Oregon State University, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Oregon State University, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

7 Tips From a Nikon Pro for Photographing the Total Solar Eclipse

Oregon State University, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Oregon State University, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

We bear witness each day to some small celestial wonder never again to be seen by human eyes. The rare meteor—some lost fragment of a comet gone by—coursing through the heavens as a brief and tiny luminescent slice. The pulse and cadence of a distant star's twinkle, as unique as a fingerprint's swirl or the latticework of a snowflake. Those moments and details belong to their witnesses, and to no one else. They will never be seen precisely the same way again. It happens, we watch, and we are moved in some way. We take the event with us when we are gone. It's not often that we share in these events with millions, and rarer still that we know the precise time to take a photograph that will last forever.

The eclipse on August 21 will be one such time. To help you capture the moment with your camera, Mental Floss spoke to Steve Heiner, senior technical manager with Nikon, who saw his first eclipse 38 years ago. Here is what he told us you need to know. 


Witnessing the eclipse from outside the path of totality is like catching a glimpse of Disneyland from the highway. It's just not the same. Either you are there or you are not. The first step, then, in photographing a total eclipse is getting there. This is not as easy as it sounds, and this late in the game, accommodations are hard to come by—but not impossible. Such large cities along the path as Idaho Falls, St. Louis, Nashville, and Columbia are equipped to handle massive crowds from tourism and conventions. You can still find a room. Moreover, active, retired, and reserve military service members across the country have exclusive access to such major bases along the path as Whiteman Air Force Base, Fort Campbell, and Fort Jackson. So if you really want to be in the path, do not despair, but do not delay.


Sure, a few fortunate photographers will walk into the path peeling protective cellophane from the virgin displays of shiny new cameras … but it is not a requirement. If you have any camera at all—including the one on your smartphone—you're practically prepared for the event already. You might want a solid, stable tripod, too, but it is not a requirement. What you will definitely need is a "full aperture solar filter" to cover your camera lens. This will protect the camera's image sensor from being damaged by sunlight during the partial phases of the eclipse. Such filters are not hard to find, though perhaps patronize a reputable retailer. (The eclipse has brought out more than a few hucksters.) Consider also procuring protective eyewear. You will be staring at the Sun, after all, and will presumably want to continue using your eyes the day after the eclipse. Get a few pairs, because according to NASA, you can use the filters from ISO-certified eclipse eyewear as a full aperature solar filter [PDF] on your smartphone. And don't forget to turn off your flash.


"If you shoot a picture that excludes everything but the Sun, then it looks like every other picture that you can pull up on the Internet, or that anyone has ever shot of a solar eclipse," Heiner tells Mental Floss. Eclipses happen several times around the world every year. There are enough pictures of a Moon-masked Sun to go around. "I've been encouraging people to try to put the eclipse in context."

To that end, rather than using a telephoto lens trained on the Sun, consider a more moderate or wide-angle lens able to capture not only the eclipse, but also some scenery around you. "As the eclipse approaches totality, turn around 180-degrees and photograph people looking through their solar glasses. It can be almost as interesting a photograph as the Sun itself," he says.


"If you're interested in isolating the Sun in the sky and getting nothing but the actual eclipse, obviously it benefits you to be right in the path of totality," says Heiner. "You'll get that distinct corona on the outside as the event is taking place." Heiner recommends keeping the lens filter in place right up to the moment of totality. Then remove the filter from your camera and behold a shimmering, hazy halo of light that seems to reach from the black Moon's horizons. It is safe to photograph this. When the Sun again emerges from the Moon, reattach the filter.


Remember that this is the photography event of the year, and battalions of professionals will be drawn to the path. You probably can't take a better shot than they can. Rather than trying to take an eclipse photograph worthy of the cover of National Geographic, set your sights lower—literally. Everyone will see the Sun, but only you will see the city, park, mountains, or canyons around you. Only you will see the children laughing at the wonder of the moment, the animals scurrying along, the jaded teenagers struck with wonder. "Look around and try to keep your own personal context in mind when you're shooting," says Heiner. "Those are the pictures that, while they can include the eclipse, will also include elements that others will not have access to. It makes the pictures more personal."

He recalls his own experience from an eclipse 38 years ago. "One of the most intriguing things that I remember was that, if you look around under the shade of trees, all that dappled light—which looks quite normal on any other day—will turn to tiny crescents during the eclipse. To me that sort of detail can be as interesting as the actual eclipse itself. I would encourage people not to always be looking straight up at the Sun. Look around. Notice what's going on around you, and all the excitement regarding the eclipse. I think some of those pictures will end up being the ones you really remember."


