How to Take Great Photographs of the October 23rd Partial Solar Eclipse and More

The Partially eclipsed Sun rising over the Vehicle Assembly Building on the Florida Space Coast on November 3rd, 2013.

Get those solar viewers out… the final eclipse of 2014 occurs this Thursday on October 23rd, and most of North America has a front row seat. Though this solar eclipse will be an exclusively partial one as the Moon takes a ‘bite’ out the disk of the Sun, such an event is always fascinating to witness. And for viewers across the central U.S. and Canada, it will also provide the chance to photograph the setting crescent Sun along with foreground objects.

Michael Zieler
A map showing the eclipse prospects over the CONUS. (click to enlarge). Credit: Michael Zeiler @EclipseMaps,

The shadow or ‘antumbra’ of the Moon just misses northern limb of the Earth on October 23rd, resulting in a solar eclipse that reaches a maximum of 81% partial as seen from the high Canadian Arctic. The eclipse would be annular in any event had the Moon’s shadow touched down on Earth’s surface, as the Moon just passed apogee on October 18th. The penumbral cone of the Moon’s shadow touches down at 19:38 UT in the Bering Sea just west of the International Date Line before racing eastward across North America to depart the Earth over southern Texas at 23:52 UT.

An animated .gif of this week’s partial solar eclipse.  Credit: NASA/GSFC/A.T. Sinclair.

The farther northwest you are, the greater the eclipse: For example, Anchorage and Seattle will see 54.8% and 54.5% of the Sun obscured by the Moon, while Mexico City and Phoenix, Arizona will see 4.8% and 33% of the Sun’s disk obscured.

A key region will be the zone of longitude running a few hundred miles east and to the west of Ontario, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, which will see the Sun setting during greatest eclipse.

Simulated views of the October 23rd partial solar eclipse from around North America. Created using Stellarium.

Successful sunset viewing of the eclipse will call for a clear, uncluttered western horizon. As of 48+ hours out, the current weather prospects call for clear skies across most of the U.S. on Thursday, with the exception of the U.S. northwest… but you only need a gap in the clouds to observe an eclipse!

Predicted cloud cover for the CONUS hours prior to the start of the Oct 23 partial solar eclipse. Credit: NWS/NOAA.

It’s also worth noting that massive sunspot region AR 2192 is currently turned Earthward and will make for a very active and photogenic Sun during Thursday’s eclipse.

Sunspot activity leading up to this week’s eclipse. Credit: NASA/SDO/HMI

Proper safety precautions must be taken while observing the Sun through all stages of a partial solar eclipse. Don’t end up like 19th century psychologist Gustav Fechner, who blinded himself staring at the Sun! With the recent interest in the event, we’ve been fielding lots of questions on eclipse imaging, which presents safety challenges of its own.

An homemade solar optical filter using Baader film. Credit: Eric Teske/Stellar Neophyte.

Imaging the Sun with a solar filter is pretty straightforward. Glass solar filters for telescopes fitting over the full aperture of the instrument can be had from Orion for about $100 USD, and we’ve made inexpensive filter masks out of Baader AstroSolar Safety Film for everything from binoculars to DLSR cameras to telescopes. Make sure these fit snugly in place, and inspect them for pin holes prior to use. Also, be sure to cover or remove any finderscopes as well. And throw away those old screw-on eyepiece filters sold by some department store scope manufacturers in the 60s and 70s, as they can overheat and crack!

Catching the eclipsed Sun with a silhouetted foreground requires more practice. We’ve had great luck using a DSLR and a neutral density filter to take the f-stop and glare down while preserving the foreground view. Remember, though, an ND filter is for photographic use only… never stare at the Sun through one! Likewise, you’ll need to physically block off your camera’s viewfinder to resist the same temptation of looking while aiming. Shooting several quick frames at 1/1000th of a second or faster will help get the ISO/f-stop settings for the local illumination just right. Even 1% sunlight is surprisingly bright, as we noticed observing the May 10th 1994 annular eclipse from the shores of Lake Erie.

You’ll also need a lens with a focal length of 200mm or better to have the Sun appear larger than a dot in your images. Several key landmarks, such as the Saint Louis Arch and the Sears Tower in Chicago lie along the key sunset zone Thursday and  would make great potential foreground shots… our top pick would be the 1978 World’s Fair Sunsphere Tower in Knoxville, Tennessee for a photo with a true visual double entendre. Scout out the geometry of such a shot the evening beforehand, and remember that you’ll need a good amount of distance (half a mile or more) for a building or foreground object to appear equal in size to the Sun.

