I’m thankful that circumstances and the weather were in my favour so I was able to experience totality during the solar eclipse two weeks ago.
The eclipse was occurring not long after sunrise, with the partial starting around 05:30, then totality starting about 06:34 and lasting barely over two minutes. The second partial lasted another hour after that.
I’m not a morning person. Really really not a morning person, especially on holiday. As soon as I learnt there was a total solar eclipse only a couple of hours flight away from me, my partner and I booked our holiday within days. It was weeks later that I learnt the eclipse was so early in the morning, and I must admit I grumbled a bit to myself. But chances like this don’t come along very often so I just had to suck it up.
We stayed in a small apartment by the water in Cairns. With the ocean just a minute’s walk away, in theory we could have an easy stroll to watch the eclipse. We may have even been able to see it from our balcony. But just to the south is a large unnamed headland, dense bushland and just the place for clouds to form. Having been warned by a friendly tourist info woman that there were clouds there most mornings, I resolved to get up before dawn two days before the eclipse to check it out.
As you can see, the Cairns esplanade was really a no-go. So the following day, my helpful yet weary husband and I once again set the alarm before dawn, and drove about half an hour north, to Ellis Beach, to see what the view would be like from there.
Ellis Beach is a long narrow stretch of sand, so we were a little concerned about high tide, but it looked like our best bet. There are lots of small car parks dotted along the length of the beach, giving me hope that we’d be able to find space despite the predicted hordes of people who’d be descending on the coastline.
That night, north Cairns suffered a long power outage due to a downed power line. All my careful preparations went out the window as we wondered if we’d even have enough battery power in either of our mobiles for an alarm to go off! Thankfully, literally just as we were heading to bed, the power came back.
Then the day came. The alarm went off at 03:30am. We got ourselves ready and into the car, and drove north to the small dark road that winds up alongside Ellis Beach. The dark made it hard to spot the unlit parking lots, but by chance we spotted a P sign in our headlights (mostly thanks to the person behind me with who either had a very high car or high beams on, so I pulled over to let them pass). We parked easily, then we sat in the car protected from the wind until it was closer to sunrise.
There were already plenty of people there with more arriving every minute, but the beach had space for us all to spread out along it and not interfere (too much!) in each other’s photos. A small group of serious photographers had set up right by the car park, huge lenses at the ready, large bags of kit by their sides. I, on the other hand, was merely armed with:
- Canon 550D (Rebel t2i or Kiss 2)
- 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens – for that classic close-up
- 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens – for scenic shots as the light changed
- Tripod – acquired free with a magazine subscription several years ago, now falling apart and in dire need of replacement
- Usual paraphernalia – lens cleaner, remote button, extra sd cards, spare battery
You may note that I don’t have any big filters. I did mean to use my polarising filter to provide a bit of protection but forgot. Essentially, and this is NOT recommended, my research and experience led me to feel that my camera would be fine as long as I only used Live View (that is, the LCD screen rather than the view finder) to take the images, and I regularly either used the lens cap or turned Live View off when not photographing. By turning off Live View regularly, the mirror that projects the image up to the view finder drops and protects the camera sensor. I’ve taken many photos of sunsets, and the occasional sunrise, without any extra filters, and both my camera and I have been fine. Thankfully, this tactic worked. But, and I repeat, this is definitely NOT recommended by pretty much anyone sensible. I did have eclipse glasses so I could stare at the partial eclipse safely, but not being a terribly sensible person, I didn’t use any filters on my camera.
We wandered down the beach a small way and set up. The sky wasn’t looking great.
Well, it looked pretty, but not great for eclipse viewing. The cloud was happy where it was. But then, just over the horizon, we saw…
Which then promptly hid behind the cloud.
Then, what light through yonder cloud breaks…
What an experience. As the clouds cleared the beach cheered, and during those strange moments of totality, we all stared at the sun, blotted by the moon, a crazy eye hanging in the sky.
For my own reference as much as anything, the things I wish I’d done better:
- Had two DSLRs, one to lock focus on the sun, one to capture the landscape around me. The light during an eclipse is truly surreal
- Once I had the moon in my sights, lock focus. I wasted too much time waiting for my camera to find focus again, and it wasn’t always very successful and entirely unnecessary
- Drop exposure at totality. Although I needed 1/4000 during the partial eclipse, the light levels drop significantly during totality. I took a bunch of black photos and panicked, I couldn’t think why! Then I realised, of course there wasn’t enough light. You can look at totality perfectly safely with your naked eye, so the camera needs a more normal exposure too
- Check and clean the lens regularly. You have no idea how many spots I’ve removed from these photos. I cleaned my lens when I put it on the camera, but of course standing on a sandy beach facing into the wind is not going to keep it that way.
- Bracket exposures. I thought this was on, but it turned off when I turned off my camera to change the lens and as I was firing in continuous mode and jumping around going “yay eclipse!” I didn’t notice. You can get much better details from the corona and other phenomena from a mildly HDR-ed image
- A longer lens wouldn’t hurt, but then neither would a better camera…
And what I would recommend:
- Preparation. As much as I hated the idea of it, waking before dawn the two days beforehand was really worth it, and gave me much needed confidence and less panic that I’d miss out on the day. As it happened, I was so excited that the early starts weren’t quite as painful as I thought they’d be. I do wish I’d re-read some of the guides I found online before, but with the powercut I was a bit distracted. And for the record, the Cairns esplanade had cloud during totality, so taking the extra time to drive north worked perfectly
- Keep ISO at 100
- Tripod, even a poor one is better than nothing, and thankfully it wasn’t very windy
- Only use Live View
- Use a remote to take the photos, to keep any movement on the camera to a minimum. Very necessary when focussing at the long end of a 70-300mm lens
- Take a willing and able photography assistant. This took the form of my husband, who kept me company and helped me change lenses and is generally nice to have around
- Enjoy! No matter what else, take a few precious seconds to just let the view sink in, without framing that view through the camera. It’s truly amazing.