Beads and 1/60sec for the Diamond Ring, but those numbers I hadn’t committed to memory and they were the farthest things from my mind at the moment. I spun the shutter speed from 1/500sec (where it had been for the last shot of the bracket) to something slower. That’s all I remember. I thought 1/500sec would be too fast and 1sec too slow, so I just spun it down to somewhere in between and took the shot. It happened to land at 1/40sec. And it happened to be the best shot from the entire day.

10. That shot at 1/40sec appeared overexposed to me so I tried another shot at 1/100th. Since the sun was indeed making it’s way out from behind the moon and adding more light to the scene, that small decrease in shutter speed didn’t make much of a difference in the overall exposure. I should have tried several more quickly shots at much faster shutter speeds (1/500th, 1/1000, 1/4000, I don’t know) while the filter was off. But without knowing that it was the filter that was causing problems during the first diamond ring, I put it back on and continued shooting (without any good results) as the sliver of sun became larger and larger. 

So, that’s a look into my brain concerning what did happen and what I think should have happened, now that I can look back in retrospect. 

I think the most important take away from this first attempt at eclipse photography is to remove the filter sooner and replace it later. As long as I’m using LiveView, it’s ok if the camera is pointing directly at the sun unfiltered for a few seconds. True, I have never zoomed in on the midday sun at 200mm before,  but I do point the camera in the direction of the sun often in landscape photography.

Post Processing

In total, I took about 140 pictures of the eclipse from beginning to end.

About 70 were taken before totality (I was rather trigger happy, and was doing al sorts of experiments), 25 during totality, and 45 after totality.

The bracket I liked best was of 10 photos, 1 stop apart from .5sec to 1/500sec.

My favorite method of merging these bracketed photos was using Russel Preston Brown’s advanced techniques which he outlines clearly in Solar Eclipse Imaging Techniques (Part 1) and Advanced Eclipse Imaging (Part 2) for Photoshop CC only.  

This is the result I was able to get from that:

I then pieced together in Photoshop the collage depicting the different phases of the eclipse using the simple method explained in the video, How The “Lighten” Blend Mode Works:

Those two turned out really well I thought. It was time to do some work on the shot of the diamond ring.

Here’s the original shot:

Here’s the best I could edit it in Lightroom:

In Photoshop, I added more dark space on the right side of the image to balance it out, blurred the sun glow and radials considerably, decreased the intensity of the sunburst over the moon specifically, and reddend the overall color balance. I don’t feel any of these changes messed with the integrety of the image, but rather increased it’s appeal and brought more attention to the awe it inspires.

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