A Dimming of the Sky – the 2012 Annular Solar Eclipse

by George Murphy on May 21, 2012

There’s nothing like a celestial event to remind us that our world is so much bigger than the latest tabloid driven, water cooler gossip. Everyone pauses for a moment to turn their awareness to something bigger than everyday life, and an often forgotten sense of our connection to the workings of a universe beyond our reckoning or control.

Whether you’re the spiritual sort or not, the universe is one big awe-generating machine, either way;  and while an annular solar eclipse is not the most eye-poppingly dramatic of celestial events–especially when compared to a full-on total solar eclipse–it’s still a rare enough treat that lots of eyes turn skyward to catch a glimpse of the heavens in action. Ironically, despite calendar reminders and more, I was so absorbed in other things that I almost missed the annular solar eclipse that happened just yesterday.  I managed to scramble outdoors just in time to catch the eclipse at it’s peak (thanks to a text from my wife, who happened to be driving up the Central Valley from Southern California and noticed the change in lighting).  There is just something so alien about seeing the world go dim in the middle of a clear, sunny afternoon. Part of you isn’t sure at first if there isn’t something going wrong with your own internal wiring, instead of the world around you.

What follows is a brief gallery of images taken in Petaluma, California on May 20th, 2012 during the Annular Solar Eclipse.

B120520B-001-01a - Annular Solar Eclipse


B120520B-005-01a - Projected images of eclipsed sun in tree shadows


B120520B-012-01a - Watching the 2012 Annular Solar Eclipse


B120520B-018-02d - 2012 Annular SOlar Eclipse


B120520B-059-02a - 2012 eclipse reflected in window



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I stepped outside into the sunny dimness and could see hundreds of crescent shapes dancing on the ground within all the shadows of the neighborhood trees, where sunlight poked through leaves and branches like living pin-hole cameras projecting the image of the nearly obscured Sun.

Even though covered ninety-percent by the Moon, the exposed parts of the Sun were still too bright to look at directly–and a good way to risk permanent damage to your eyes!  If I couldn’t watch it directly, I could at least photograph it;  so I scrambled to get a telephoto lens and extender on my camera and cranked down the shutter speed and aperture as far as they would go, to see if I could get a properly exposed image.  I even popped on a polarizing filter to act as a neutral density filter that would darken the image by more than half again.

The effect was still blown out–though surreal–as the overexposed rays of sunlight wrapped past the tiny iris opening of my lens, to create strange diffraction patterns on the camera sensor–an effect I would only pause to appreciate later. For the moment I was scrambling to find a way to darken the image even more…now if I could only find where I had put my set of neutral-density filters?

In between quick trips back into the house frantically scouring different camera cases and cabinets for those darned filters, I also searched for other interesting ways to capture the fleeting event that I could not watch directly with my own eyes, pausing a moment to reminded a neighborhood kid not to stare so long at the Sun, even though he had dark glasses on.

Finally, after one last trip back indoors, I found the ND filters I was looking for, hiding in a spare accessory bag still packed from my last road trip. The moment was slipping away, so I stacked them all as fast as I could, on top of the polarizer that was already attached to the end of my 400mm lens.

On went an 8x, a 4x and a 2x filter.  Combined with the polarizer they would cut the light reaching my camera by more than 99 percent!

Should’ve worked, but my first shots were a chaotic surprise of reflected Sun images bouncing mirror-like off of all of those layers of precision, flat glass filters.  The digital brain in my camera had tried to be helpful, compensating for the much darker scene by cranking my ISO setting up to a whopping 25,600!  That’s sensitive enough to take handheld snapshots at night that show stars!  Yikes!  O.K., I turned off the auto-ISO setting I’d been experimenting with earlier during some low light street shooting, and now finally I was at last able to get some properly exposed shots of a receding, silhouetted Moon slowly revealing the spotted face of the Sun and returning full daylight to the world around me.

Whew!  That was sure a lot of scrambling for such a slow, serene event.  Won’t see another one of those around here until Sept. 23rd, 2071, but with a little effort there’ll be an opportunity to see a total eclipse in August of 2017.  That one will arc from the Pacific Northwest across North America to the shores of South Carolina. I’ll try being ready ahead of time for that one!


All shots were taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. The ground shots of projected sun shapes were with a Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4 IS USM lens, while the director shots of the eclipse were made with a Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 lens and a dedicated 2x Canon extender. The tight shots of the sun were made using an ISO sensitivity of 100, at 1/8000th sec @ ƒ/44 using three ND filters (8x, 4x and 2x) and one polarizing filter (just for it’s ND effect. The polarization effect would not be apparent in these types of shots).

In the crazy flared-out shots, the ISO setting was a whopping 25,600, and some noise filtering was applied through Adobe Lightroom and the Topaz Noise filter.


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This post was updated on July 29th, 2012 to accommodate new layout changes to the blog.




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