By Marcus McAdam
On the morning of the 20th of this month, a partial solar eclipse will be visible from all of the UK, with north west Scotland seeing the maximum effect. I’ve witnessed a couple of solar eclipses in my life, and can honestly say that they were the most amazing natural phenomena I have experienced. I remember the first one I saw in France in 1999, and although my expectations were high, I wasn’t prepared for the insult on the senses which were to arrive just before and during totality. I remember when the Sun was covered by around 95%, the light became softer and a little diffused, unlike anything I had seen before. The temperature suddenly started to drop, and the birds started to roost - it was mid morning. Then just before totality, bands of shadows raced across the landscape, each one becoming noticeably darker. I had assumed that as the Sun was progressively covered by the Moon, that it would simply get gradually darker, like someone dimming the lights, but it was far from that. It was more as though someone was turning off lights one at a time, with definite and sudden steps in the approaching darkness. Then the most amazing part, which to this day still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I think about it - a wall of darkness came rushing towards me from the west.
I remember thinking how people who existed before we had such an understanding of the cosmos would have felt in such a situation. It would have certainly been terrifying, with the impression of the end of the world about to occur. Even though I was well aware of what was happening, it was still quite a tense emotion I felt seeing this tidal wave of blackness eating up the landscape in front of me at vast speed. Then it hit me, and there was the most eerie silence, as though the planet was holding its breath. Looking up, I could see the Sun’s chromosphere spilling out from all sides of the Moon. This was the first time I had been able to look skywards without eye protection, and seeing such a sight with the naked eye made it so much more impressive.
Of course, none of these experiences will be witnessed this time from Scotland, as the maximum coverage of the Sun will only reach 97% as seen from the Isle of Lewis, but Skye is well positioned too. Basically the further northwest you go, the more of the Sun will be obscured by the Moon. Even as far south as Edinburgh, there will still be a 93% eclipse.
It should be said at this stage that if you want to view the event from the UK, never try to look at the Sun without proper eye protection. This doesn’t mean wearing sunglasses! You need something which is going to reduce the light intensity by 99.9%, and the only thing which does this is a solar filter. Cheap cardboard glasses with solar filters are available to buy online at around £3, but if you are passing a newsagent, pop in a buy a copy of this month’s Sky at Night Magazine and you’ll get a free pair inside, along with information about the eclipse. From the UK, the Moon will not totally cover the Sun, so you must wear eye protection at all times. Don’t assume that because only 5% of the Sun is visible, its intensity is reduced - it is not. The simple fact is that if you look at the Sun even when it is only 1% visible, you will damage your eyes, and possibly go blind. Not ideal for a career in photography.
The path of totality passes over the North Atlantic, and comes within 160 miles of the north west tip of the UK. Here’s an animation to show the path.....
The large grey shadow means a partial eclipse will be seen, whereas the tiny black shadow which races to the north west of the UK is totality. The only land location where it is possible to see totality is the Faroe Islands and Svalbard. Svalbard is really not easy to get to and is very very cold at this time of year, so I’ll be heading to the Faroe Islands to try to photograph the event. The chances of clear skies in the North Atlantic in March are only about 15%, so I am not getting too excited about the whole affair yet, but I booked my flight a year ago as I knew I would have kicked myself if I missed the chance to witness another eclipse so close to home. If you plan to photograph the partial eclipse from the UK, then here are a few tips on how to do it.
As part of the Sun will be visible at all times, you must have a solar filter over the end of your lens. If you don’t, then you will run a high risk of damaging your camera, and most certainly your eye if you look through the viewfinder. Solar filters come in various forms, but the most economical is to buy a roll of Baader AstroSolar ND3.8 Photo film. You can also get ND5 which is designed for observing, although it can be used for photography, but will give slower exposure times which might cause a lack of sharpness if you are handholding the camera or if there is noticeable wind vibrating the camera on a tripod. Once you have the solar film, you’ll need to make a holder for it. This is easy to do, and I won’t bother going into details as all the information is available online. Try this link if you are interested - http://www.skyatnightmagazine.com/solarfilter
Once you have got your filter in place (make sure it can’t get blown off in the wind), you can now safely look through the viewfinder of your SLR (don’t look through your viewfinder if you have a compact camera or rangefinder with a separate viewfinder!). It will look quite dark, except for the Sun which will appear as a golden globe in the sky. If the Sun is unobstructed by cloud, then set the ISO to 100, your aperture to f8, and your exposure time to 1/1000th. This should give you a decent exposure, but if there is hazy cloud around you’ll need to go slower on the exposure time. The exposure will stay the same regardless of how much of the Sun in covered by the Moon, so don’t assume you need to make adjustments as the eclipse progresses. First contact (when the Moon starts to eat into the Sun) will occur around 8.30am, and maximum eclipse will occur around an hour later. Times vary by a few minutes depending where you are in the UK.
You'll want to choose a long focal length to render the Sun a reasonable size in the frame. The Sun is smaller than you might think, and it takes a whopping 2400mm focal length to fill the frame with it. Of course, we don't want to fill the frame with it, and if you have clouds in the vicinity around the Sun, then these fill in any empty spaces nicely. I'll be shooting with a 500mm lens, with a x1.4 extender on a Canon 7D II (as seen in the top pic) which gives the equivalent focal length of 1100mm. Below is a test shot I did to see how large the Sun appeared, and to check my solar filter was working properly. You can see that this is pretty much perfect, giving the Sun a sensible amount of the frame, without being too claustrophobic.
Below is a cropped image showing a couple of Sun spots on the right of the disc (March 4th).
If you are lucky enough to be going to the Faroe Islands, then things get a little more complicated when it comes to photographing totality, as exposure times vary massively for the different phases of the eclipse. The moment the wall of darkness arrives, you’ll need to remove the solar filter. Ignore the hairs which will now all be standing up on the back of your neck, and the lump in your throat as you feel all cosmic, and try to get a decent shot of the Sun’s chromosphere. This may mean an exposure time as slow as 1/4 of a second at f/5.6, but the key here is to bracket wildly to cover all options. For me, the money shot is the Diamond Ring which occurs the moment the Sun first reappears from behind the moon. For this, you are back up to around 1/500th at f8 without the filter. After this, you’ll need to replace the solar filter to continue taking shots. Don’t whatever you do spend the entire eclipse firing away like a Paparazzi snapper - take a few moments to pause and bask in the enormity of the event.
Witnessing (and photographing) a total solar eclipse is an amazing experience which everyone should try to do in their lifetime. I’ll be hosting a couple of photo holidays in 2017 which will feature a solar eclipse during the trip. Details to be announced later this year, so keep an eye out on my website or on my Facebook page if you think you might be interested in joining these. You can also sign up for my newsletter which means you'll be the first to hear about them.
I hope that wherever you are, you get clear skies on the morning of March 20th, and I hope I get them even more!