Sunday, 16 October 2016

Are you going to the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse too?

There has been a lot of talk amongst solar eclipse experts as to how many people might try to see the total solar eclipse in August 2017. Some of this concern has spilled over to civil groups such as local and state police, commerce, hoteliers, and even mass media is getting in on the story although at the time of this writing most USA media are greatly distracted with the election of a US president. FaceBook and other social media sites are saturating with eclipse related maps and information. As a result, the question is just how many people might try to see the event? It really is worth seeing but do note the popularity does cause some issues.

The Best Place?

Really, anyplace you can see the total solar eclipse is the best place. All along the central path of totality, if the Sun is clearly visible you are in for a treat. That said, a lot of places want you to think they are the "best place". So don't be fooled into thinking you need to be at some specific location otherwise you miss the best view and so on.

Contrary to that thinking is that the best place selection in advance is a good idea. Are you going for the best climate conditions (indicates possible weather success) or the longest duration of totality? Are you going for ease of access, a crazy party, circus show, or some other criteria. Advanced planning is good, but don't get obsessed with any given location is the venue is sold out or difficult to reach.

Any place you can see totality is the best place.

Central most line or near the edge?

The selection of near the central most part of the path (longest duration of totality) or near the edge is a personal taste matter although some use it as a way to double check lunar topology along the rim and validate other computations. If you study the maps at GreatAmericanEclipse you will see that maximum totality duration spreads out for a large area centered in Kentucky.

What is interesting to note is that one experiences more interesting diamond rings near the edges (or about 1/3rd of the way from the edge to the central most part of the path). By more interesting I mean that there may be longer beads/rings as the solar disk skirts the lunar rim. For an idea of what I am speaking about please visit the following web page by solar eclipse Xavier Jubier.

Planning the day

Because of the numbers expected, it is a good idea to plan your eclipse day accordingly. For example if you are staying at a location outside the path of totality the night before you will want to consider departure time, food options, destination and expected timing to arrive. Be flexible of course, the weather could be your enemy.

Are you bringing a large amount of camera equipment or people with you? If so, the planning is even more important. My favorite method is to simply set up in the parking lot or outdoor common area of the hotel or resort where we are staying. That way I can be up for sunrise to see the weather conditions and fret along with all the other chasers until totality finally reaches our location. I guess that is why the term chasers always seemed odd to me. We don't really chase as much as we wait. We might sometimes "chase" (dash seems better) to get to clear sky and again, wait.

So here is a basic list of things to consider.

  • Comfort facilities.
  • Comfort items (umbrella, food/snacks, beverages, ...)
  • Shaded area.
  • Chairs/benches/tables.
  • Optics (Binoculars, Camera, Tripod, Zoom lens, Telescope) - optional.
  • Vehicular access and parking.
  • Crowds, wildlife (human and otherwise), safety, entertainment.

There are others issues to consider, but these are the primary to get your started.

How many will be there?

Who can really predict at this time other than hotels. In some places hotels near the central most part of the eclipse path are sold out. That condition is spreading outward however it is important to note that these regions are not highly populated thus having limited hotel space availabilities.  There are still plenty of hotel rooms available in highly populated areas that fall under the path.

I know of several parties and gatherings where thousands are expected to show up, including a sports stadium. Will that be a great place to see an eclipse for you? With tens of thousands of seats, don't plan on any form of telescopes or optics. That said, you can get amazing images with camera-phones and small zoom cameras. The technology is absolutely incredible.

Or would you prefer a private location, camping under the stars cowboy style? Unless you have made some arrangements already or know someone, you might find that difficult to arrange.

If history is any guide the 2009 Total Solar Eclipse in China was well known in advance and passed over several populated areas. Throngs went to different viewing venues. The weather was not at all cooperative across large areas of the path, however it is estimated hundreds of thousands were able to see something.

Don't miss it! Plan now if you have not already!

Friday, 14 October 2016

What should you bring to a total solar eclipse?

I get asked this question frequently. What should one bring to a total solar eclipse? The answer is simple. If this is your first total solar eclipse, bring yourself and if you know how to use them, binoculars.
Choosing what to bring
And seriously, I do mean to only bring binoculars if you know how to use them. If you are a novice to such optics, don't bring anything but yourself (and vision correction glasses or contacts). You will be looking at something that is about twice or three times the size of the Full Moon. The actual object of interest, the solar corona, extends several times further but requires that you either use binoculars or have dark adapted your eyes.

