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LeafConfessions of a Coronaphile

Total solar Eclipses are a bigger part of my life than I'd like to admit (a touch of mindless obsession lurks nearby.) But for those who have witnessed this most spectacular of natural events, no words are capable of expressing the awe, the goose bumps, the thrill of the chase, the indelible memories wrought by one of these beauties. By the most unlikely odds, earth's moon is nearly the same angular size as the sun, when they are viewed from the surface--half a degree (it varies only a few percent during the year.) This permits the moon's orb, when it's path crosses the sun's, to just barely block out the intense light from the sun completely, fitting the solar disk just inside the moon's craggier one.
When that happens, at least if you're lucky to be within the very narrow path the moon's shadow traces during the next few hours (or less), you will witness the day become near-night, like the deepest twilight. Sunset colors bathe the full horizon, while a gaping black hole gazes down at you from the inky sky, eye-like and surreal, surrounded by the solar corona, a halo of pearly ephemeral light of delicate beauty. Each time the corona looks quite different, and like an old friend's face you'll recognize each in photographs.
This astonishing sight lasts at most a handful of minutes (7 1/2 is about the maximum; most are much shorter than that.) But the totality phase starts and ends with a briefer phase when the tiniest bit of sun's chromosphere peeks through some deep lunar valley or other, the so-called "diamond-ring" effect, for that's a pretty good description of what it looks like.
Anyway, it's common for astronomy-interested people of all kinds to get quite "hooked" on seeing these rare events, traveling all over the world to often odd locations, just to catch sight of what I've tried in vain to hint at above. I got hooked myself, and for the thirteen years between 1972 and 1985 managed to see well and capture every total solar eclipse that touched Earth. I became a charter member of The Eclipse Chaser's Club, and learned how to best avoid clouds, or minimize their likelihood of stealing away the whole show, and became a pretty decent eclipse photographer. Since you get to compete mostly with very specific scientific reconnaissance and very simple amateur snapshooting, it's not hard to become a big fish in this small pond.
I still cherish a letter from an obviously pleased Dr. Gordon Newkirk, late of the High Altitude Observatory in Colorado, when one of my color prints (1977) was sent to him by Ron LaCount, a friend at the NSF. Newkirk designed the world's finest coronal camera, pioneering the use of "radial-gradient neutral density filters" (now you know.) His work, which amazed many coronophiles, was well beyond what most others were doing in imaging the corona in the 60's and 70's. It's a considerable misfortune that the range of brightness in the sun's corona (over 10,000 to 1), goes WAY past the capabilities of any single photo or electronic imaging device. The HAO made some wonderful B&W images with their filter. An additional complication would have been to capture the whole thing in natural color. As they say, "many have tried..."
Anyone who attempts this stunt must grapple with innovative methodology to squeeze this ridiculous range onto available media. Like others, I tried all kinds of filters, masks and mechanical devices to pull it off, with varying success, all falling short of satisfaction. Then I realized that the simplest way, with the least pressure while viewing the eclipse, was to just take a careful series of different exposures, from short to long, and later assemble these in the darkroom via a complex compositing method. I've combined from three to eight images in this way, although four or five are usually enough. The prints are all one-of-a-kind, since each takes over an hour, and the failure rate is very high (yes, of course I sent Newkirk one of these prints..!)
Since 1991, with such tools as Photoshop and Photo CD, and a fast Mac (an ideal choice), I've been able to port over most of these darkroom techniques into the electronic digital media. This seems to be a much better way to go. It's actually slower than the old darkroom method, but you can tweak what you get until you achieve an optimum result, which can then be duplicated exactly many times, using the incredibly inexpensive Epson Stylus Photo printers and others. There are other approaches to "enhanced corona images" (you may have encountered the over-sharpened, artifact-filled results in the magazines and a few other web sites) but with practice you can simply and honestly produce very close to what the naked eye sees during totality, and avoid those rote-formulae shortcuts. For me, nothing else will do, although it does require some artistic skills with a Wacom tablet, and perhaps a little color darkroom experience.
Over the years I've refined techniques that luckily got many covers and full pages in Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazines, a kick in its own way. (Most recently, the November 1999 cover of S&T, see below) My friends and I have traveled to many fascinating, unlikely countries in the process. I'm including several images with this page, as many of my friends insist this isn't a "true Wendy site" unless I include some of these corona photos. (NOTE: Click any small image for a full sized view.)

