Shallow Thoughts : tags : photography

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 27 Aug 2017

Total Eclipse

[2017 Solar eclipse with corona] My first total eclipse! The suspense had been building for years.

Dave and I were in Wyoming. We'd made a hotel reservation nine months ago, by which time we were already too late to book a room in the zone of totality and settled for Laramie, a few hours' drive from the centerline.

For visual observing, I had my little portable 80mm refractor. But photography was more complicated. I'd promised myself that for my first (and possibly only) total eclipse, I wasn't going to miss the experience because I was spending too much time fiddling with cameras. But I couldn't talk myself into not trying any photography at all.

Initially, my plan was to use my 90mm Mak as a 500mm camera lens. It had worked okay for the the 2012 Venus transit.

[Homemade solar finder for telescope] I spent several weeks before the eclipse in a flurry of creation, making a couple of solar finders, a barn-door mount, and then wrestling with motorizing the barn-door (which was a failure because I couldn't find a place to buy decent gears for the motor. I'm still working on that and will eventually write it up). I wrote up a plan: what equipment I would use when, a series of progressive exposures for totality, and so forth.

And then, a couple of days before we were due to leave, I figured I should test my rig -- and discovered that it was basically impossible to focus on the sun. For the Venus transit, the sun wasn't that high in the sky, so I focused through the viewfinder. But for the total eclipse, the sun would be almost overhead, and the viewfinder nearly impossible to see. So I had planned to point the Mak at a distant hillside, focus it, then slip the filter on and point it up to the sun. It turned out the focal point was completely different through the filter.

[Solar finder for DSLR, made from popsicle sticks] With only a couple of days left to go, I revised my plan. The Mak is difficult to focus under any circumstances. I decided not to use it, and to stick to my Canon 55-250mm zoom telephoto, with the camera on a normal tripod. I'd skip the partial eclipse (I've photographed those before anyway) and concentrate on getting a few shots of the diamond ring and the corona, running through a range of exposures without needing to look at the camera screen or do any refocusing. And since I wasn't going to be usinga telescope, my nifty solar finders wouldn't work; I designed a new one out of popsicle sticks to fit in the camera's hot shoe.

Getting there

We stayed with relatives in Colorado Saturday night, then drove to Laramie Sunday. I'd heard horror stories of hotels canceling people's longstanding eclipse reservations, but fortunately our hotel honored our reservation. WHEW! Monday morning, we left the hotel at 6am in case we hit terrible traffic. There was already plenty of traffic on the highway north to Casper, but we turned east hoping for fewer crowds. A roadsign sign said "NO PARKING ON HIGHWAY." They'd better not try to enforce that in the totality zone!

[Our eclipse viewing pullout on Wyoming 270] When we got to I-25 it was moving and, oddly enough, not particularly crowded. Glendo Reservoir had looked on the map like a nice spot on the centerline ... but it was also a state park, so there was a risk that everyone else would want to go there. Sure enough: although traffic was moving on I-25 at Wheatland, a few miles north the freeway came to a screeching halt. We backtracked and headed east toward Guernsey, where several highways went north toward the centerline.

East of Glendo, there were crowds at every highway pullout and rest stop. As we turned onto 270 and started north, I kept an eye on OsmAnd on my phone, where I'd loaded a GPX file of the eclipse path. When we were within a mile of the centerline, we stopped at a likely looking pullout. It was maybe 9 am. A cool wind was blowing -- very pleasant since we were expecting a hot day -- and we got acquainted with our fellow eclipse watchers as we waited for first contact.

Our pullout was also the beginning of a driveway to a farmhouse we could see in the distance. Periodically people pulled up, looking lost, checked maps or GPS, then headed down the road to the farm. Apparently the owners had advertised it as an eclipse spot -- pay $35, and you can see the eclipse and have access to a restroom too! But apparently the old farmhouse's plumbing failed early on, and some of the people who'd paid came out to the road to watch with us since we had better equipment set up.

[Terrible afocal view of partial eclipse] There's not much to say about the partial eclipse. We all traded views -- there were five or six scopes at our pullout, including a nice little H-alpha scope. I snapped an occasional photo through the 80mm with my pocket camera held to the eyepiece, or with the DSLR through an eyepiece projection adapter. Oddly, the DSLR photos came out worse than the pocket cam ones. I guess I should try and debug that at some point.

Shortly before totality, I set up the DSLR on the tripod, focused on a distant hillside and taped the focus with duct tape, plugged in the shutter remote, checked the settings in Manual mode, then set the camera to Program mode and AEB (auto exposure bracketing). I put the lens cap back on and pointed the camera toward the sun using the popsicle-stick solar finder. I also set a countdown timer, so I could press START when totality began and it would beep to warn me when it was time to the sun to come back out. It was getting chilly by then, with the sun down to a sliver, and we put on sweaters.

The pair of eclipse veterans at our pullout had told everybody to watch for the moon's shadow racing toward us across the hills from the west. But I didn't see the racing shadow, nor any shadow bands.

And then Venus and Mercury appeared and the sun went away.


[Solar eclipse diamond ring] One thing the photos don't prepare you for is the color of the sky. I expected it would look like twilight, maybe a little darker; but it was an eerie, beautiful medium slate blue. With that unworldly solar corona in the middle of it, and Venus gleaming as bright as you've ever seen it, and Mercury shining bright on the other side. There weren't many stars.

We didn't see birds doing anything unusual; as far as I can tell, there are no birds in this part of Wyoming. But the cows did all get in a line and start walking somewhere. Or so Dave tells me. I wasn't looking at the cows.