The eclipse will be a very forgiving photography model even for rank beginners. The Sun will be reduced to a very prominent crescent shape as the Moon travels across its face. During that time, it is crucial to have a filter attached to your camera. In addition to protecting its sensor, it will ensure that pretty much the only thing illuminated in the scene is the Sun. Most camera metering systems will factor that in and take fairly decent photographs.

Heiner suggests that amateur photographers consider bracketing their photographs. This basically involves shooting multiple pictures at slightly different exposure settings. The benefit of digital cameras today is that when you shoot a picture, you can review it immediately. If you see a picture you don't like, you can make a fast adjustment to correct the flaw. (Nikon recommends choosing a single aperture and bracketing shots "over a range of shutter speeds from 1/1000 second to 1 second.")


"Somebody at a high level might consider doing what is known as a timelapse," says Heiner, "when they can set the camera to take pictures automatically at a given interval. With the appropriate filter in place as usual, they can actually shoot photographs unattended through the whole process of the eclipse, and then actually stack them together or assemble them into a single image later, using software." (Nikon provides tutorials on how to do this, and other eclipse photography techniques.)

Regardless of how you record the eclipse, don't forget to experience it not through glass or smartphone screens, but with your own eyes, your own senses. Before hoisting your camera and snapping the Sun, take it all in. Make your memories. See a day turned to darkness, and animals scurrying home to nests and hollows. See the human response, which might perhaps be the most moving. For fleeting moments—a minute or two out of one's entire life—all heads will turn and rise in unison and cast no judgment but wonder. Here we are, on a pale blue dot, sharing in event of our star blotted from the sky. 

Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
10 Astonishing Things You Should Know About the Milky Way
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Our little star and the tiny planets that circle it are part of a galaxy called the Milky Way. Its name comes from the Greek galaxias kyklos ("milky circle") and Latin via lactea ("milky road"). Find a remote area in a national park, miles from the nearest street light, and you'll see exactly why the name makes sense and what all the fuss is about. Above is not a sky of black, but a luminous sea of whites, blues, greens, and tans. Here are a few things you might not know about our spiraling home in the universe.


The Milky Way galaxy is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers (about 621,371,000,000,000,000 miles) across. Even traveling at the speed of light, it would still take you well over 100,000 years to go from one end of the galaxy to the other. So it's big. Not quite as big as space itself, which is "vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big," as Douglas Adams wrote, but respectably large. And that's just one galaxy. Consider how many galaxies there are in the universe: One recent estimate says 2 trillion.


artist's illustration of the milky way galaxy and its center
An artist's concept of the Milky Way and the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* at its core.
ESA–C. Carreau

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy composed of an estimated 300 billion stars, along with dust, gas, and celestial phenomena such as nebulae, all of which orbits around a hub of sorts called the Galactic Center, with a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star") at its core. The bar refers to the characteristic arrangement of stars at the interior of the galaxy, with interstellar gas essentially being channeled inward to feed an interstellar nursery. There are four spiral arms of the galaxy, with the Sun residing on the inner part of a minor arm called Orion. We're located in the boondocks of the Milky Way, but that is OK. There is definitely life here, but everywhere else is a question mark. For all we know, this might be the galactic Paris.


If you looked at all the spiral galaxies in the local volume of the universe, the Milky Way wouldn't stand out as being much different than any other. "As galaxies go, the Milky Way is pretty ordinary for its type," Steve Majewski, a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia and the principal investigator on the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE), tells Mental Floss. "It's got a pretty regular form. It's got its usual complement of star clusters around it. It's got a supermassive black hole in the center, which most galaxies seem to indicate they have. From that point of view, the Milky Way is a pretty run-of-the-mill spiral galaxy."


On the other hand, he tells Mental Floss, spiral galaxies in general tend to be larger than most other types of galaxies. "If you did a census of all the galaxies in the universe, the Milky Way would seem rather unusual because it is very big, our type being one of the biggest kinds of galaxies that there are in the universe." From a human perspective, the most important thing about the Milky Way is that it definitely managed to produce life. If they exist, the creatures in Andromeda, the galaxy next door (see #9), probably feel the same way about their own.


John McSporran, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

We have a very close-up view of the phenomena and forces at work in the Milky Way because we live inside of it, but that internal perspective places astronomers at a disadvantage when it comes to determining a galactic pattern. "We have a nice view of the Andromeda galaxy because we can see the whole thing laid out in front of us," Majewski says. "We don't have that opportunity in the Milky Way."

To figure out its structure, astronomers have to think like band members during a football halftime show. Though spectators in the stands can easily see the letters and shapes being made on the field by the marchers, the band can't see the shapes they are making. Rather, they can only work together in some coordinated way, moving to make these patterns and motions on the field. So it is with telescopes and stars.