(A sincere thanks to many of you who have praised the eclipse images here. We've been told by many that these are some of the finest total solar eclipse images available anywhere, and as that was the general goal at the outset, your cudos are much appreciated! )

Please Note: Eventually I'll upload here most of the more than 18 eclipses I've seen, over 56 minutes of "total daytime darkness" so far, which sounds pretty amazing just as a concept. (But then you haven't met John Beattie...)  During occassional work breaks I've been optimizing the earlier images using my newest computer tools, enhancing the best of them, while remaining true to the original. In early 1999 I added several new ones, and better versions of the earlier versions. Don't worry, there are MORE yet to come, incuding: 1976, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1987 and 1990. If any of you saw one of these and would enjoy a memory jog from our site, please stay tuned! Right now you will find:
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= The '60/70's =

total 63leaf1963 - The eclipse that started it all -- my first totality, from Dexter, Maine. From reading the small but charming "Stars" Golden Guide when I was growing up, and a few other astronomy books in the Deborah Cook Sayles Library in Pawtucket, I'd learned that every now and then something really astonishing occurs in nature. But you must prepare in advance, be willing to travel to a particular place, and on the day it happens find a clear spot of sky. Not so easy. Merely spectacular. I had to see one of these for myself! The book listed the next decade's solar eclipses. Nuts, not many. To a teenaged student in the smallest state, with little money, the options were few.
As it happened, a path crossed Maine in July of 1963. During the summer, my parents often suggested we pile into the car for day trips when we could, and this astro-event was too tempting not to suggest, and then head off north. We all wanted to see one, including a good friend, Bob Jepson. The four of us drove up to the Bangor area, and learned the frustrating turn of events: rain was now predicted -- ick! Very few saw anything much in Maine that totality, except over on Bar Harbor, where the cooler ocean air kept clouds at bay for most of the island. Some few observers lucked into being under a hole in the clouds, however, and we were among them. But it was not so obvious that afternoon -- the clouds grew worse and worse as 2nd contact approached, until by 15 minutes to go we were "totally" socked in.
We'd setup on a lakeside hill, now cloudy, but unstable conditions and the cooling of the moon's shadow conspired to poke a small hole in the cloud deck, just as darkness began. Wow! (The fairly wide view above shows how close we came -- BTW, that's Venus shining over nearer the right edge, peeking through a cloud wisp.) Like the big Radio City Music Hall curtains, the clouds parted, we unforgettably witnessed our first totality (and caught several pix) for 62 memorable seconds. Too soon 3rd contact's diamond ring dazzled us, and moments later, neat as you please, the clouds gently came together again, and the sun was not seen any more that afternoon. Show was over!

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Going, Going, GONE! (Click any for a large view)

Five minutes later it began to rain, and we grabbed the cameras and tripods and ran for shelter. I was hooked: wotta experience! (Can you have any doubt of this when you look at the recently found dramatic image sequence above?!) But it was not until after college, living and working in NYC that I began to listen to the call of the wild corona. I just missed getting to see the 1970 totality, due to a airport screw-up with a sick friend. Damn. "Never again!" became my battle-cry, a shove at witnessing ALL the consecutive totalities from the next dozen years, until the 1985 one in deep Antarctica halted my insane "100% viewing streak," at least for few years...

