Monday, May 21, 2012


Sunday was a long day.  It started with a 3:30am wakeup in Auburn, CA, where I was racing a half-ironman (affectionately named the World's Toughest Half), but that's not what this post is about.  We'll start about 12 hours later, when the race was done, we were back over the hill, and 5 cars converged on my house in the space of about 5 minutes.  Within another 5 minutes, a mound of gear had been loaded from house into truck, and 4 vehicles caravanned into the desert.  When we left, we were about exactly 3 hours away from an annular solar eclipse whose centerline passed close enough to our zip code to spark off a big production.

I'll spare the gory details, but there was a lot of planning involved.  Gear, scouting trips, gear, math, complex optics simulation, gear, and more were heavily coordinated.  There was a particular photo I wanted to make that had (really) never been made before, and I believed it was possible.  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.  For all the planning and preparation that we unleashed, I had underestimated the technical challenges for this particular photo by a healthy margin.  So long story short: no Money Shot.  We did, however, depart with a handful of cool photos.

First up can be the sun and moon:

Perfectly annular

Next up is a glamor shot of Murphy, our oh-so-willing model:

Golden goddess

Then a quick break for more sun and moon:

Moon on its way out, plus rad sunspots

And finally, a taste of what I was really after.  Close in some regards, and miles away in others.  I said on the way out that if our crew and gear couldn't do it, we would have bigger problems on our hands.  I've since envisioned the $200k tracking and rotating platform that could be built to solve that...bigger problem...oh yeah, and an extra truckload of strobes.

Close, but no cigar:

Our figurative planets failed to swing into alignment like our literal ones did.

If you'd like a little insight into what you're seeing, here you go:  there's a solar filter over the end of a monster lens that makes the sun safe to photograph and also brings it into the realm of proper exposure.  That solar filter is so strong that having a secondary element in the photo that's anything but a silhouette requires, in short, mimicking the sun's brightness with artificial light sources.  We had 5500 true watt-seconds blasting Ethel at point blank range, and even with those, we weren't quite able to balance her exposure with the sun's.  Every time those strobes fired, a lizard a hundred feet away was stunned by the flash, and Murphy whimpered (combination of pain and resignation) from the heat.  For the record, she's got solar film lining the inside of her sunglasses.  Safety first, kids.

A bigger problem was chasing the alignment of her relative to the sun (which moves damn fast at 1120mm of focal length), much less keeping those point-blank strobes out of the frame, and let's not forget that she was 20+ feet above us to match the sun's inclination during the time of maximum eclipse.  In short: holy shit.  Another technical tidbit: the sun and moon look all squishy there as we're shooting at f/8 and the out-of-focus effect with a supertele is nontrivial.  I would've needed enough lights to pull off f/32 to get reasonable definition of the eclipse in the same exposure.  Of course, the two subjects could be composited together in Photoshop, but I was after the challenge of the elusive single exposure...  Perhaps you'll see that composite here in the near future :).

Read Spencer's blog for a great writeup and some awesome behind-the-scenes photos of our setup and location.  You'll start to understand the hilarity of the lighting and other technical challenges by looking at his photos.

Also, check out Josh's entry on the Minaret Photo blog for some more behind-the-scenes action. I can't stress enough how much these guys helped during this entire process!

If you really want to go down the rabbit hole, check out NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory Gallery...oh my...not necessarily relevant to this eclipse, but in general, these guys have it dialed.  I think their budget exceeds mine by a few bucks.

Last, but certainly not least, HUGE thanks to the crew for their help.  Murphy, Nate, Robby, Spencer, Josh, Maggie, Barrett, Kristyn, and D^2 (special mention for Angel, who wasn't on-site but still helped considerably): we absolutely wouldn't have been able to do it without you ALL.  I loved our spot and would love to go back with less of a mission and more relaxation in mind, and I'm super glad that everyone remembered to actually enjoy the eclipse instead of solely dragging gear around.

A final note: those eclipse photos are not watermarked as I believe in presenting untarnished imagery in my quiet little corner of the web.  And hey, they're pretty low-res anyway.  So if you really want to steal those 800-pixel compressed .jpgs, go ahead, but I wish you death by a thousand cuts.



Monkey said...

I knew If I waited long enough Eliot would come through with an awesome set of Pictures and a beautifully written story to go along with said pictures. I thought a few days before the event that I should go get some welders glasses #14 or stand in line at the Planetarium for some cheesy glasses. Then I realized wait I will wait for Eliot to do the work and I will reap the reward of his hard work. So I thank you Kindly Eliot for an awesome Blog, My life would be so dull without your blog...

Eliot said...

Thanks Aitor; nice to hear from you! Hope all's well and I'll see you when I see you.

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