Paul Souders and Tom Till on Photographing the Annular Eclipse 2012

Many photographers have been asking about how to photograph the May 20, 2012 annular solar eclipse that will have its most complete "eclipsing" along a corridor that runs roughly through northern California,directly through Nevada, clipping the southwest portion of Utah, and firmly slicing up northern Arizona and central New Mexico.  It will occur sometime between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. with the more eclipsed portions during the middle of that time. Of course, it will be seen in other various parts of the world, but for those in the western United States at that time, many are planning to head to Page, Arizona area and Kanarraville, Utah, just south of Cedar City on Interstate 15.  We asked photographers Paul Souders and Tom Till who have both photographed annular solar eclipses like the one on May 20,2012 and total eclipses if they would offer some advice.

As always, DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN AND AT THIS ECLIPSE WITH YOUR NAKED EYE, THROUGH YOUR VIEWFINDER, OR THROUGH A TELESCOPE. Heavy solar filters are the standard for annular eclipses (ND400). Welders goggles grade 14 or stronger can view the eclipse safely according to CBS, but doubling up on sunglasses and other methods are not safe.  Special solar lenses (cardboard but approved by planetariums for solar viewing) might be available in Kanarraville, as the communities are preparing for large crowds.


As landscape photographer Tom Till reminds us below, this in not a total eclipse, which sounds (and seems) much easier to photograph in terms of exposure, in terms of not needing super-specialized equipment, and in terms of getting a more obvious "eclipsed" look.  A total eclipse occurs when the moon passes directly in front of the sun in a total fashion.  It also occurs best when the moon is closer to the earth, thus producing more "totality." According to CBS, this eclipse will cover about 94% of the sun, which still leaves a lot of light to handle for the photographer. The moon will pass in front of the sun, but the moon will be at its "apogee" where it is almost at its farthest point from the earth. Other parts of the United States and Canada may be able to see a portion of the eclipse, weather permitting.


This image that I took was of an annular eclipse [like the one that will be occurring on May 20,2012 in some parts of the country]. You would need to be in the path of totality to recreate this particular image, but anyone in the eclipse path could do something similar.  As for the questions people are having about burning their sensors, I would have to say that I've taken so many images with the sun in my frame that I really don't think this is a problem. Having said that, it's critically important to use a proper solar filter to photograph the sun. It's crazy to risk your eyesight looking directly at the sun. I used an Orion Full Aperture Solar Filter, that essentially looks like a mirror. It blocks out 99.999% of visible light.

This image here was shot on film back in 1994, and I used a Nikon F3 and a 50mm lens to capture the movement of the sun across the sky. [Editor's note:  For those who have not shot on film, all 35 mm cameras like the F3 were "full frame" cameras.  There were no "cropped" sensors in 35 mm, so his Nikon is similar to a D700, D800, D4, etc].  It was my year of freelancing in California, and while I had a lot of free time, I wasn't actually rolling in money. But I scrounged together enough money for gas to drive out to the New Mexico desert, sleeping in my truck. I was driving like a madman to make it to the path of totality. By the time I rolled into Alamagordo, the eclipse was set to begin in a few minutes. I finally pulled over to the side of the road while scrambling to find a good viewpoint and set up two tripods, one with my 600mm telephoto and the other with a 50mm. I put the sun in the corner of the frame and tried to guess the angle that the suns would move over the next couple hours. Up and to the right seemed to work. The rest was patience and luck. I set the camera on "multiple exposure mode" and used a cable release to trip the shutter every ten minutes. If you look closely, you'll notice that I missed one exposure in there. You could do it much, much more easily today with digital.

I set the focus on infinity. With the solar filter, you can look through your viewfinder and focus manually as well. As I said, it's much easier to do this with digital than with a single frame of film. You could either use "multiple exposure mode" with a Nikon digital camera, or you could shoot a series of single frames and stitch them together in Photoshop. An intervalometer will help immensely. [Editor's note:  Canon makes an intervelometer, but the Nikon higher-end cameras have an intervelometer built in].  If you take a frame five or ten minutes apart, you'll be able to show the steady progression of the moon's passage across the sun.  If I were shooting this again, I'd have as many tripods and bodies as I could scrounge, shooting with different focal lengths for different effects. Still, I'm inordinately proud of making that shot work on the first attempt.


The image that  you see here was of a TOTAL eclipse of the sun, not an annular [which will be seen on May 20, 2012].  The difference is, to coin a phrase, worlds apart.  I think too much has been made of this eclipse and a lot of people think they will be seeing a total.  Total eclipses are rare--only occurring  on any given spot on every 300 years or so. Seeing one is a life-changing event. The annular is, well, annual. The moon does not cover the sun's entire disc with plenty of light leaking out the sides.  You can look at a total eclipse, but DO NOT look at an annular. I think photographing it may be a little tricky without a special filter to knock down the light.  There is a lot of sunlight involved with this eclipse, and you will have the resultant flares, and I'm not so sure your sensor will like that much light if you are shooting it straight. I hate to rain on everyone's parade. This will be cool, but not even close to a total eclipse.  August 21, 2017 is the real day to keep in mind when a total solar eclipse will be visible across many northern Rocky Mountain states.

A total eclipse is easy to shoot with any camera.  The whole sun is blocked, and there's this black hole in the sky with a corona. I've seen three, and once you see one you'll almost move heaven and earth to experience it again.  There is no event in life that is like it, and no one can possibly explain how cool it is. I get shivers just thinking about it.   For the Australia one, it was right near the horizon, so that was unusual.  I'm not enough of an equipment expert to answer the question of "What equipment will a photographer need exactly?" From what I'm seeing, there are filters that will help.  I would think they might be in short supply now.  I would be a little worried about a sensor without protection, although I expect a lot of people will get some cool images of the annular. I'm loving Moab right now, so we'll watch what it does from here.


If you are an amateur and are a bit nervous about all the hype surrounding the possible damage to your retinae and possibility your camera, don't forget that the event itself from a human interest perspective may be just as interesting.  I've been seeing lots of pictures of the people viewing the eclipse and the hype, and I have to say that there are some great pictures out there.  There will be large groups in Kanarraville in Utah, which has been designated as a prime location for viewing the eclipse as well as Page, Arizona.  I would image all of those people with telescopes, cameras, and kids with solar-viewing glasses on would make for some pretty interesting images.  If you get creative with this style of photojournalism, think of the people and the event as your subject matter, and the eclipse itself as a background or even an off-camera motivator of emotion.

Stay connected to Tom Till: Website | Blog | Facebook
Stay connected to Paul Souders: Website | Blog



CBS News Article on the Solar Eclipse
Events to happen at Kanarraville, Utah
Clark Planetarium on Viewing the Annular Eclipse 
Personal Website with Maps, Technical Detail's Information on the 2012 Solar Eclipse
ABC News Article on Kanarraville, Utah's Eclipse


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Annular eclipseHow to photograph the solar eclipseJoel addamsKanarravilleMay 2012Paul souderPicturelineTom tillTotal eclipseUtah