May 19, 2012
Eclipse Expectations

A solar eclipse is a big event. Big. And perhaps because it involves forces far beyond our Earth, it seems to occur that much further from our control. It is huge, inevitable and unstoppable, like being run over by a glacier.
In 1979 when I was just developing my passion for photography, I traveled to the Columbia River gorge to shoot the last total solar eclipse visible from North America. The experience had a profound effect on me which changed the direction of my life forever. I admit I became so obsessed with standing in the moon's shadow in subsequent years that I spent more money than I had traveling to places like Mexico, Kenya, and Papua New Guinea to get another brief dose of 'eclipse adrenaline.'
Is it any wonder that over the years whenever I've felt common stress or anxiety, I have had the same nightmare: I step outside and suddenly realize that an eclipse is happening and I had not known it was coming. It is already underway, and I am not ready. I don't have my camera and I am going to miss the great moment. So Wednesday, when I learned an annular solar eclipse was soon to appear in my own backyard, I feared the worst. I had precious little time to prepare, and nothing takes more preparation than astrophotography.
Photographing the sun requires some specific equipment. Mainly, I need a long telephoto lens or telescope, and very dense filters to cut down the sun's intense light enough to see its details. Fortunately, the Bee photo department has a 600mm telephoto lens and teleconverter which--when coupled with a Nikon V1 camera--is perfect for this purpose.

RB V1A.jpg

The V1 camera uses a high resolution image sensor that is much smaller than the DSLR cameras the 600mm lens was designed for. This lens/camera combination results in what would be a 2,200mm lens on a DSLR.

RB LensA.jpg

Unfortunately, the solar filter I have used for years is much too small to fit on this enormous lens. Although there are cheaper alternatives, particularly a product called Baader film, most of the commercial suppliers are sold out of the stuff. Hoards of people have exhausted the stock of Baader film to use for another upcoming solar event, the transit of Venus. I have made makeshift solar filters in the past using fairly common aluminized mylar, so I bought a few samples of a similar product from TAP Plastic here in Sacramento. It proved to be dense enough, and after a few tests, I think it is also optically adequate. So now I will be using a $600 point&shoot camera with a $10,000 telephoto lens and a $0.39 filter.

RB FilterA.jpg

NASA MapA.jpg

NASA publishes detailed data about eclipses on their website and from this, I scouted what I think will be an ideal location from which to shoot. I will be at the Lassen National Park where the moon and sun will align most precisely. My hope is that I can also include a prominent recognizable landmark in the photo as well. In this case Mount Lassen. The park is expecting a crowd of people to view the eclipse from there, and I will try to photograph them as well. If everything works as it should, the Bee will have a nice assortment of photos to chronicle one of the rarest and most beautiful natural phenomena to come our way in years.
I encourage everyone to make an effort to experience the eclipse on Sunday. It is a rare opportunity you should not waste. And I am ready.

May 11, 2012
Super Moon

RB Super MoonA.jpg

Recently I was asked to illustrate what was being called the "Super Moon" - a full moon that, because of its unusually close proximity to Earth, would appear slightly larger and brighter in the sky than normal. Although the difference was barely noticeable, I wanted to make a picture that would suggest the idea that the moon was actually larger than the full moons of recent months. To make the moon as large as possible in the frame, I chose the longest telephoto lens we have in the closet (a 600mm) and added a teleconverter which effectively multiplied the power of the lens by 1.4. This results in an 840mm lens.

The moon's apparent diameter in the photo would be the same no matter where I stood to take the picture. Terrestrial objects like people and buildings, however, would appear smaller in the frame the farther away I actually stood from them. So in order to include some recognizable Sacramento landmark in the photo using a lens that long I would have to back up quite a distance. I also had to take great care to ensure the moon and my landmark lined up correctly. Using lunar prediction data from the website of the US Naval Observatory, I marked an area on a map to determine where I would need to be to line up the Sacramento city skyline with the rising moon.



I spent several hours driving along accessible roads to find a the perfect vantage spot. Because the area to the north and west of Sacramento is so flat, there are few places that afford an unobstructed view of the city skyline. But from the County Road 102 over crossing in Woodland I could see the downtown buildings just over the roof of a retail building if I stood on the tips of my toes. I asked the manager of the retail store if he could help, and he graciously agreed to raise me approximately 20 feet up in the basket of a warehouse forklift. So as the sun set and the moon rose, I made my photo from a 'cherrypicker' just over the treetops in the store's parking lot nearly twenty miles away.