If you own a pair of binoculars, try looking at the Moon when it is visible. Holding binoculars gets easier with practice so do not be discouraged if the first efforts are difficult. I have used small binoculars as well as big ones and found the view good with all. Currently I use 15x70 binoculars which are rather awkward and heavy (15 means 15x magnification and 70 denotes the size of the aperture). While better suited for a use on a tripod the view is fantastic and for a few minutes it is easy to hold them steady enough to enjoy the view. Of course, as an eclipse veteran, my hands do not shake as they once did due to the excitement of the moment. To get past that issue, consider image stabilized binoculars - they work great!

Dark Adapting
Dark adaptation before the total part of the eclipse is not easy. The Sun is out. Kind of hard to dark-adapt your eyes unless you use an eyepatch or red filtered goggles (after dark adapting in doors). While an eye patch may sound enticing, you might want to try it out for a bit before the eclipse is coming. I found them uncomfortable and not fully functional. Had I spent time before the eclipse day testing them out I would have had more success, but hey, who wants to walk around with an eye patch? I am clumsy enough.

For photography fans taking pictures of an eclipse is not difficult. See my web pages about eclipse photography. In those pages you will find some recommendations about equipment and styles. Of course this information is constantly updating, so please send me anything you have learned or tips you would like to see shared with others.

Bring binoculars or a small telescope at best. Unless you are doing a recreation of the experiments to measure stellar defection caused by the gravitation of the Sun you really don't want a big telescope. The view through binoculars and small field scopes is more than amazing. Astronomers are encouraged strongly to see a total solar eclipse at least once. It might just change your ideas about how stars appear to the eye. My recommended telescope for eclipse chasing is the Questar 3.5". Very portable and amazing views. Plus if you are traveling to someplace different, it is a great field telescope for basic observing.

So what should you bring? Yourself, any required corrective lenses (and bring a spare), and binoculars. Beyond that, it is up to you but let me finish with this thought - those few minutes of totality will pass quickly. The less you have to do the better. Just sit back and enjoy the show!

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Photographing the Solar Eclipse? PRACTICE!

If you want to get some nice pictures of the Total Solar Eclipse, you need to practice. Sounds like a good idea, but how do you practice for something like that?!

Canon SX60HS 1350mm EFL handheld

There really isn't anything quite like a total solar eclipse. The experience of seeing one is quite special. You will experience an adrenaline rush and time will seem to fly by quickly. Two minutes may seem like plenty of time, but just wait until you see that corona shining up in the sky around a black hole where the Sun used to be shining. For myself, it was not until my fifth total solar eclipse that my hands were not shaking slightly as I ran a camera attached to a telescope. It is an exciting couple of minutes. My best advice to everyone is to just watch and enjoy it. Yet, like myself, many will want to image the eclipse.

What can you practice on? The Moon! Take pictures of the lunar phases, showing the whole moon with plenty of room around it. For the eclipse, the Moon will be the "black hole" in the middle. The corona around it will be the object of interest. So your images of the Moon should only take up half or less of the image frame.

1000mm Canon SX60HS camera, handheld
Taking pictures of the Moon is great practice and can be very rewarding. Try it during different times and phases, even in the day light.

Crescent phases can be very enlightening. The brightness of the lit portion is easy to over expose when trying to capture the Earthshine. Totality is much the same. To capture the outer corona you must over expose the inner corona. And to get the inner corona you will over expose the prominences. What you can practice during the lunar crescent phases is manipulating your camera settings in the dark and eventually without even looking. Most digital cameras tell you the settings as they are adjusted in the display however you might not want to look at that display too long. Learning how to manipulate everything without looking allows you to look at the eclipse.

Another great practice target is to take pictures of the sunset. This allows you to practice wider field views of extreme variable brightness.

Sunset over the sea
And if you really want to practice eclipse conditions, try capturing the Green Flash at sunset! This takes split second timing on your behalf. If you see it in the view finder, you did not get the image and that is very much like imaging beads and the chromosphere.

Green flash, zoomed in 1365mm EFL
The more you can practice with your camera and lens rig, the better you will be prepared for the eclipse event and the better chance you have of getting an image you can be proud to share with others.