total 72leaf1972 - My second totality (1963 above was the first time I'd seen the corona), this one was observed and photographed through clear skies in July 1972 by Rachel Elkind and me from the deck of the SS Olympia, in the North Atlantic Ocean, a few hundred miles SE of Nova Scotia. The in-between corona you see here is typical of years when the solar activity is neither at minimum nor maximum. Often you'll find angular "arrowhead" shapes at such times, and this in-between corona had a dandy. It's not an uncommon shape for the corona, as you can seen from other photos here and elsewhere taken over the years.
There were only a few small prominences visible this time, those pink-red flames on the solar cusp that often peek over the moon's limb during totality. The exposures I could use on a moving ship were unfortunately pretty short, so, as I explain further below and on the 1977 image, there is not a perfect transition from coronal wisps into deep sky on this composite. (For this computerized version I added some outer details gleaned from several other images by friends who had short, fast lenses -- greater reach, but low on detail. It's still the poorest coronal imagery I've gotten.)
72 CUBut back in 1972 the only images we knew how to make were taken with single exposures. Since writing the brief report above I've found a few snapshots that were our "permanent" views of this corona (actually, color images fade, so these here had to be corrected). This is the best one can hope for using a good camera with telescope, no fancy filters or compositing. We had just gotten a then-new Celestron C-5, which is what we used for the c.u. image at the left, and the diamond just below. It was pretty high-powered (1250mm f.l.) for the 35mm Topcon, especially when you consider the foolhardiness of trying to keep it centered on the sun's disk from a moving, pitching ship out the the North Atlantic! Being new to this, we believed the nonsense we had been told, that kind of gear had already been tested on board the Olympia, and it was a VERY stable ship. Right, sure -- nothing like dissembling to "the rubes" (that was us), to get them to support your venture. We were at our wit's end to try to get what you see here. Most of our shots have the image half cutoff (these both were slightly chopped -- but I repaired the damage after scanning the photos -- so you won't see the problem on the site).
72 diaAlso, with that much motion you are forced to use a pretty fast shutter speed on your camera. Everything we took of 1/8th second or longer was blurred, some quite horribly so! And that was while attempting the trick of waiting for the highest moment of each sea swell, when the ship moves the least rapidly. Oh, well, solid ground is still the best way to do serious eclipse reconnaissance. Faster films are a help nowadays, but a ship is still better suited for naked eye and binocular observation. They can make it easier to get to a good location. This eclipse was hard to see, as most of the path experienced cloudiness. But our ship, guided by savvy meteorologist and eclipse expert, Ed Brooks, just managed to find us a clear spot. The good sky conditions (thanx, Ed!) also allowed us to grab this beautiful diamond ring as totality began. I'm glad to find yet another diamond to put here for you to enjoy. They don't vary quite as much as the coronae, yet each has its own "flavor" and "personality". (I'll save the reasons for another time.)
1973 - The "Big One!" At the end of June 1973 a total eclipse occurred with an unusually long duration of 7m 04s. In the past several hundred years there had only been one eclipse longer than this one, the prior eclipse of the same Saros, in June of 1955. It will take almost 500 more years for another as long. But the totality in 1955 was longer only over water, at 7m 08s. Where the shadow touched land it dropped to about 7 minutes exactly. By the most serendipitous of flukes, 1973 was a chance to view the longest land-based eclipse of my life, certainly, and for many others as well. I really wanted to do it right!
There was the small matter of WHERE this eclipse would be visible: Africa, across mostly the hot and difficult to reach span of the Sahara Dessert, and neighboring central African mountains and savanna. The maximum location was not large -- those going to less difficult regions would be sacrificing duration, particularly in the easiest places: the Atlantic coast near Mauritania, and Kenya, where duration was not even 5 minutes long. Rachel Elkind and I decided to try for the optimum region, in the Air Mountains (it's pronounced: "eye-ear") some miles north of Agades, a small town in Niger, central Africa that resembles Timbuktu in appearance and "convenience." There we timed our totality at 7m 02s, still one for the Guinness Books...!
site 73Here you can see a view of our camp, near a location locals call: "Krip-Krip", right on the center line. That's the main "road" down below, that got us from the nearest airstrip to the camp. Rachel and I got there via a small plane that was piloted by a friendly, bright American missionary she managed to contact, Pastor Kepple, who was also eager to see his first eclipse, and made his services available very reasonably. We wanted to capture aerial motion pictures and stills of the region. This shot is from the SL66 camera, one of several that I snapped while hanging out of the open doorway (Pastor Kepple had removed it for our photography) of the Piper Cub, restrained by a small seat belt and Rachel's firm grip and not much else. If you think taking the stills was risky, hanging onto a heavy, clumsy old Arriflex 35 mm motion picture camera while we cruised over mountain peaks just North West of here was enough to make many of my friends turn white when I got back and excitedly told them about our "nifty adventure!"
