I just got back from a trip to the American Southwest where I photographed landscapes, the Milky Way, and a rare annular (“ring of fire”) solar eclipse. My bag was filled with lenses that I’ll be reviewing imminently – some from Nikon, of course, along with a few Canons and Sonys. That’s right, we can finally test Canon and Sony lenses in the Photography Life lab, which has been years in the making! But more on that later. Today, I want to share some details about the eclipse and the photos that resulted from it.
For context, the eclipse this time was an annular eclipse rather than a total eclipse. Because the moon is currently farther away from Earth, it can’t quite fully cover the sun. This leaves a ring of the sun visible around the edge of the moon. (It also meant that I couldn’t look at this eclipse without wearing eclipse glasses, unlike with a total solar eclipse, where you can look at it with the naked eye during the few minutes of totality.)
On the day of the eclipse, I was leading a workshop based out of Sedona, Arizona with my friend Steve Gottlieb. Sedona is a few hours’ drive from the epicenter of the eclipse, so we woke up early on October 14th and drove north to the town of Kayenta. There are some beautiful rock formations around Kayenta, allowing for the possibility of wide-angle photos that capture the landscape with the rare rare celestial phenomenon overhead. Luckily, we had clear skies and got to see the eclipse in all its glory, both with a supertelephoto and with a wide angle. I still need to process my film photos from the eclipse; the photos shown below belong to Steve, and they give you a great sense of what the eclipse was like from the ground.
The full progression of the eclipse took about three hours. Shown below is a 15 image composite showing each major stage of the eclipse, taken at 800mm and using a solar filter on the front of the lens to avoid burning a hole in the camera sensor. What may look like specks of dust on the sun are actually sunspots!
For the second type of photo, our goal was to capture a wide-angle composite to show the path of the eclipse across the sky, relative to the landscape. I knew this was going to be a much more difficult photo because of the difficulty of exposure. Exposing for the sun meant a pitch-black landscape; exposing for the landscape meant a massive, blown-out sun (even during the moment of totality).
It was a bit of a juggling act, but we settled on primarily exposing for the sun in order to show the progression of the eclipse as clearly as possible. I thought we might need to take a separate photo of the landscape later and then merge it into the right place at the bottom of the photo. This, however, turned out to be unnecessary! All I had to do was open each photo as a separate layer in Photoshop, set the blend mode of each layer (except the one at the bottom) to Screen, and then watch the composite appear before our eyes with a well-exposed foreground and a small, detailed sun.
Only minimal Photoshop work was needed after that point. Since there were about 70 photos spaced at different intervals, we manually hid or enabled layers in order to get a pleasing spacing between each of the suns. In the layers that remained, minor brightness adjustments were sometimes necessary (either up or down) in order to make that particular sun the correct size relative to the ones around it. Then the composite was complete, and the few remaining adjustments could be done in Lightroom.
I had expected it to be a complex compositing job that would take hours of work, but it took hardly any time at all. Whenever I next photograph a solar eclipse, I’m definitely going to follow this same method. Here’s the result.
Although the next annular solar eclipse over the United States won’t happen until 2039, there are other annular eclipses before then in different areas of the world. (Here’s a list of annular + total eclipses through 2029.)
Those of us in the USA still have plenty to look forward to, however, since there’s a total eclipse on April 8, 2024 that stretches all the way from Texas to Maine. It also covers parts of Mexico and Canada. Total eclipses are arguably even more exciting than annular eclipses – you see the sun’s corona, the sky darkens more, and you can view the totality without solar glasses for a few minutes. Do some research, and you may find that you live near an upcoming eclipse!
It goes to show that even in the slow-paced genre of landscape photography, where many of our subjects will look similar a thousand years from now, there are still fleeting moments to be captured. Careful planning, good timing, and a bit of luck can go a long way toward capturing these subjects, not to mention just seeing and experiencing them in the first place.