Preparing to Photograph the 21 August 2017 Solar Eclipse? Practice, Practice, Practice

If you’re going to try to photograph the solar eclipse on 21 August, practice what you want to try out. Totality will last less than three minutes at best. You just have one shot.

I’ve been practicing and preparing for Monday’s solar eclipse by going over my equipment, trying photographic methods, and thinking what it is I’m really trying to do in seeing this event.

First and foremost, I want to experience the eclipse, not spend those few precious minutes fiddling with gear only to realize later that I missed the whole show. That means planning what I will and will not do, in detail.

I’m planning on setting up one camera on a tripod to take a series of wide angle shots that can be stacked afterward to make a composite image. This must be set up with a solar filter that can be popped off at the beginning of totality and then on again at the end. The good thing is that with that camera running on its own intervalometer it’s pretty much a hands off process.

A practice run of solar images captured with a dSLR running on internal intervalometer with a brown plastic solar filter. The sun covers its own diameter in the sky in about 2 minutes. This image is cropped from a larger composite lasting a fee hours. It represents about 50 minutes of the sun’s movement through the sky.

My most complex set-up will be a 125 mm Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope equipped with a mylar solar filter, set up on my old black EQ4 mount for viewing, twinned with a dSLR with 500 mm telephoto lens for detailed coronal photos at totality. I’ve been working out the basic details of exposure times this week.

A telescope equipped with a mylar solar filter twinned with a dSLR camera and a 150-500 mm telephoto lens, also behind a mylar filter. This setup will not follow the sun with accuracy: it will have to be corrected manually throughout the eclipse.

I’ll also have a video camera set on wide angle to record the overall setting. My fourth camera will be a “general purpose” dSLR to take photos of the event and my colleagues as it unfolds.

The main thing is to be able to set things up efficiently and then paying attention to the timing of the event. One key manipulation is to pop solar filters off of cameras during totality. I’m creating a checklist to keep my intended processes working minute by minute, with time built in to take the whole thing in.

Practice, practice, practice!

The Eclipse of 2017: One Week To Go!

Will the total solar eclipse of 21 August 2017, which will transit across the continental USA, live up to the hype? The eclipse will also be visible as a partial eclipse from pretty much all of Canada and Mexico.

I've already seen that some writers are expecting the eclipse to be the most-photographed event in history (at least far). I'm planning on seeing the eclipse first hand, as are many other astronomy fans and photographers. My contacts near our planned main observing site are worrying about the traffic. Stores specializing in astronomy gear are selling out of excise viewers.

Whether or not the event – compounded by human interest – lives up to it all depends on the weather too. Right now I'm hopeful it will cooperate. Long-range forecasts (always to be taken with a grain of salt) show a sunny day expected on the 21st at my planned observing site. Just in case, though, I do have a backup site thanks to the suggestions of friends in the area.

In the mean time, many people planning on attending the eclipse in its totality are practicing their photographic methods. I've been preparing by running a series of tests of interval exposures with wide-angle lenses. Shot through solar filters, these photos are then stacked together to create a single image showing the track of the sun through the sky.

Above, a Nikon D800 dSLR on a sturdy tripod with a wide angle lens and a solar filter, set up to take photos every 30 seconds. The sun moves through the sky at a rate of about 15 degrees per hour. At a diameter of about 30 arc-minutes this means that the sun shifts by its own diameter every two minutes.

I've also been running through other equipment options, such as whether I should try to set up a telescope and motorized mount to follow the sun. Given the travel distance and the practicalities of carting around heavy gear, I'm now planning to minimize the kit and maximize the experience, but also be equipped to take some interesting snaps.

On to more mundane things today though, like having a plumber over this morning to replace some old plastic water lines that are now prone to leak.

Getting Ready for the Eclipse? Free Viewers in SkyNews!

Kudos to SkyNews, Canada's astronomy magazine! In specially-marked copies of the current issue (on shelves right now) they're giving away free eclipse viewing glasses. Look for the yellow sticker on the top right of the cover for a copy with the insert. Eclipse viewers are hard to find already. Even KW Telescope on Manitou Drive in Kitchener have told me they've sold out and are expecting more shortly.