Just remember, no image is like the real thing when it comes to total solar eclipses. It is an experience and even after you have experienced a couple, it is a lot of fun and amazing to see.

More photography tips at:

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Best Place for the Total Solar Eclipse

A frequent question that is asked is where exactly is the best place to view the total solar eclipse. Seems like a simple question and one that deserves a simple answer. So here it is: The best place to observe a total solar is in the eclipse totality path, under clear sky, where you are comfortable being outside for several hours.

The three conditions vary from eclipse to eclipse and from person to person. Thus I will expand on them.

Eclipse Totality Path

Getting in to the eclipse totality path is a matter of planning ahead. Some eclipses can be very difficult to reach because you have to go to the North or South Pole. Some are easier like just down the road a bit. How do you know? By exploring eclipse maps for upcoming total solar eclipses. The path of totality is a narrow band about 100 miles thick that stretches across the planet. Many times this band crosses oceans and just a little land (the Earth surface is 3/4 water). Sometimes large swathes of a continent are crossed as is coming in 2017 for North America. The eclipse path stretches from Oregon to South Carolina.

The following web pages provide maps of totality paths.

For great maps of the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

Under Clear Sky

This is the hardest of the three conditions. The weather changes from day to day and sometimes multiple times in the course of a day for many locations. Finding a clear sky is never a guarantee of any eclipse expedition. Local weather information is often the best source for day to day changing conditions.

When planning an eclipse expedition the general idea is to look at climate. Climate studies highlight the weather of the past and can be used to guess at the future weather. Of course, it is a guess. When traveling great distances the climate study is very important but when journeying a short distance it may not be as important. More important is the ability to relocate quickly should the conditions arise.

My own best solution is to have a contingency plan in place. Checking local weather information in the days prior and then moving to where the sky will be clear makes it much easier to reach clear sky.

Here is a great link for weather/climate information as it pertains to Total Solar Eclipses:

Where you are comfortable

A big variable based on the person. Some are comfortable being in nature, exposed to the elements, with only the supplies you carry. Some are more comfortable near a toilet and shelter from the hot sun or freezing wind. It depends greatly on the location and weather conditions at that time. In addition the presence or absence of people can make a difference in terms of comfort. I can tell you from experience it is very uncomfortable to set up a telescope and camera near a group of playful or dancing youth. That's just me though.

I like being in an open area with facilities and shade near. The parking lot of a hotel, an open meadow in a state park, or even a roadside rest stop make for a fine location. I am not as interested in the scenery as the eclipse so it does not have to be in an epic location. And really - seeing a total solar eclipse take place in a somewhat normal setting adds greatly to the surreal aspect of the experience.

Groups are not for everyone. Some prefer solitude or a small select gathering of just friends. I've heard some great stories from eclipse chasers who went this route. Most involve encounters with wild animals, maybe another blog entry at a later time....

Friday, 23 September 2016

Less than 11 months until the next TSE

Years ago it seemed like a far off thought. To see a total solar eclipse in the USA! Wow!

I have been to Africa, Europe, Asia, Oceana, on cruise ships, at road side rests, camp sites, hotel parking lots, and yes - even in a jet aircraft - and yet, the only USA solar eclipse I've ever seen that was almost total was in 1984. It was just about total, meaning that it was an annular from where I saw it. A very short annular as I remember it.

The 1970 eclipse fell on the same weekend as a rather large swimming competition and it was missed. I did see the partial phases, standing outside in the Ohio March weather in a Speedo, and got in trouble for my efforts. My first total solar eclipse was in 1972, so it was not too devastating at the time - just in retrospect. And at the next astronomy club meeting I heard the details from others who had driven to the eastern USA to see the total eclipse. They were excited. They were planning how to see the next one in 1972. I talked my father into joining. It wasn't hard, he was enthralled as well.

So here we are. Just 11 more months to wait until the total solar eclipse of August 2017! I am really excited about it. And I am not the only one. There are plenty of people planning to see it. So many that hotels and campsites are becoming harder to get. Costs are going up up up on some of the remaining stock. So should you panic and buy in?

Here's the situation. Many of the hotels have commitments from travel groups who have requested a lot of rooms. They want to sell you the rooms at a higher price and make money as the proverbial middle man. If you are just starting to search out a place to stay now, you are in for a ride in some places. The best thing to do now is wait until about a month or two before the event and then call every hotel looking for recently released group space at normal (maybe) pricing.

