Capturing the Eclipse with Matthew Kuhns

Photographer Matthew Kuhns (www.matthewkuhnsphotography.com) is a California-based landscape photographer, with images published in Popular Photo and PDN. Matthew has been producing landscape imagery across the United States for many years. Today, Matt shares how he captured the annular eclipse earlier this year.

Early in 2012 I heard that there was going to be an annular eclipse, where the sun is only partially covered by the moon. After seeing images of past eclipses, I knew that I wanted to use the crescent sun to frame Mount Whitney, an icon of the Sierras. Using the Photographer's Ephemeris, I looked at the path of the eclipse and height of the sun above the horizon during varying stages of the eclipse. I planned on heading to the Alabama Hills below Mt. Whitney so I could use my longest lens to frame the crescent sun around the summit spires.

May 20th arrived, and the Mt. Whitney web cam showed no clouds—it looked perfect! Three hours after leaving LA, as I turned off into the Alabama Hills, I blanched at the site of clouds covering the sky. An afternoon thunderstorm had developed and was completely obscuring the sun. I noted the clouds were only over the Sierra Crest, however, so I jumped back into my car and raced to the far side of Owens Valley. This allowed me to minimize the clouds while still keeping the Whitney region of the Sierras in view.

Parked on a dirt road next to an abandoned mine, I set up my camera gear and thought about the shot possibilities. My original plan wouldn’t work anymore—the sun would be too high in the sky relative to the mountains during maximum eclipse. I decided that I would try a wider shot and blend in multiple images of the sun showing the progression of the eclipse. Most of those shots I see have the sun on a blank sky, so I decided to keep the Sierras in the frame as a point of reference.

I started shooting, taking photographs every 5 minutes, or whenever the sun poked out through the clouds. You can see that in the final image, several of the suns have missing edges or are blurry from the clouds. To capture the sun without it blowing completely out I used a 5 stop ND filter with ISO 100, f/11, 1/1000 sec in manual mode with manual focus with a Nikon D800 and Nikon 24-70 mm lens at 70 mm. I also used a cable release so I wouldn’t have to touch the camera during the eclipse and inadvertently knock things out of alignment. Since I lacked the recommended solar filters for my camera, I used the live view mode because I enjoy my vision and would like to keep it.

I took photos from 6:10 pm to sunset at 7:51 pm. As the sun set there were still clouds over the mountains, and several wonderful light beams lit up the world. I took a bracketed -1/0/+1 exposure set of sunset after removing the 5 stop ND filter. The nominal exposure was f/11 ISO 100, 1/125 sec.

For post processing, I selected 11 images of the sun as well as the -1 and 0 sunset exposure resulting in a 13 image blend. I overlaid all of the layers in Photoshop and used the Screen blend mode to allow only the sun to show through on the dark exposures. The resulting raw image is shown below.

This initial composite has an interesting cubist look, but it wasn’t what I was going for artistically. I masked around the 11 images of the sun to remove the clouds that showed through on the screen blend mode. Luminosity layers were used in order to cut down on the haze and add some depth to the image. Lights, Darks, Basic Mid Tone, and Burn/Dodge selections from Tony Kuypers luminosity macros were used to darken the sky, lighten the mountains, and reduce the washed out look of the image. Each luminosity selection is on its own curves adjustment layer and allows targeted editing of the image. Final fine tuning was performed in Nik Viveza to bring out details in the clouds and mountains while warming the sunset and cooling the sky tones slightly.

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