You should be able to find SkyNews in Chapters, Indigo, and other shops with large magazine racks – until they sell out too!

Also, there's a photo of mine on page 14 🙂 (the Nov 2016 moonrise sequence).

My First Try at Photographing the International Space Station

The idea of being able to take a photograph of the International Space Station is enchanting. Here’s one of humanities’ greatest achievements, passing by very frequently and yet so far out of reach to those of us on the ground.

Taking photos of the ISS is perfectly possible from the ground, but it requires some preparation. First, you have to know how to find it. There are several smartphone apps and on-line sites that allow you to predict when and where the ISS will be visible from your location. I use ISS Spotter on an iPhone, which I find very handy.

Once you know where it is going to be you have to think about how to capture it. The ISS typically crosses a section of the sky at a rate of between 1 and 3 degrees per second. This doesn’t sound too fast, but when you realize that it’s about 100x faster than computerized telescope mounts move you get some idea of the challenge. Even a large consumer telescope on a computer mount just can’t keep up.

It IS possible to follow the ISS and other satellites using computerized telescope mounts, but they’re not off-the-shelf gear. An absolute master at this kind of photography is Thierry Legault, an engineer based in Paris, France. Thierry’s systems include modified mounts that can turn at the phenomenal speeds needed to track a satellite. Take a look at his images and his methods at: http://www.astrophoto.fr/

My equipment isn’t up to that sort of approach, but you don’t need to that way. Instead, I’ve tried mounting my 125mm Meade Terabeam Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope on a photographic tripod. This arrangement (see the photo) is easily carried in one hand. It depends on being able to use the finding device (in this case a Rigel Systems QuikFinder reflex sighting device) to follow the target. Using this simple set-up it’s possible to follow the target and take numerous photos or shoot video, and them examine the resulting images later for any that worked out. This is an approach related to “Lucky Imaging” that is commonly used in more sane corners of amateur astronomy.

ISS Hunting Rig

My ISS-hunting rig. I’ve mounted a Nikon dSLR camera at prime focus on a 125 mm Meade Terabeam Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope. This is then set up on a heavy-duty photography tripod. This telescope is equipped with a red-circle Rigel Systems QuikFinder (http://rigel.datacorner.com/rigelsys/quikfinder.html )

Of course I am using the term “sane” in a tongue-in-cheek manner here and mean no disrespect to those suffering from mental disabilities. It’s just the term that came to mind as I snapped away at the space station like a field gunner trying to shoot down an Sopwith Camel during the First World War.

There are a couple of very basic set-up steps that deserve every bit of attention before the pass begins.

First, ensure that your finding device is well-aligned with the telescope itself. You will not be looking through the telescope or camera to take these photos.  You’re flying blind, relying on the finder to set things up. You are adjusting the aim of the telescope throughout the entire pass. The steadier the better, but you still must keep moving to keep the ISS as close to the telescope’s centre of view as possible.

Second, focus is crucial. The ISS is tiny from earth – just a few arc-seconds across. Before the pass focus the telescope as carefully as possible on a star. This is a little easier said than done without having the telescope on a capable telescope mount. I used the moon and also very distant lights to try to focus the spot mac.

Jet 29 July 2017

While I was setting up to shoot the ISS I snapped this distant jet high over Lake Huron. Possibly 30 km or more away.

 

Keep in mind too that if you are using a dSLR your camera is going to shake like made when the mirror and shutter are activated. Every bit of extra motion is a problem. I think an ideal imager for this application would be a mirrorless camera with a full-frame sensor, but I’m not quipped with one of these.

For my first try I used a Nikon D800 camera on video mode. I started running the video before the ISS came into view, and simply kept the telescope pointed at it, moving as smoothly as I could, throughout the pass. Afterward I then exported all of the images using IrfanView, and threw out everything that wasn’t a recognizable image. In other words, nearly all of the resulting frames.

moon from the beach 29 July 2017

Just for the focus. I used the moon as a target to focus the telescope prior to the pass of the ISS on 29 July 2017 visible from the mouth of the Pine River. 