Amazingly, I remembered to start my timer and to pull off the DSLR's lens cap as I pushed the shutter button for the diamond-ring shots without taking my eyes off the spectacle high above. I turned the camera off and back on (to cancel AEB), switched to M mode, and snapped a photo while I scuttled over to the telescope, pulled the filter off and took a look at the corona in the wide-field eyepiece. So beautiful! Binoculars, telescope, naked eye -- I don't know which view was best.

I went through my exposure sequence on the camera, turning the dial a couple of clicks each time without looking at the settings, keeping my eyes on the sky or the telescope eyepiece. But at some point I happened to glance at the viewfinder -- and discovered that the sun was drifting out of the frame. Adjusting the tripod to get it back in the frame took longer than I wanted, but I got it there and got my eyes back on the sun as I snapped another photo ...

and my timer beeped.

I must have set it wrong! It couldn't possibly have been two and a half minutes. It had been 30, 45 seconds tops.

But I nudged the telescope away from the sun, and looked back up -- to another diamond ring. Totality really was ending and it was time to stop looking.

Getting Out

The trip back to Golden, where we were staying with a relative, was hellish. We packed up immediately after totality -- we figured we'd seen partials before, and maybe everybody else would stay. No such luck. By the time we got all the equipment packed there was already a steady stream of cars heading south on 270.

A few miles north of Guernsey the traffic came to a stop. This was to be the theme of the afternoon. Every small town in Wyoming has a stop sign or signal, and that caused backups for miles in both directions. We headed east, away from Denver, to take rural roads down through eastern Wyoming and Colorado rather than I-25, but even so, we hit small-town stop sign backups every five or ten miles.

We'd brought the Rav4 partly for this reason. I kept my eyes glued on OsmAnd and we took dirt roads when we could, skirting the paved highways -- but mostly there weren't any dirt roads going where we needed to go. It took about 7 hours to get back to Golden, about twice as long as it should have taken. And we should probably count ourselves lucky -- I've heard from other people who took 11 hours to get to Denver via other routes.

Lessons Learned

Dave is fond of the quote, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy" (which turns out to be from Prussian military strategist Helmuth von Moltke the Elder).

The enemy, in this case, isn't the eclipse; it's time. Two and a half minutes sounds like a lot, but it goes by like nothing.

Even in my drastically scaled-down plan, I had intended exposures from 1/2000 to 2 seconds (at f/5.6 and ISO 400). In practice, I only made it to 1/320 because of fiddling with the tripod.

And that's okay. I'm thrilled with the photos I got, and definitely wouldn't have traded any eyeball time for more photos. I'm more annoyed that the tripod fiddling time made me miss a little bit of extra looking. My script actually worked out better than I expected, and I was very glad I'd done the preparation I had. The script was reasonable, the solar finders worked really well, and the lens was even in focus for the totality shots.

Then there's the eclipse itself.

I've read so many articles about solar eclipses as a mystical, religious experience. It wasn't, for me. It was just an eerily beautiful, other-worldly spectacle: that ring of cold fire staring down from the slate blue sky, bright planets but no stars, everything strange, like nothing I'd ever seen. Photos don't get across what it's like to be standing there under that weird thing in the sky.

I'm not going to drop everything to become a globe-trotting eclipse chaser ... but I sure hope I get to see another one some day.

Photos: 2017 August 21 Total Solar Eclipse in Wyoming.

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[ 20:41 Aug 27, 2017    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 20 Apr 2017

Comb Ridge and Cedar Mesa Trip

[House on Fire ruin, Mule Canyon UT] Last week, my hiking group had its annual trip, which this year was Bluff, Utah, near Comb Ridge and Cedar Mesa, an area particular known for its Anasazi ruins and petroglyphs.

(I'm aware that "Anasazi" is considered a politically incorrect term these days, though it still seems to be in common use in Utah; it isn't in New Mexico. My view is that I can understand why Pueblo people dislike hearing their ancestors referred to by a term that means something like "ancient enemies" in Navajo; but if they want everyone to switch from using a mellifluous and easy to pronounce word like "Anasazi", they ought to come up with a better, and shorter, replacement than "Ancestral Puebloans." I mean, really.)

The photo at right is probably the most photogenic of the ruins I saw. It's in Mule Canyon, on Cedar Mesa, and it's called "House on Fire" because of the colors in the rock when the light is right.

The light was not right when we encountered it, in late morning around 10 am; but fortunately, we were doing an out-and-back hike. Someone in our group had said that the best light came when sunlight reflected off the red rock below the ruin up onto the rock above it, an effect I've seen in other places, most notably Bryce Canyon, where the hoodoos look positively radiant when seen backlit, because that's when the most reflected light adds to the reds and oranges in the rock.

Sure enough, when we got back to House on Fire at 1:30 pm, the light was much better. It wasn't completely obvious to the eye, but comparing the photos afterward, the difference is impressive: Changing light on House on Fire Ruin.

[Brain main? petroglyph at Sand Island] The weather was almost perfect for our trip, except for one overly hot afternoon on Wednesday. And the hikes were fairly perfect, too -- fantastic ruins you can see up close, huge petroglyph panels with hundreds of different creatures and patterns (and some that could only have been science fiction, like brain-man at left), sweeping views of canyons and slickrock, and the geology of Comb Ridge and the Monument Upwarp.

And in case you read my last article, on translucent windows, and are wondering how those generated waypoints worked: they were terrific, and in some cases made the difference between finding a ruin and wandering lost on the slickrock. I wish I'd had that years ago.

Most of what I have to say about the trip are already in the comments to the photos, so I'll just link to the photo page:

Photos: Bluff trip, 2017.

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[ 19:28 Apr 20, 2017    More travel | permalink to this entry | comments ]