camp 73Back on ground here's a moody medium format shot of our camp as the sun set into some residual haze, and the first evening descended rapidly upon us (note: this is a new, much sharper, wide-angle image stitched together from two original slides, just rediscovered and scanned, to replace the mediocre copy of a copy version we had posted here earlier). Temperatures regularly dropped from a daily high of 130+ deg. F, to nighttime lows of 75 deg. F or less, which really felt C O L D by contrast -- ah, desert life!. I climbed the not too steep hill you can see to the left in the prior image to get this view. There are many neat stories which seeing these photos brings back with alacrity. Most will have to wait for another longer dedicated page on this site. The blue-green American tent in the center, by the way, fell down the second day (but NOT Mr. Kantana's bigger one!). I had slept soundly in it the first night. We trusted some other Americans who joined us to help set up the tent (Rachel and I sure didn't know this kind of stuff...!) In the stiff breezes of this location one needs lash the posts from slipping apart (we learned this weeks after we had gotten back home. Our friends didn't take this precaution, and so it all blew down and bent the aluminum poles! (The tent is dead; long live the Tuareg huts...!)
equipHere's the really practical wind shelter that wonderful, enterprising Mr. Kantana built for us with his crew the day before totality. Rachel had managed to meet him in Niger somehow (he was a real desert-rat / local school supervisor) to set up a camp on an earlier trip out there (an adventure-trip during which she met her future husband, Yves Tourre, in fact!) Wind and dust and sand were a constant problem, and this native-style construction of woven mats sewn to large sticks planted firmly into the ground, like the "huts" worked surprisingly well. They would wet them and the ground-mats to cope with the dust. It worked.
You can see the black, upright Nikkor 1200 mm lens with the SL66 Rollei below, the units nearest us in this pix I took right after the eclipse ended (with the camera missing here from the upper orange C5.) That's a polarizing disk with color-coded filters on the top of the Nikkor that I cobbled together at home prior to the trip. I also built the metal mount for the Arriflex 35C motion picture camera in the middle. As all our gear was equatorially mounted and driven (I'd never be so overambitious today--phew! ;-) the Arri, which we rented, had to be modified to go on one of the Celestron tripods, and to hold the Zoomar 500 mm lens. I made a rotating N.D. filter you can see on top of this lens. It went from a heavy density of 4.0 to nearly clear 0.1, depending on the angle. I could set just enough light to reach the movie film and no more -- a neat trick.
In the rear are two Celestron C5 telescopes, piggyback mounted (tricky to align such a rig!). One of two Topcon cameras had Color InfraRed film in it, a curiosity I had also tried in '72, the other had high res color slide film in a 250 exposure back, with motor drive, for time lapses of the partials. The filter on the top is a special Hydrogen-alpha filter (an early one made by expert Del Woods) which allows you to photograph prominences even without an eclipse, and the solar chromosphere's details. I also assembled a second deep green filter, with fussy alignment prisms, to add more colors to the deep red of H-alpha, giving an orange sun with red through green details.
total 73This is the lovely intermediate-type corona we witnessed there in the desert that Summer near noon (not a cloud in the sky, just some dust haze.) The moon and sun almost exactly overhead (only 1991 was actually at the zenith, a few more degrees "up") which is not too easy on the neck to view! The SL66 had both a standard back and one I modified with a home-built "radial-gradient neutral-density filter." I got the concept from the same Gordon Newkirk who wrote me the generous letter way above. It squeezes the immense brightness range of the corona into one more manageable by mere photographic emulsion. There are many tradeoffs, and so after inventing several ways to get the same result with darkroom compositing, I stopped using such awkward filters.
This image had to be painfully reconstructed digitally recently from the original negatives, which were not up to my usual standards (I had gotten quite dehydrated the day before and was not yet recovered.) My rad-grad filter gave a green color cast near the limb which I corrected here. Several dust specks got onto it (static electricity?) and they show up on the negs! Rad-grads! But one beautiful image down below from 1998 started out from two excellent negatives Jonathan Kern took using a rad-grad filter he made himself: metal evaporated onto glass. I may try one again the next eclipse, as he's offered to make me one. It will be a lot better than what I could do at home myself with film emulsions and time-exposed rotating masks...!
3 views '73The final proof that we were right on the centerline is easily demonstrated by this triptych from three frames of the 35 movie negative (you may need to scroll the large version.) Note that the two diamond rings are exactly opposite one another. This proves there was no North or South displacement from out location with respect to the center of the moon's disk as it transgressed across the sun. You can always figure out how much you are off the centerline with a framing pair of contact shots like this. If a line between the diamonds goes below the center of the moon, you were South of the centerline, vice versa in the opposite case.
One final word before moving on -- this center image is a typical example of a well exposed normal photograph of the corona. If you now compare it with the naked-eye view taken with the SL66, you can see at once how inadequate any single image is in recording the shape of a corona. It is made rounder than the reality of our eye's view, and inner parts wash out into overexposed pure white, while outer portions are invisible, too dark to have been picked up on the film. Wish you could have been with us to see this all, and share in one of the greatest adventures of my life!
