This morning the sun was shining and as I ate my breakfast it looked like a great day to get out and take some photos. However I was suffering from my usual problem – not knowing where to go.
I had just about made up my mind to head into town and wander around aimlessly for a while when I got an SMS from my sister and during the exchange of messages she suggested I head out to Old John, a very well known Leicestershire landmark situated in Bradgate Park.
By the time I actually got in the car the clouds had blanketed just about all of the sky. But this was fine, I had my tripod and my 10 stop ND filter with me (Cokin Nuances) so I decided during the drive that I would try taking some long exposures.
As I set up my tripod for the first time I was soon regretting not having thought to bring gloves with me. It wasn’t long before I was fumbling with the controls of the camera and shoving my hands in my pockets did little to remedy this.
I stayed around the vicinity of the Old John tower for a couple of hours getting steadily more refrigerated before deciding that I’d done enough and that what I really needed was a huge mug of tea.
As I sat processing my photos in Lightroom and sipping my tea at home, I discovered that the sensors of both my X-Pro2 and my XT-1 really could do with a very thorough clean. Dust spots show up way more at smaller apertures and I tend to use smaller apertures when I’m shooting long exposures.
It’s maybe the one downside of interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras that I can think of – more sensor dust. There’s no mirror so there’s nothing to stop dust falling right onto your sensor. I had given both bodies a good dust out using a rocket blower before heading out. Maybe it’s time I dug out the swabs I bought but have never used?
This is the reason I have used my X100T for most of my Fujifilm based long exposure work in the past. The X100 range are mirrorless but the lens is fixed so there’s no lens swapping opportunity for dust to get inside. But sometimes you just want to shoot some long exposures at different focal lengths so it’s time to suck up the dust.
Corn. Mile after mile of corn. I had been to The Cornhusker State previously but it had been 23 years before and at an earlier time in the year when the corn was less apparent in the fields.
After our concerns about “carmageddon” on the roads due to crazy eclipse crowds we actually had a very smooth journey from Thornton, Colorado to Hastings, Nebraska. We had a hotel room booked for the night before the eclipse and the plan was then to continue on the little way to the town of Aurora next day to watch the action – or if carmageddon occurred we would most likely stay put at Hastings.
After the dry air of Colorado the humidity in Hastings came as a bit of a shock and the skies were almost totally clear – a good omen for the following day. We had most of a day to kill so we looked around the campus of Hastings College where my wife had studied back in the day. I had visited here myself on one occasion and that was during my previous visit to Nebraska all those years before. It was amazing how clearly I remembered the place. We also had a wander around the town and the market stalls which had been put up as part of “SolFest“, the town’s celebration of the solar eclipse. It was a great atmosphere and expectations were running high for the following day.
August 21st dawned, the day of the eclipse. There was quite a lot of cloud about. We had two choices – drive around trying to find clear skies or head to Aurora as we had originally intended – and just hope we would be lucky. You could spend all day driving around trying to find the perfect conditions and still be defeated by the weather and my wife had friends (Dan and Tracy) who were running the Aurora eclipse viewing event – they were staying put and hoping for the best so that was what we did too.
The event had been organised at The Leadership Center, Aurora. Some folks had camped overnight but for those driving in on the day a free shuttle-bus service had been arranged, running from a nearby ball park where we left the car. Arriving at the Leadership Center we chose our spot in the shade of a couple of trees and I got my camera ready. I have to say I was very impressed with the event planning. Dan was providing a commentary during key phases of the eclipse but not so much that it detracted. Food and drink was available to buy at a very reasonable price with the proceeds making a contribution to the funding of the event. There was no charge for use of the shuttle bus and no charge for entrance to the event.
We still had concerns about the clouds. At first we had a clear view of the sun but that was something which was constantly changing, we would just have to hope. It seemed like we had been there for quite a while before I noticed the first sliver of the sun had been eaten away – first contact. From then on I was taking shots at regular intervals. I was bracketing my exposures to try and make sure I got at least something. The filter was working well and I was getting a good view of the ever diminishing solar disc but the clouds were quite variable and although most of the time we could make out the sun behind them I was having to adjust my exposures quite dramatically to compensate. It was difficult to notice the light levels dropping around us, it was so gradual. At one point I noticed that the cicadas had started chirruping as they do in the evening, a sure sign it was getting darker.
We were very lucky. Just moments before totality was due the clouds cleared enough for us to get a really good view. It was amazing just how bright it was right up until totality and then suddenly the light level fell to something similar to twilight as a “black hole” appeared where the sun used to be. I really don’t think any words, photographs or video can possibly do justice to the beauty and other-worldliness of witnessing a total eclipse. I felt like I was in a science fiction movie or a surrealist painting. We were in the shadow of the moon, the sun was a black hole above us with a rim of glowing plasma, stars and planets were visible in the sky during daytime and there was a 360 degree sunset extending all around us.
During totality there is no need for protective glasses or for my solar filter over the lens. I slid it off and carried on shooting whilst also trying to take in every moment of the experience.