Despite all of the make-shift arrangements, at the end of the day I did capture something with structure. Here are a couple of frames:

ISS 29 Aug 2017 from Pine River

I’ve seen some authors recommending this approach with telescopes on Dobson mounts. This makes a lot of sense too, as these mounts are intended to allow you to point the telescope by hand with ease. I will try to take more images of the ISS as time and opportunity permits. It’s a fascinating subject!

Copyright 2017 David Galbraith

 

 

The Great Eclipse of 2017 is Just Around the Corner!

One of the grandest spectacles in astronomy is a total solar eclipse. On 21 August 2017 there’s going to be a stunning event, as the shadow of the moon sweeps over the continental USA from west to east. I’ve recently seen suggestions that this might be the most photographed event in history (to date) when it happens. I’ll be in there too, dear readers, making plans for many months about the chance to photograph this spectacle. The next one that will be visible over the North American continent will take place on 8 April 2014.

eclipse book cover

Alan Dyer’s ebook on the 21 August 2017 eclipse is highly recommended. You can get your own copy here: http://www.amazingsky.com/eclipsebook.html 

A total solar eclipse is, of course, a transient event in which the moon passes directly in front of the sun from the perspective of some location on earth. Because of the coincidence of the similar relative sizes of the sun and moon as viewed from earth, the moon can just about block out the central disk of the sun. A total eclipse, as the name suggests, brings the sun, moon, and earth into alignment. A partial solar eclipse consists of part of the sun’s disk being blocked.

The 21 August event will be a partial solar eclipse in southern Ontario. For observers in a band a few kilometers across running from the west to the east coast of the USA it will be total.

Preparation for watching an eclipse is a must. Not only should anyone wanting to take this in be prepared from the perspective of observation itself, safety is a crucial concern. Although the disk of the sun is blocked by the moon during these events, the sun is still producing a great deal of UV radiation from the corona, the tenuous outer layers of the sun’s atmosphere. Always wear appropriate eye protection during these events, or observe indirectly, such as with a pinhole camera you make make from a simple cardboard box. For safe eclipse observing ideas, see: https://www.space.com/35555-total-solar-eclipse-safety-tips.html

In preparation I’ve been sorting out gear, trying things, and reading up. I highly recommend Alan Dyer’s comprehensive e-book on photography of this specific event. I’m planning on using several cameras to capture different aspects of the eclipse. At least one will be running interval photos that can later be stacked to produce this sort of effect:

Solar Practice 2017

A three hour sequence of solar photographs taken at the home base of the Pine River Observatory, at Lurgan Beach, Ontario on 29 August 2017. A Nikon D7000 digital camera was set up to take photos every 30 seconds, and was equipped with a Mylar solar filter and a wide-angle lens. Every sixth resulting photo was then stacked with StarStaX. The last photo, with the sun in the trees, was taken without the solar filter. It forms a background for the otherwise rather dull individual photos of the sun.

Another camera will be set up with a long telephoto lens and a Mylar solar filter. I am not quite sure yet whether or not I will set up any camera on a telescope mount to track the sun – as this trip requires some travel, lugging such things around is always complicated.

If you are able to take images of the eclipse, consider submitting them to SkyNews Magazine, Canada’s own astronomy magazine. They’re holding a contest for the best solar eclipse photo: http://www.skynews.ca/solareclipsecontest/ 

Safe observing!

Copyright 2017 David Galbraith

 

Hunting the Elusive International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) is a wonderful example of what humanity can do if we set aside our squabbles. It’s also readily available to view from many locations on earth, as it orbits overhead. I’ve been very impressed by some astrophotographers who have been able to capture photos of the ISS from the ground, and have been trying out a few things myself.

On Saturday 5 August 2017 I was able to get my best pictures to date, shooting from Pier 8 at Hamilton Harbour. The Space Station made a fairly leisurely pass just before 10 PM, arching up to 30 degrees above the horizon. I set up two cameras for the pass. One, with a wide angle lense, snapped away 30 second time exposures every 33 seconds, to create a background star trail image. Onto this I was able to add graphics showing constellations and trace out the course of the ISS:

Layout 2 5 Aug 2017 copyright D Galbraith

The International Space Station (blue traces and inserts) passing north of Hamilton, Ontario on 5 August 2017. The blue trace was superimposed over top of the original track of the station captured on a series of 30 second exposures stacked with StarStaX. The inset images are from the composite below. The view is looking roughly north. 