1974'sleaf1974 - When an accurate path for the June 20th total eclipse was calculated, many of us were wondering what the blazes we were going to do to get a decent look at this one. Yes, the low sun angle assured a wide path, but look at where it was: out over the Indian Ocean, mostly, hitting land over two tiny uninhabited islands, and just brushing over the SW tip of Australia. Gleep. A few enterprising souls decided to put together the first public jet plane observation trip. Horst Engel, of VIP Travel in CA, came up with the plan, with the help of a veteran eclipse chaser and astronomy professor (and former department head at Augustana), Harry Nelson. I saw their small ad in Sky & Telescope and sent off a letter to find out the details.
I liked what I got back, and thought this seemed perhaps the least risky way to snag totality. For air viewing, all the seats had been removed from the Ansett 727 jet on the left side. Only half a planeload of passengers would fly the short trip, and they would set up their equipment by these windows. I knew a plane would be less unstable than a ship, but wanted to be sure, as I intended to take many exposures with my latest radial gradient ND filter (more below), which needed a slow shutter speed. So I built a very fast tele lens (f/5 for 600mm) from Jaegers parts, and went to Connecticut to search out the wonderful Ken-Labs people, who made gyro stabilizers for camera equipment.
I'll skip the details here, with a deeply felt "thank you" to the many people who helped me to get ready for the tricky challenge. I became good friends with a lot of the other travelers on that trip, although none as close as with Harry and Horst, who I later joined as a member of the adventurous Eclipse-Chaser's Club (it eventually disbanded in the mid-80's). As you can see from the above photo (which got reprinted quite a lot back then, for very few other decent coronal shots from this eclipse existed) we were successful. By chasing the shadow we experienced about 7 min. 12 sec. of totality, a bit longer than I'd seen in 1973. Immediately after totality I caught this shot of some of the clutter near me on board, a jungle of tripods, cameras, and small telescopes.
in 727I've seen other snapshots of many of us set up on that flight -- phew! It was certainly memorable, and my equipment behaved smoothly, showing many weeks of preparation were not wasted. That's the big, fast tele lens you see here in the center, with a heavy 250 exposure back Topcon attached (the gyros were towards the window and can't be seen here). The cabin coloration is yellow-green-gray, due to the narrow diamond ring's weird light illuminating the plane at the time. The pilot managed to handle the navigating extremely well, as the duration proved (we were actually just a little south of the centerline). Harry sat up front with him, announcing timings and other info over the plane's intercom. I also gave him my stopwatch for timing totality for the rest of us. Harry also was a big help in many other ways with all my equipment's needs. He was an excellent friend to observe with (we saw several more together, like 1977, below.)
umbraAs the diamond ring ended totality, the plane turned very slightly right (do they say "starboard"?) and leveled off. We could now watch an astonishing sight: the huge rounded shadow (umbra) of the moon was spectacularly visible on the cloud-deck below us (all land and ship based observations were clouded out), as it sped off supersonically. Wow! I scrambled for my 20mm lens, to take this very wide angle view of this amazing, ominous charcoal blue "t-h-i-n-g", a menacing darkness that dwarfed our plane, and made us all feel like teensy gnats floating just above the hemline of a silent, fleet-footed giant (can't you just sense that from this shot?). In some ways, this was as dramatic as the eclipse itself. But totality was subdued by the small windows. It felt more like watching it on TV than actually being there. I've only witnessed totality one more time (1979) from a plane for that reason. Yes, the shadow IS amazing. But the main show is compromised, even when you've been kindly given the best window on the plane (which was still none too wonderful -- three layers of plastic -- ick, indeed).
rg bluesThose original special filters had a lot of problems with them (Jon Kern's are SO much better!), and my first few were none too good. After scanning the image to the left yesterday, I had to remove an annoying mess of tiny hairs and other airborne dust specks that were static-attracted by the filter's acetate base aboard a low-humidity jet, and showed up on every print, grumble, grumble... I did my best to make the view you can see here, long before Macs and Photoshop and digital imaging were even a dream. And you can see that the innermost corona came out much too dark, while the middle portion was rendered way too bright (oops). Kinda ugly, ain't it? But it does show the rather complex, boomerang shaped (Australian? ;^) corona we experienced late that morning, a couple of hundred miles west of Perth, from whence we'd departed, only to return to a few hours later, on a "journey to nowhere." All the same, I wish you could have been there...
yeay!In preparing this report for you, I wondered if I might come up with one more image, combining the tediously cleaned rad-grad photo just above, with the very decent image further above, which I took with a single 1/8th sec. exposure. Took a lot of Wacom to "interpolate the rest." That first shot was made with twice as high a resolution (2-1/4" Rollei with a Celestron 1250mm telescope, my "back-up" rig), and shows the corona better where the above fails to, and vice-versa. So here for the first time (probably anywhere) is a final composite image that gives you a good look at the lovely corona that brisk winter's day (June in Australia), as it appeared to the eyes of those of us lucky to be on board. It may not be as sharp or free of flaws as some of the later images you see here, but it was worth some extra work to document a totality few people ever saw. (Note: thanx to a couple of you who wrote to ask that we post this eclipse here next, as you remembered being there with us. Thank you, and enjoy!)