It was true that no photo could adequately convey what it felt like but I had come all this way and I was prepared the best I could be so I fired away with my Fuji X-T1 and did the best I could. Yes, I needed a longer lens. A much longer lens. In hindsight maybe I would have been a little better off taking my EOS 7D with me just for the eclipse. That would have given me an effective 460mm (ish) instead of 300mm. What I really needed was a telescope. But I had what I had in terms of photographic kit, that decision had been made weeks before we left England and the most important thing was to experience the eclipse first hand, try to remember everything about it as clearly as I could.
I’m delighted that I was able to capture the photos below, inadequate as they are, I had to crop quite heavily due to my short focal length (click to see them larger). They are part of my memory of a unique event. It would be wonderful if I got the chance to see another total solar eclipse but I feel so fortunate to have witnessed one during my life and to have managed to capture anything at all on camera is a bonus. I was delighted that my DIY solar filter worked so well, much better than I ever expected it to.
Towards the end of 2016 we received an invitation to attend the 50th wedding anniversary celebrations of my parents-in-law over in Colorado during August 2017. Nine days after the anniversary party a total solar eclipse was due to sweep over the USA from coast to coast with the path of totality passing within a “reachable” distance of my in-law’s house in Thornton, Colorado. My wife studied in Hastings, Nebraska and still has friends over there, two of whom were involved in organising an eclipse viewing event in Aurora, Nebraska. So back in December of 2016 plans were hatched and a hotel room was booked in Hastings (a short drive from Aurora) for the night before the eclipse.
I had seen partial eclipses before but I had never been lucky enough to see a total eclipse. Back in 1999 there had been a total eclipse which passed over SW England but at the time we were on the Isle of Lewis in NW Scotland and got to watch that one as a partial eclipse from Callanish stone circle. That was an amazing experience but it wasn’t a totality.
If I was going to find myself in the path of totality then I was sure as heck going to do what I could to try and take some photos of it but I didn’t want to spend a fortune in the process. I’ve already spent quite enough money on photographic equipment over the years and I didn’t want to spend loads more especially for an event which could be wiped out by the weather. After doing a bit of research I decided to make my own solar filter using Baader AstroSolar Safety Film and some cardboard.
I decided to travel with my Fujifilm cameras as they are smaller and lighter than my Canon rig, easier to transport. There was also the factor of them being mirrorless which I saw as being an extra layer of safety to prevent me from burning out my retinas. I would be looking only at an electronic viewfinder, never a view directly down a lens. The flippy out screen on my X-T1 was also a small factor in favour. This decision being made I then started construction of a filter to fit the longest lens I had for my Fuji cameras, the 55-200mm. This would give me an “equivalent” of a 300mm lens which I knew would be “too short” but I didn’t want to spend thousands just for this one event. I do have the Canon 70-300mm and my old 7D body would make that an equivalent of around 460mm but I had decided to take my Fuji kit and not my Canon kit. The rights and wrongs of that could be debated for ever – the decision had been made.
The solar safety film cost me about £20 for an A4 sheet. A ready made solar filter would have cost me several times that and this was way more fun anyway. The cardboard (as you can see) came from the delivery carton used by my favourite coffee suppliers. In addition some double sided tape and a glue gun were used. Two rings of cardboard were cut and the solar film sandwiched between them then more card was used to create a short tube which would fit over the lens hood of my chosen lens.
I completed the construction of the filter one wet Saturday about three weeks before we were due to fly out to the USA. British Summer being what it is, there wasn’t a sunny day when I was off from work between when I finished making it and when we were due to fly. I did take it out one evening when the sun was behind a layer of clouds and I got at least the idea that it was blocking light. Any other testing would have to wait until we reached Colorado.
Over in Colorado anniversary celebrations were enjoyed, extended family was met, ballgames were watched, mountains were experienced and then we had a couple of quiet days before the journey out to Nebraska for the eclipse. I took the opportunity to set up my camera on a tripod in the garden, pop on the filter and see how it worked. Or how it didn’t.
It worked. And to be honest it worked a lot better than I was expecting it to. At first I thought the splodges were sensor dust. Mirrorless cameras are more prone to suffering from this as when you take the lens off the sensor is directly exposed rather than having a mirror in the way. I was also shooting at f16 which would accentuate any dust on the sensor. However, I moved the sun around in the frame and took more shots as I did so and the splodges stayed put. Sun spots! I couldn’t believe that I was seeing sun spots with my tiny lens and my DIY, bodged together solar filter. I was already excited by the prospect of just seeing a total eclipse. I was now also contemplating the fact that I might be able to capture a set of photos of my own of the event.
I tried the filter out using both my X-Pro2 and the X-T1 (normally I shoot with the 10-24mm on one and a longer lens on the other if I have both bodies with me). I decided that the extra resolution of the X-Pro2 didn’t outweigh the flippy out screen of the X-T1 plus in the event of an accident the X-T1 was bought as a used body and was older technology. Basically I would cry much more if my X-Pro2 got killed during this process. Sorry X-T1 but those were the cold hard facts.