And don’t miss the spectacle going on around you during an eclipse as well. Projecting the disk of the Sun using a pinhole camera or binoculars onto a piece of paper makes for a great shot. Hundreds of crescents may litter the ground, caused by natural “pinhole projectors” such as gaps in leaves or latticework. And photographs of everyday folks wearing eclipse glasses standing enthralled by the ongoing event can be just as captivating as the eclipse itself.

Photo by author
Imaging a partial solar eclipse via a homemade shoebox binocular projector. Photo by author.

Up for a challenge? Another unique opportunity awaits eclipse viewers in the northwest, as the International Space Station will cross the disk of the Sun around ~21:08 UT during the eclipse. You’ll need to run video to catch such a speedy (about a second in duration) event, but it would make for a great capture! Be sure to check CALSky for predictions of ISS solar and lunar transits within 48 hours of the event.

ISS path
The path of the ISS over the US during the partial eclipse. Credit: Orbitron.

Robotic eyes in low Earth orbit will be watching the eclipse as well. JAXA’s Hinode and ESA’s Proba-2 routinely observe the Sun and will catch fleeting eclipses on successive passes on Thursday… in the case of Hinode, it may score a direct “hit” with an annular eclipse seen from space around 21:03 UT:

And don’t forget, we’re now less than three years out from the next total solar eclipse to (finally!) grace the United States from coast to coast on August 21st, 2017. This week’s partial solar eclipse offers a great test run to hone your photographic technique!

-Send those eclipse pics in to Universe Today’s Flickr forum.

Our Complete Guide to the October 8th “Hunter’s Moon” Total Lunar Eclipse

Photo by author

October 2014 means eclipse season 2 of 2 for the year is upon us.

Don’t fear the ‘Blood Moon’ that’s currently infecting the web, but if you find yourself on the correct moonward facing hemisphere of the planet, do get out and observe the total lunar eclipse coming right up on the morning of Wednesday, October 8th. This is the second and final total lunar eclipse of 2014, and the second of four in a quartet series of lunar eclipses known as a tetrad.

And the good news is, the eclipse once again favors nearly all of North America. From the western U.S. and Canada, the Moon will be high in the western skies when partial phases begin early in the morning on October 8th. The western U.S., Canada and Alaska will see the entire 61 minute span of totality, just 18 minutes shorter than last April’s lunar eclipse. The Moon will be high in the sky during totality for the Hawaiian Islands, and viewers in Australia and the Pacific Far East will witness the eclipse in the evening hours.

The visibility regions for the total lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Espenak.

This lunar eclipse is part of saros 127, and marks number 42 of a series of 72 for that particular saros. If you witnessed the total lunar eclipse visible from North America and Europe on September 27th, 1996, you caught the last of the series, and if you catch the next eclipse in the saros on October 18th, 2032, you’ve earned a veteran lunar eclipse-watchers badge of seeing an exeligmos, or “triple saros” of eclipses.

The path of the Moon through the Earth’s umbra on October 8th. Adapted from NASA/GFSC.

Timings for key phases of the eclipse are as follows:

P1- Penumbral phase begins: 8:14 UT/4:14 EDT/1:14 PDT

U1- Umbral (partial) phase begins: 9:15 UT/5:14 EDT/2:14 PDT

U2- Totality begins: 10:24 UT/6:24 EDT/3:24 PDT

Mid-totality- 10:55 UT/6:55 EDT/3:55 PDT

U3- Totality ends: 11:25 UT/7:25 EDT/4:25 PDT

U4- Umbral phase ends: 12:35 UT/5:35 PDT

P4- Penumbral phase ends: 13:35/6:35 PDT

Not all total lunar eclipses are the same when it comes to color. Totality can appear anywhere from a dark brick color, as happened during the December 9th, 1992, eclipse following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, when the Moon nearly disappeared during totality, to a bright coppery red, as seen during the April eclipse earlier this year. The Moon passes to the north of the dark central core of the Earth’ shadow next Wednesday, so expect a brighter than normal eclipse, especially along the Moon’s northeast limb. Grab a painter’s wheel and compare the eclipsed Moon to swatches of orange through red: what colors do you see? What you’re seeing is the combinations of all the world’s sunsets refracted into the cone of the Earth’s shadow, which is about three times the size of the Moon at its average distance as seen from Earth. Remember, the Moon is experiencing a total solar eclipse as we watch the lunar eclipse unfold!

The October 8th total solar eclipse as seen from the Apollo 11 landing site on the nearside of the Moon. Created using Stellarium.

This color can be quantified and described on what is known as the Danjon Scale, with 0 being a very dark eclipse with the Moon barely visible, to a 4, meaning a very bright eclipse.