leaf1976 - And now here's a unique "total eclipse" of a rather surprising kind, one that took place in April of 1976. We've created a special page for this seldom remembered astronomical event. To see the images and read the full report on a very rare example of totality, just click here. (Then don't forget to come back, since we've got many more gorgeous solar eclipses to show you!)

set!leaf1977 - This October totality had to be observed from the deck of another ship, the SS Fairsea, in the middle Pacific Ocean, several hundred miles due west of Panama. You can see me nearly all set for the "show" in the photo to the left. Lois Nelson, an experienced eclipse chasing pal, is wisely shading me with my umbrella, while I'm occupied with equipment, although I did get a slight burn that afternoon. To the left of Lois is Steve Greenberg, one of the more knowledgeable "coronaphiles" I met at many eclipses in the 70's-80's. I'm grinning for the ship's photographer, in front of a windbreaker the ship's carpenter built and painted for me (the wind conditions were intense.) This was thanks to Harry Nelson, Lois's dad, who was the head of our little "Eclipse Chaser's Club", during our mini expeditions from 1974 to 84 (more above, for 1974). He always looked out for me, as I took the most ambitious pix for the club, but I was often an "absent-minded professor," who needed help. Harry somehow got the breaker constructed the night before.

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2nd Contact begins..
..as the clouds leave
As totality approached, we counted several clusters of low-lying cumulus clouds occasionally blocking our view. The final group moved off at 2nd contact (shades of 1963!) as you will see in the two consecutive views just above. The moon presented a very deep valley at the spot where the sun's last slice of chromosphere could shine forth, producing an unusually long diamond ring of over 11 seconds! (
Extra: see more about the moon's limb right HERE.) Sky conditions were excellent, and I got off about a dozen frames before another swiftly moving clouds took it all away again a minute later.
total 77This was the first corona in which I began to develop the careful, tedious darkroom method (since the earlier experiments with a so-called "rad-grad filter" had been problematic) of compositing four negatives, to get this near-naked eye view of a near minimum-type corona: streamers spread out mostly horizontally, and short polar "plumes/brushes" above and below.
I was limited to the slowest exposures I could get by being on board a bouncing, or at least greatly drifting, moving platform (had no choice this time, so I gave in against my previous rant in 1972, "Never again!" At least this ship was not quite so filled with tourists of the "football fan" variety -- the Olympia had been the true "ship of fools"!) Because of this limitation, the outer portions of the composite view above are not so well imaged, even with a careful attempt to fill in that small weakness when I made the computerized version for you here. This was also the first eclipse during which I met Jay Pasachoff, a very well-known eclipse expert and astronomer, with whom I've just collaborated on a new image from the 1998 eclipse you may wish to look at...

