A Photographer's Report of the Great Solar Eclipse of 1991

Jay Keller
Santa Clara, California
July 16, 1991

I got all my film back today, so my eclipse trip is officially over.  I am most relieved and overjoyed to see that I got the shots of my dreams during my trip to the edge of the moon's shadow.

I'm not an astronomer, just an amateur photographer, so I chose not to heed the many warnings from eclipse witnesses that I should forget about taking pictures and just enjoy the show.  This was my first chance at seeing a total eclipse, and I wasn't about to leave my favorite hobby home.  I spent about 3 months planning and worrying about what I should do should I be fortunate enough to view totality.  I already owned a beautiful 300mm Nikkor f/4 lens, so I bought a solar filter and shot some sunspots with it from California.  The images were kind of small, so I scraped up enough money to buy a Nikon 2x teleconverter. Now I was at f/8, 600mm.  I started practicing with this setup, and I got some pretty good Sun shots, showing many small and a few large sunspots.   The eclipse was to be nearly straight overhead, so I found a right-angle viewfinder for the camera (Nikon 8008) at a photo fair.

With the hardware all set, a lot of decisions remained about what film to shoot and what exposures to use.  A fairly large number of articles and statements by experienced individuals convinced me that they agreed on virtually nothing.  Some said don't shoot longer than 300mm, others said don't shoot shorter than 900mm.  Many called for fast film, 200 ASA and over, while some said to shoot Ektar 25 (now called "Royal 25").  A lot of good shots seemed to have been taken with Kodachrome 64.

Two days before leaving for Mexico, I thought I had my game plan: shoot Ektar 25 and/or Kodachrome 25 for the partial phases, and Kodachrome 64 for the total, switching to Ektar 25 when/if I had a chance to change film.

I packed a roll of Fujicolor 400 in addition to my usual (slow) films.  I had plenty of Ektar 25 and Kodachrome 25 and 64, and Ektapress 100 for shooting the kids in the pool and the local scenery in Puerto Vallarta, which was to be the base from where we would travel about an hour to reach just inside the path of totality.

In addition to the 300/600mm lens, I brought 2 other lenses, a Nikkor 20mm and a Nikkor 35-105 zoom.  The 20 caught some beautiful views from the balcony of our hotel room, overlooking the beach, and the zoom was used for general sightseeing photography.

Down in Mexico an experienced eclipse photographer said to shoot 400 speed film, and again I got nervous.  I decided to shoot the Fuji 400 in addition to one of the slower films during totality.  It was the only fast film I had, and visiting just about every photo shop in PV didn't produce too many other options.

Wednesday night was spent checking and re-checking all the equipment, packing it up, and going over the final plans for the actual event.  Like many others who had eagerly anticipated Thursday's rare event, I didn't get much sleep.  At about 8:30 a.m. we boarded the buses, and got to our observing site, which was carefully chosen by astronomer Tom Van Flandern, before 10:00.  It was so caliente, I thought that I or my kids would probably pass out from heat stroke.  I asked my wife to slather me with sun block and I went to work setting up.  First the video on its tripod, then the photo gear.

Everything had worked beautifully during my dry runs at home. But now, in the oppressive heat and tropical sun, I had a new and potentially serious problem.  The tele lens has a tripod mount, by which the camera/lens assembly was being supported by a Bogen 3265 ball head attached to a Bogen 3021 tripod.  All of a sudden the ball head began to slip under the weight of the lens, teleconverter, camera, and right-angle finder.  It wouldn't stay still except at the extreme end of its travel, which meant that I'd need to use the tripod legs to be able to adjust the camera angle.   Not a happy prospect!

Needless to say, I was panicking.  I tried wiping all the grease off of the ball, but the thing kept slipping. What I needed was a counterweight.  I ran around the nearby schoolhouse and found a raw 2-by-4 about 30 inches long half-buried in the mud.   I took it to the outhouse, which had running water (running on to the floor, no drain), and rinsed the mud off.  Using cord and tape that I had brought, two people helped me lash the timber onto the ball head's handle, sticking out horizontally across the tripod's axis to balance the weight of the big lens and everything attached to it.

Incredibly, it worked like a charm.  The camera stayed where it was put, and the pistol-grip ball head was very convenient to manually track the Sun.  I tested the system and loaded a roll of Ektar 25 just in time to be ready for first contact (the beginning of the partial eclipse).

I shot the partial phases on the Ektar, bracketing 1/15 second to 1/60, wide open at f/8. The filter was one of Roger Tuthill's Solar Skreens, consisting of two layers of extremely thin aluminized mylar film. (Note: Roger Tuthill passed away in 2000, I don't know if the Solar Skreens are still being made by someone else or not).

I loaded the Fuji 400 before second contact (the onset of totality).  Just before totality, I re-focused and locked the focusing ring in place with tape.  I was using an electronic cable release, so I could stare at the Sun when the miraculous event started.   I'm concentrating on the photography while writing this article, but it was difficult to do so at the time, when the Sun blacked out before my eyes.

I shot the Fuji off in under a minute, occasionally putting my eye into the viewfinder (under a black leather hood) to make sure the Sun was still in my frame.  The view through the finder was just as spectacular as the naked-eye view.  I rewound and reloaded.  I was lucky I had practiced loading the camera with its back facing down, it isn't easy to do, and I heard that at least one person failed to get the film engaged and lost his roll.  I loaded the second roll, Kodachrome 64. I had been shooting the Fuji 400 at 1/500 to 1/60. The Kodachrome I started doing from 1/30 to 1/125 with a some insurance shots at 1/15 and 1/8.

Totality ended just before I finished the Kodachrome, so I caught the closing "diamond ring" and then a couple of shots of 99% partiality again.  I rewound the film and put all 3 rolls in an insulated spot so they wouldn't bake when the Sun came back out.   We revelled in the glory of the experience for a while then boarded the buses back to Puerto Vallarta.

The video, although very exciting and enjoyable, doesn't have the ability to recall the actual visual experience of the total eclipse.  So I carefully guarded my eclipse rolls and worried constantly about how they would turn out.  Did I blow it?  Was I out of focus?  Overexposed?  Would my images cook by the time I got them home?   Or would some over-zealous bureaucrat at the airports X-ray them to death?  And once they got to the lab, I didn't even want to think about all the things that could possibly happen to them there.

I got my stuff back today.  The Kodachrome went to The New Lab in San Francisco, and the Ektar 25 prints and Fujicolor prints went to Calypso Color Labs, a superb pro lab in Santa Clara.

The results:

The Fujicolor 400 was too fast.  The pictures look good, people are impressed by them, but they don't look like what it really looked like.  The corona extends far out, more than a 2 solar diameters in places, but the color range of the real event is missing.

The Ektar 25 for the partial phases (with filter) gave good (light blue) Sun shots, with many sunspots visible.  These are good pictures, but boring, I probably won't waste my time photographing partial phases next time, except maybe I might try one of those cool wide-angle multiple-exposure shots.  But if I wanted to count sunspots, this would be a good setup, with the best exposure centering around 1/30 at f/8 with the 2-layer optical grade Solar Skreen.

The Kodachrome 64 saved the day.  The slides are breathtaking.  At least half of the roll are stunning shots, showing no less than 3 huge solar prominences in bright hot-pink-orange-fire, just as we saw them in Mexico.  I took them back to Calypso and had 4x5 inch inter-negatives made from the best ones, which were then used to make my enlargements.

My trip is complete, for I got a few shots that really recall the great event.

To those who say a photo can't do justice to a total eclipse, I'd say now that I totally disagree.  We are seeing more detail in the prominences than we noticed in real-time.  Sure, it's too bad they're not dancing around the way they were in the sky on eclipse day, but these slides give us goosebumps, and they allow us to re-live the brief but wonderful moments we spent standing in the moon's shadow.

If there's a next time, I will shoot only slow film, bracket even more widely, and if possible I'll get hold of a clock-drive mount to keep the Sun centered in the frame over time and to add that extra nth-degree of sharpness.

See also:

Eclipse Report


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