Some are looking outside the path with plans to drive in that day. While that may work very well, it is a bit of a gamble in my mind. Roads could get closed or blocked by traffic. Like minded people might fill it up like rush hour into a big city. Plan lots of time for the commute.

Just 11 more months. The anticipation is building up faster than any other solar eclipse I have done. Maybe it is the prospect of so many old and new friends finally seeing what I have been chasing for decades. We can just hope beyond hopes that the sky is clear all day across the USA that day!

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Best Camera for Solar Eclipse Imaging is...

It is hard to count the number of times I have been asked the question, "which camera is best for photographing the eclipse?".  The simple answer is almost too simple for most to accept - the best camera is the one you know how to use best. Everyone expects an endorsement of a particular brand or type of camera system. Here is the thing, you can get a great picture with any camera. You just need to realize what it can do and how to do it.

The best thing is to start now! Months before the total solar eclipse you need to begin mastering your camera and lens setup. Practice! The practice subject is the Moon. Take a variety of exposures to see different details but more important to the solar eclipse imaging - to learn how to adjust the camera in the dark. During totality it will be kind of dark and you might have trouble reading the camera settings. You want to train yourself to where you can almost run the system with your eyes closed.

During the eclipse is not the time to learn how your camera works. You should be an expert at your own camera. Trying to jam in a bunch of tips and tricks from the experts at the last minute will result in frustration most of the time. If you just bought the camera and have not used it much, don't try to use it during totality.

The August 2017 TSE will last under three minutes at the longest points of duration. It will be more like two minutes for most observers. And it will seem like 15 seconds. Spending that precious time playing with a camera is not worth it. The experience alone is worth it.

Tip: Take pictures of the cool telescopes and long lenses with their owner/operators. Then trade email addresses to send them a copy in trade for one of their eclipse shots. This way you can get a great variety to show off to those that chose not to go to the eclipse.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Removing Filters for Second Contact Diamond Ring

This past week I have been asked by several people about when to remove the solar filter prior to second contact (C2). The desire is to catch an image of the diamond ring. That means you are removing the solar filter BEFORE the brightest part of the Sun has gone behind the Moon. This sounds dangerous and goes against all advice, so just how does one go about it.

First off: If this is your first total solar eclipse, don't bother with photographing C2. WATCH IT! You don't want to be boring behind the camera when the magic happens. You need to see it with your own eyes. Then use binoculars to take a look at the corona. You will regret not looking directly if you spend the entire eclipse watching through a view finder or video feed.

So let's say the remainder of this entry is for veterans. You know what C2 looks like and you'd like to get an image. Just when it is "safe" to remove the filter. Under a clear sky (no clouds in the way) I would say no more than 15 seconds before C2. And yet here is the rub - some predictions of eclipse timings can be off by that amount!

Why the error? A number of factors with most being your own. Starting with an accurate timer - got one? Using a short wave radio to get the time synch signals works best. It will be off slightly depending on propagation delay times. Internet time could be off slightly, same with the time on your cell phone. We are talking about getting the time to within 5 or fewer seconds for this to work best. About the best timing that is easy to get is from a GPS. But even then, make sure it is really accurate. A cheap GPS will not do the trick. A good GPS also helps in getting your location locked down.

So given a good location and good time, you can plan to remove the filter about 15-30 seconds before C2 is scheduled to appear.

Note that you may need to focus slightly. Some solar filters refract more than others. For this reason it may be advised to use a higher focal ratio as the depth of focus is greater. Note this is DEPTH of FOCUS, a technical term for astrophotographers. Click here for a great write up can be found about Depth of Focus and other related topics.

The hardest part is making sure the image is in the field. Using a DSLR with a video view finder (NOT a direct optical path), you can accomplish this quickly. If using a direct optical path you might be able to see the image projected onto the glass from the side. DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY!

Automation is best, when it works right. I have tried a number of methods with varying success and will explore that in a later blog or two. Getting the automation to start at the right time is best solved manually. So if you have an exposure sequence programmed, you can start it up about 5-10 seconds before C2 and get great results. Fast exposures are needed at C2 just like C3. Click here for an eclipse photography exposure calculator.

I've had some success with C2 images but find that watching it is still the real fun.
2008 TSE C2 from jet - double image caused by window of aircraft