I haven’t had many chances to see major solar eclipses in my life, even with all my interest in astronomy going back to my childhood. That left me with no question about traveling to see the annular eclipse of May 20, 2012.
What is an annular eclipse?
The moon is coincidentally so close in apparent size to the sun that it sometimes looks smaller than the sun during solar eclipses, producing the annular “ring-of-fire” eclipses; and sometimes larger, producing total eclipses. We just had the “super moon” on May 6, 2012 in which the moon was full at the same time that it was closest to Earth in its slightly elliptical (or oval-shaped) orbit. Since the Earth is towards one end of that oval, the moon then swung out to its farthest distance during the next new phase on May 20, and solar eclipses have to happen when the moon reaches its new phase.
Choosing a viewing site
You can only see the entire ring of the sun around the moon along a narrow path on the Earth. Unfortunately for most people, most of that path on May 20 cut across the Pacific ocean. But early risers in southern China, those enjoying breakfast in Tokyo (for Asia, this was the May 21 solar eclipse), late-afternoon sun-seekers in northern California, and post-dinner sun-gazers in Arizona were able to see this ring of fire.
I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I originally made plans to go to Shasta Lake, dead center on the ring-of-fire path — until I saw very few places to park along Interstate 5 using Google Earth. I then chose nearby Whiskeytown Lake, but at a recent Tri Valley Stargazers meeting a person from Whiskeytown said that the eclipse was huge news there, and he expected hordes of people to crowd into the town. I didn’t feel like driving over four hours just to find no parking, so a look along the path of the eclipse showed it cut across Lake Oroville in the Sierra foothills. It had plenty of parking all over the place, and a search of their local news showed little mention of the eclipse. I selected five spots I scouted in Google Earth, with the prime one being a parking lot at the north end of the Bidwell Bar Bridge. Even better, I could get there in less than three hours.
I left about noon and arrived at the green Bidwell Bar suspension bridge at 3:30 after a couple of rest stops. The 92°F (33°C) temperature didn’t feel so bad because of a nice mild breeze. I saw only one other car in this big parking lot, and this well-equipped group even brought a telescope.
My observing equipment
My prime viewer was my Canon 5D Mark II, 70-200mm f/2.8 IS USM lens, a 1.4× teleconverter, and a stack of filters comprising a 0.6ND, 0.9ND, and a PL. I had already done tests with a full sun and found I could safely photograph it using Live View to frame the shot, even discerning its sunspots. I couldn’t find any information I felt I could rely on about whether I could safely leave the camera pointing at the sun, particularly with Live View on (Live View flips up the mirror, exposing the sensor). I decided simply to point my camera away from the sun immediately after each shot, just in case.
I also had my Canon 40D with a Tamron 11-18mm lens for photographing the environment during the eclipse. The parking lot had a clear view of the sun during the eclipse, so I waited, and recorded a video of how I photographed this eclipse while I was at it. You can see this video and how I post processed the composite photo above on YouTube.
I was chatting with another photographer who had taped a couple welding lenses to his DSLR lens to view the eclipse when it started. I noticed that with my car’s rear hatch up, I could use its tinted window as another filter, so until about the time the ring-of-fire effect started I had this as an extra filter. After a while, the angle of the sun meant I was shooting at an angle through this window so I abandoned that idea for the rest of the eclipse in case the angled window would cause any distortion.
Processing the photos
I took the photo below just as the edge of the moon touched the edge of the sun, after the ring-of-fire effect. You can see some jaggedness along that thin edge which probably comes from sunlight bending around the edge of the moon slightly, exaggerating the moon’s mountains.
I brought this image into Photoshop CS6 and duplicated it into a second layer which I then blurred using the Gaussian Blur tool. I set the layer to Screen blending mode to make it overlay the original sun image. Last, I made a dark blue solid-color layer behind these layers and used a radial gradient in its mask to make it fade to black from the center.
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These two images are available for Creative Commons Noncommercial licensing. See their Flickr pages for terms: