The solar emoji

The sun at maximum eclipse, when around 93% of it was cover by the moon's disc, and the sun turned into a smiling emoji with very tightly closed eyes, by all accounts!

Despite my concerns about the weather, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to capture the first eclipse I have seen since 1999. I wrote the first part of this blog the evening before the eclipse (in my depressive phase, when I thought I wouldn't get a view at all!) and I have left it as originally posted. Below is the update I wrote after being more than pleasantly surprised at my good fortune the next morning.

part 1 - the set up

Here's the gear I used to set up for my eclipse shots.

Eye Protection

It has been said many times over the past few weeks and bears repeating here: do not look directly at the sun. It will damage your eyes irreparably. Sunglasses are not enough, instead you need to have got yourself special solar glasses. I got a set from Baader which are made of a specially designed coating that cuts out the sun's light by a factor of 100,000. They may look like 3D cinema glasses with tin foil on them, but they are not! Only these types of eclipse glasses are safe enough to view through.

Photographing the eclipse

I ordered special filter paper, again from Baader, and have followed their instructions very carefully to make up a filter for my camera which will allow me to photograph the sun. Again, if you don't have this, you can't photograph the sun close up safely. If you use a zoom lens, the magnification it produces is liable to burn out the sensor in your camera. 

When testing it out, I taped it securely to the lens. And, importantly, I used Live View and not the view finder to locate and focus on the sun. I have heard a story of someone with the filter on his lens, photographing the sun on a windy day. The wind blew the filter off as he was looking through the view finder and he ended up blinded in that eye. 

If you point your camera non-zoomed or indeed your smart phone at the sun, it will not burn out the sensor, but the sun will be too bright for you to be able to make any kind of detail out. 


The sun at 13.30 on 19 Marc h 2015, complete with a sunspot towards the top left hand corner of the sun.

What our star looks like

And here's a test shot I took using my set up. You should be able to make out a sun spot in the upper middle portion of the sun (these are one of the features than can cause aurora displays on earth, so it was very exciting for me to photograph one for the first time!)

What about the weather?

Sadly, even though the sun is splitting the trees here in Northern Ireland today, there is a weak front forecast to make its way south over the British Isles tomorrow, and it appears that it will be plonked over N. Ireland, northern England ans SW Scotland in the morning. That threatens to spoil the fun of all who live here. Outside of that, it's game on!

A weak occluded front is due to pass south tomorrow (Source: BBC Weather)

A weak occluded front is due to pass south tomorrow (Source: BBC Weather)

What if I don't have any of this gear?

The best thing to do is to make yourself a pin hole camera. Take one sheet of card and pierce it in the middle with a pin. Take a sheet of white paper. Stand with your back to the sun, holding the card up at your shoulder. The light will shine through the pin hole - put the white sheet of paper into its path and you will find a tiny picture of the sun appears!

So good luck for tomorrow everyone - and be safe!

Part 2 - the eclipse delivers the goods

When I glanced out the window on the Friday morning, I thought my pessimism was justified - there was total cloud cover, and it looked very thick and like it wasn't going to budge. But, little did I know, just a few hours later I would be marvelling at my second astronomical event in just a few days (after the stunning aurora of Tuesday night.

So up and out I went. Despite driving through a driving rain shower, as I looked to the west I saw some breaks in the cloud. Could we be lucky enough to catch one of these? As the time of the eclipse got closer, so did the gap. And for the next hour or so, just when we needed clear skies, we more or less got them. 

I got my filter on my camera, using Live View to manually focus, and shot away as the moon began to eat into the cloud. At first, there was still quite a lot of the sun showing, including that sun spot that I had noticed yesterday. My DIY filter was working well! After this the cloud thickened a bit and my camera couldn't pick anything up through the filter. 

But it didn't take long for the cloud to thin a bit again. And over the next half hour or so, as we approached the maximum, This is a composite shot of the photos I got at the eclipse approached its maximum around 09.30 and then as the moon began to pass away again. This was one of the shots I'd really wanted to get, so I'm delight to have bagged it!

As we got closer to maximum, as predicted, the light levels dropped quite suddenly and very noticeably. It was a curious but very cool effect.It was kind of like the low light of twilight. But, with the sun still quite high in the sky, the shadows were entirely wrong for twilight. They weren't low enough. It reminded me of the effect they sometimes use in TV shows when they are obviously shooting during the day but want it to be like evening, so they just underexpose the shot. But the shadows are all wrong and totally give the game away. Very weird - but very, very cool!

Also, as predicted, the birds were totally confused by the whole experience. Birds that had been happily flying around me headed for the trees in the twilight light, thinking that the day was coming to an end. 

As the maximum passed, the clouds began to thicken. This produced its own cool effect though, and I was able to take the filter off and shoot the sun through the diffused natural filter the clouds were providing. The effect was to give some wonderful abstract cloud patterns around the eclipsed sun. I really quite like them.

So there we are until 2026. Thanks to #eclipse2015 for a really rather wonderful hour when millions of people across the UK turned into enthusiastic and unashamed astro geeks. The geeks shall inherit the earth one day, as we all know!