And yes, each total lunar eclipse is now receiving the “Blood Moon” meme thanks to ye ole Internet. Expect the conspiracy-minded to note that this eclipse occurs on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot starting at sundown on the 8th, which isn’t really all that wondrous as the Jewish calendar is a luni-solar one, and total lunar eclipses have to occur during a Full Moon by definition. Wait long enough, and an occasional “Sukkot total lunar eclipse” does indeed occur.

Uranus occultation
The footprint of the October 8th occultation of Uranus by the Moon during totality. (Credit: Occult 4.1.0).

But a truly rare event does occur during this eclipse, as the Moon actually occults (passes in front of) the planet Uranus during totality for observers in northern Alaska and northeast Asia. The rest of us in the observing zone will see a near miss. Can you spy Uranus with binoculars near the lunar limb during totality? Another such rarity occurred during Shakespeare’s time on December 30th, 1591, involving Saturn and the eclipsed Moon, and another such odd occurrence transpires in 2344 A.D.

2344 eclipse
The circumstances of the 2344 eclipse/occultation. Credit: Starry Night, NASA/GSFC & Occult 4.0.1.

The brightest star to be occulted by the total eclipsed Moon as it crosses the constellation Pisces is +7.9th magnitude HIP 4231 for the northern U.S. and Canada.

And speaking of historical eclipses, there’s a Columbus Day tie-in with the phenomenon as well. Like many mariners of his day, Columbus was well-versed in celestial navigation, and used a total lunar eclipse to get a good one-time fix on his longitude at sea, an experiment that you can easily replicate. Columbus also wasn’t above using prior knowledge of an impending lunar eclipse to get himself and his crew out of a bind with the locals when the need arose.

An outstanding sequence of images taken during the April 15th, 2014 total lunar eclipse. Credit: Michael Zeiler (Eclipse-Maps) Used with permission.
An outstanding sequence of images taken during the April 15th, 2014, total lunar eclipse. Credit: Michael Zeiler (Eclipse-Maps) Used with permission.

Photographing an eclipse with a DSLR is as easy as shooting an image of the Moon. Try this a few evenings before the big event. A minimum focal length of 200mm is needed to render the Moon larger than a white dot in the image, and remember that the Moon is much darker during total eclipse, and you’ll need to step the exposure times rapidly down from 1/100th of a second to 2 to 4 seconds during totality.

A long-running effort by Sky & Telescope has been looking for amateur observations of precise crater contacts along the rim of the umbra in an effort to measure variations in the diameter of the Earth’s shadow.

starry night
The Moon versus Uranus as seen from Napa, California just past mid-eclipse on the morning of October 8th. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

As always, weather prospects are the big question mark when it comes to eclipses. Typically, the southwestern U.S. experiences 13-20 clear days in the month of October; prospects worsen to the northwest, with an average of 3-12 days. We’ll be looking at resources such as NOAA, Skippy Sky and ClearSkyChart on the evenings leading up to the 8th. The great thing about a lunar eclipse is, you don’t need a 100% clear sky to see it: just a clear view of the Moon!

Up for a challenge? We’ve yet to see a capture of a shadow transit of the International Space Station in front of the eclipsed Moon. This time around, such a capture should be possible across southern coastal California and the Baja peninsula just minutes prior to the onset of totality.

A shadow pass of the International Space Station just prior to the onset of totality. Note the position of the Moon. Created using Orbitron.

Another bizarre catch, known as a selenelion — witnessing the end of lunar totality after sunrise — may just be possible across the northeastern U.S. into the Canadian Maritimes as the eclipsed Moon sets during totality. The more elevation you can get the better! This works because the Moon lingers a bit in the large shadow of the Earth, plus atmospheric refraction gives the low altitude Sun and Moon a slight boost.

Clouded out? On the wrong side of the planet? You can watch the eclipse online at the following links:

– Live views courtesy of Gialuca Masi and the Virtual Telescope starting at 10:00 UT on October 8th.

– A live webcast starting at 9:00 UT courtesy of Slooh:

– A Columbia State University broadcast, (time to be determined).

Planning an ad-hoc broadcast? Let us know!

And as the eclipse wraps up, the biggest question is always: When’s the next one? Well, lunar eclipse number three of the four eclipse tetrad occurs next year on April 4th, 2015… but in just two weeks time, the western United States and Canada will also witness a fine partial solar eclipse on Oct 23rd

Stay tuned!

Got images of the total lunar eclipse? Send ‘em in to Universe Today’s Flickr forum!

Interested in eclipse sci-fi? Check out our latest short stories Exeligmos and Shadowfall.