The second camera was mounted on my 125mm Meade Terabeam Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope on a photography tripod. I aimed this my hand and took both individual photos and video of the station at it passed. While most of the shots were smeared, a few recorded a little recognizable ISS detail:

Layout 1 5 Aug 2017 copyright D Galbraith

Some of the better individual images of the International Space Station photographed over Hamilton, Ontario on 5 August 2017. The gold “wings” visible in the images are the stations large solar panels. Images earlier and later in the sequence definitely show differences in aspect as the station rotates slowly to keep its solar panels aligned with the sun.

While these are not nearly as good as some photos taken by experts such as France’s Thierry Legault (http://www.astrophoto.fr/) I’m still pretty pleased.

Post and images are copyright 2017 David Galbraith.

Looking Forward – And Up – For 2017!

There are a lot of exciting things happening in 2017. Many are covered in detail on large astronomy web sites like Sea and Sky: http://www.seasky.org/astronomy/astronomy-calendar-2017.html

Here are just a few highlights to consider.

11 February 2017 – Lunar Eclipse

Following on from the full moon earlier on the same day, the moon will pass into the edge of the Earth’s shadow for a “penumbral lunar eclipse.” We should be in a great position to see the moon darkening in Ontario.  Here’s a link to a NASA PDF on the event: https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/LEplot/LEplot2001/LE2017Feb11N.pdf

1 April 2017 – Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation

The tiny planet Mercury will be visible in the evening sky in early spring; on 1 April it reaches its greatest eastern elongation, and will be visible in the evening sky at sunset.

7 April 2017 – Jupiter at Opposition

On 7 April the Earth will pass directly between Jupiter and the sun. The planet will be very bright in the night sky, rising at sunset. Even a small telescope should reveal the four Galilean moons of our solar system’s largest planet.

15 June 2017 – Saturn at Opposition

In mid-June Saturn and its magnificent rings will be as bright as possible this year. Like Jupiter in April, at opposition the Earth lies directly between Saturn and the sun. Rising at sunset, the planet will appear as a fully-illuminated disk through a modest telescope, nestled within its amazing rings.

cassini_saturn_orbit_insertion

Saturn will be worth watching in 2017 on another front. The Cassini mission is drawing to a close. Throughout the year, NASA mission controllers are swinging the wonderful car-sized spacecraft through Saturn’s rings for the first time, willing to take risks at the tail end of the voyage. Launched 20 years ago (1997), Cassini reached Saturn in 2004 and has been performing nearly flawlessly ever since. Later in 2017 the mission will be brought to an end and the spacecraft will be plunged into Saturn itself, a fiery demise to ensure that the environments of Titan and the other moons of Saturn are not contaminated. The feature image on this post is an artist’s rendering of Cassini and its attached Huygens probe undergoing the orbital insertion maneuver over Saturn in 2004 (Public Domain image; source NASA: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA03883).

21 August 2017 – The Great Eclipse

Perhaps one of the big events in 2017 will be the “Great Eclipse” – a total solar eclipse that will cross the continental United States from west to east coasts. On Monday 21 August 2017 the moon will pass directly between the Earth and the Sun, casting a vast circular shadow and giving millions of people a chance to see a true natural spectacle. Totality will pass through states like Kentucky and Tennessee, but from Ontario we will still see a great partial eclipse in the afternoon. Here’s NASA’s posting for eclipse information: http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEplot/SEplot2001/SE2017Aug21T.GIF

13 November 2017 – Close Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter

Just before sunrise Venus and Jupiter will be very close to each other in the sky – just 0.3 degrees apart, or less than the diameter of the full moon.

I hope you can get out and enjoy these and other exciting sky events in 2017! As we get closer to each I will post additional information on viewing – and when possible taking pictures of – these events.