Interstellar dust further stymies astronomers. "That dust blocks our light, our view of the more distant parts of the Milky Way," Majewski says. "There are areas of the galaxy that are relatively obscured from view because they are behind huge columns of dust that we can't see through in the optical wavelengths that our eyes work in." To ameliorate this problem, astronomers sometimes work in longer wavelengths such as radio or infrared, which lessen the effects of the dust.


Astronomers can make pretty reasonable estimates of the mass of the galaxy by the amount of light they can see. They can count the galaxy's stars and calculate how much those stars should weigh. They can account for all the dust in the galaxy and all of the gas. And when they tally the mass of everything they can see, they find that it is far short of what is needed to account for the gravity that causes the Milky Way to spin.

In short, our Sun is about two-thirds of the way from the center of the galaxy, and astronomers know that it goes around the galaxy at about 144 miles per second. "If you calculate it based on the amount of matter interior to the orbit of the Sun, how fast we should be going around, the number you should get is around 150 or 160 kilometers [93–99 miles] per second," Majewski says. "Further out, the stars are rotating even faster than they should if you just account for what we call luminous matter. Clearly there is some other substance in the Milky Way exerting a gravitational effect. We call it dark matter."


Dark matter is a big problem in galactic studies. "In the Milky Way, we study it by looking at the orbits of stars and star clusters and satellite galaxies, and then trying to figure out how much mass do we need interior to the orbit of that thing to get it moving at the speed that we can measure," Majewski says. "And so by doing this kind of analysis for objects at different radii across the galaxy, we actually have a fairly good idea of the distribution of the dark matter in the Milky Way—and yet we still have no idea what the dark matter is."


andromeda galaxy
The Andromeda galaxy
ESA/Hubble & NASA

Sometime in the next 4 or 5 billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will smash into each other. The two galaxies are about the same size and have about the same number of stars, but there is no cause for alarm. "Even though there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy and a comparable number, or maybe more, in Andromeda, when they collide together, not a single star is expected to hit another star. The space between stars is that vast," Majewski says.


There are countless spacecraft and telescopes studying the Milky Way. Most famous is the Hubble Space Telescope, while other space telescopes such as Chandra, Spitzer, and Kepler are also returning data to help astronomers unlock the mysteries of our swirling patch of stars. The next landmark telescope in development is NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. It should finally launch in 2019. Meanwhile, such ambitious projects as APOGEE are working out the structure and evolution of our spiral home by doing "galactic archaeology." APOGEE is a survey of the Milky Way using spectroscopy, measuring the chemical compositions of hundreds of thousands of stars across the galaxy in great detail. The properties of stars around us are fossil evidence of their formation, which, when combined with their ages, helps astronomers understand the timeline and evolution of the galaxy we call home. 

Mysterious 'Hypatia Stone' Is Like Nothing Else in Our Solar System

In 1996, Egyptian geologist Aly Barakat discovered a tiny, one-ounce stone in the eastern Sahara. Ever since, scientists have been trying to figure out where exactly the mysterious pebble originated. As Popular Mechanics reports, it probably wasn't anywhere near Earth. A new study in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta finds that the micro-compounds in the rock don't match anything we've ever found in our solar system.

Scientists have known for several years that the fragment, known as the Hypatia stone, was extraterrestrial in origin. But this new study finds that it's even weirder than we thought. Led by University of Johannesburg geologists, the research team performed mineral analyses on the microdiamond-studded rock that showed that it is made of matter that predates the existence of our Sun or any of the planets in the solar system. And, its chemical composition doesn't resemble anything we've found on Earth or in comets or meteorites we have studied.

Lead researcher Jan Kramers told Popular Mechanics that the rock was likely created in the early solar nebula, a giant cloud of homogenous interstellar dust from which the Sun and its planets formed. While some of the basic materials in the pebble are found on Earth—carbon, aluminum, iron, silicon—they exist in wildly different ratios than materials we've seen before. Researchers believe the rock's microscopic diamonds were created by the shock of the impact with Earth's atmosphere or crust.

"When Hypatia was first found to be extraterrestrial, it was a sensation, but these latest results are opening up even bigger questions about its origins," as study co-author Marco Andreoli said in a press release.

The study suggests the early solar nebula may not have been as homogenous as we thought. "If Hypatia itself is not presolar, [some of its chemical] features indicate that the solar nebula wasn't the same kind of dust everywhere—which starts tugging at the generally accepted view of the formation of our solar system," Kramer said.

The researchers plan to further probe the rock's origins, hopefully solving some of the puzzles this study has presented.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]


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