We were due to drive out to Nebraska very early on the morning of Sunday 20th August. We were trying to minimise any issues with busy roads and in the couple of days before we traveled there were indeed stories on the TV news of huge traffic jams and even gas stations running out of fuel. This very nearly put us off the journey. It was a six hour drive each way to our destination in order to see 2 minutes 31 seconds of totality. If we stayed right where we were we would get something like a 90% eclipse without all the driving and the risk of being stranded and out of fuel on the Interstate in the middle of a Mad Max like scenario where rip-off merchants could charge whatever they liked for fuel, food, water – the chance to live on in this cruel, harsh world…
Fortunately our sense of adventure won out and we headed off at 4am on 20th August to drive along I76 and I80 to Hastings and a hotel room we hoped would still be held for us.
If you like your photos nice and sharp and don’t like blur or softness then this might possibly not be the blog post for you. You have been warned.
With World Pinhole Photography Day approaching and seeing as how my previous post was all about feeling like I was stuck in a rut, I thought it might be an idea to make a pinhole to use with my Fuji bodies. It would be fun to do the make and having a pinhole to shoot with would offer some extra creative possibilities. I’d never made one before so it would be a fun learning experience too.
As I predominantly shoot using Fuji X Series cameras these days I decided to make the pinhole to fit my Fuji interchangeable lens bodies.
A pinhole is just that – a small hole through which the light enters the camera. There’s no means to adjust the focus and the aperture is determined simply by how large or small you make the pinhole. It’s very primitive stuff but there’s often a great satisfaction to using simple methods.
I decided I would make my pinhole using a spare body cap. I didn’t want to mess up an original Fuji supplied cap so I bought a cheap third party one from Amazon. It came as a set of body cap and rear lens cap for £3.99 including delivery.
I was expecting to have to wait a few more days for delivery but the caps arrived way sooner than expected on Saturday morning (today as I write) meaning I had the free time to get on with this little project.
The first thing I did was to drink some beer!
This is usually a good idea anyway of course but I needed some metal that would be easy to work. The aluminium of a drinks can would be ideal. I will grudgingly admit that you can scrape by with using a soft drink can but the best results will always be obtained from a beer can… 😉
Having drank my beer and rinsed out the can I used a can opener to take off the top end and then a pair of scissors were employed to snip out a panel from the can. Looking at the interior space of my specially acquired body cap I thought a roughly 2cm square of the metal would do the trick.
The next thing I needed to do was to find the centre of the body cap as I would need to drill a hole through it. I marked out three chords over the circle and then drawing lines at 90 degrees from the middle of each I marked the centre of the body cap. You may want to look up a proper explanation of this method of finding the centre of a circle if you want to have a go at this yourself. I don’t think I did a very good job of it.
I used a 6mm drill bit and it was handy to have one with a point on it like this as I could use that to poke a small centre point hole before I actually drilled the main hole. Once the hole was made I used some 600 grit “wet and dry” paper to smooth the edges of the hole leaving something looking like this :-
The next task was to make the actual pinhole through the square of aluminium taken from the beer can. I held a needle using a pair of pliers and pushed down through the metal. I had read that it’s best not to poke a hole right the way through but just push down enough to make a dimple and then sand the dimple down to form the actual hole. I guess I pushed down too hard and made an actual hole. Oh well, nothing about pinholes is really an exact science so I decided to go with it. I then used the 600 grit wet and dry paper again to sand down both sides of the aluminium. Once I was satisfied it was all smooth I washed it under the tap and then used some rubbing alcohol to make sure that everything was really clean.
Next I used some gaffer tape to secure the aluminium within the body cap, ensuring that the pinhole was positioned at the centre of the larger hole in the body cap. The end result is shown below :-
I might want to paint that little bit of uncovered aluminium with some black paint to stop light bouncing around too much but this will do for now. Pinholes are all about serendipity so a bit of bouncing light doesn’t bother me too much. The pinhole is shown mounted on my X-T1 at the top of this post.
Having spent maybe 45 minutes to an hour making the pinhole this afternoon I wanted to pop out and try shooting with it. I took my tripod as the pinhole creates really quite a small aperture and I was sure that the end results would be blurry enough without adding camera shake to the equation. I was right on that score. The photos I took were quite a bit softer than I expected. I think maybe I need to try to make a smaller hole. Buy hey, this is all part of the fun and if I want to put a different pinhole into the body cap then it won’t be too difficult as it’s only taped into place.
I decided to go with the flow and edited this photo in Analog Efex to add some “distressing” – dust, dirt and a wet-plate look. When I feel like having another go I’ll see if I can make a smaller pinhole.
Edit : Evening of Sunday 19th March.
I just had to try creating another pinhole. With the body cap already prepared it took much less time. All I had to do was cut some more aluminium, make the hole, sand it down, clean it and stick it in place. I took a quick test shot of the kitchen table using the new hole and it appears to be sharper. I won’t really be able to tell properly until I get out and shoot somewhere with it.