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= The '80's =

total 80leaf1980 - This eclipse was again land-based, from the seacoast town of Malindi, in Kenya, East Africa (it's generally wise to seek an over-water view, while you are on solid land.) A friend and I had booked a quick eclipse trip to the area, my first visit to Kenya. Since I was in the midst of composing the musicscore to Kubrick's The Shining, I had only a few days grace period to "sneak away" ;-), before the next batch of music would be needed (I had just sent off a huge collection of cues that week) and could not stay long.
The equipment was pretty much that used during the last few eclipses. The main long lens was the Nikkor 1200 mm, feeding my Rollei SL-66 camera. The auxiliary lens was the 760 mm Celestron, feeding my Topcon Super-D body, with the motor drive attached, and a homemade polarizing filter. This I used to get exposures at four angles, zero, 45 degrees, 90 degrees, and 135 degrees, whereupon the cycle naturally repeats.
Although the sky conditions were perfect the two days prior to totality, coastal Kenya had some high cloud interference on the actual day. I was pretty annoyed, but grateful that the show was far from a complete bust. Later I was given a few other shots taken by friends in somewhat clearer skies just West of Malindi. These were not high res, but allowed the composite here to contain the outer portions with a little better contrast than mine alone would have permitted (you learn to do the best with what you get ;-)
This attractive image is a decent reminder of one of the best coronae I've been privileged to witness (the solar cycle was near its maximum that month.) Contrast this round, busy shape with the quiet horizontal shape of 1977 or 1995 (eclipses are not all alike), years when the solar cycle was near its minimum, and you'll understand why I prefer the complex "maximum" shapes! (1991 was yet another near "max", although the Earth was at a steeper angle to the activity disk, resulting in the more tilted-elliptical corona of that eclipse.)

nd filt 84leaf1984 "Annular" - To the left is an image of the thin, broken ring of an annular eclipse which is so near total that the rough tops of the moon's mountains (tallest peaks are in the South) nearly succeed in blocking the solar disk, but the lower flatlands don't quite make it. (This shot used a metal solar neutral-density filter -- see further below.) Had we been in a rocket only a few miles above the spot near the top border of North Carolina, my fiends and I would have seen a total eclipse. Down on the ground the moon was barely too distant, and totality became annularity. During most annular eclipses the moon is much more distant and "smaller", with a resulting wider "ring" or "annulus", except just as it begins and ends.
At the same time that this image was taken, which was right in the center of the all-too brief 12 or so seconds of annularity, I exposed frames with a wide-open camera, no solar filter (Note: caution -- you could burn your retina trying this, no kidding!) A filter allows you to view and photograph the sun completely safely, and absolutely need one during all BUT totality, when you don't want it at all. This second shot indicates the amazing brightness that even a thin sliver of sun blinds us with (figuratively only, I hope...! Please be careful.) It always looked like daylight to us during this annular spectacle, perhaps late in the afternoon near the middle, but in no way like twilight or early night, as it is during totality.
mid 84aHere's the image near the middle of annularity (perhaps three seconds before -- note the slightly brighter left half, about to be covered further in a moment.) I used my trusty Nikkor 1200 mm lens feeding a motorized Mamiya 645 camera. You'll notice right away that even with this short exposure (1/30th second at f/11) there is not a lot to see. My dear friend who was one of the Celestial Mechanicians at the U.S. Naval Observatory, LeRoy Doggett, (he died prematurely, as I described elsewhere) was in our small group. He said later that he couldn't make out this much with his naked eye. The ring of dynamic beads, forming and vanishing, is what you mainly saw visually. The features on the limb as seen here are washed out in glare, and the skyglow on each side hides the corona. With the viewfinder and cautious, practiced rapid flicks of the eye (never stare!), I noted one very long, bright flare of red-pink prominence off to the side. You can't see that very much here (it's barely visible at about 2 o'clock, on the Western edge of the moon.)
cor 84!And finally, behold -- the photo that "they said couldn't be done!" I'm not kidding, even at the prior Saros of this very eclipse, which was even closer to totality, many experts tried in vain to capture some inner corona. All agreed the shadow's apex was still too high above them on the ground in Western Turkey. Yet in this pix you can detect quite a smattering of inner corona, a faint hint of middle corona, and that big spike of flaming prominence I saw briefly through the finder (we had ultra-clear skies, recently "washed" by nerve-wracking showers -- that was a big help for this stunt, something the folks in dusty Turkey didn't share, to be fair.) It's rather a marvelous, unearthly, sight, don't you think, complete with the odd colors and dazzling beads? (The color came from sunlight limited to the reddish outermost solar chromosphere, atmospheric refraction and scatter, and was enhanced by a tad of chromatic aberration of my Nikkor refractor lens.)
A "eureka" inspiration that made this image possible was serendipitous. I had taken exposures throughout the brief central phase (right on the centerline, too) and had a full series of spaced images to work from. So I composited subtractively, while hand- burning the brighter features, from two frames taken symmetrically opposite the midpoint. They became "self-masking" (the "eureka" part), showing only the darker portions of each, hiding the washed-out sections, exactly as if the moon had somehow grown in width by a few hundred miles, just enough to get that little bit nearer to a total eclipse, without losing the brilliance of the "diamond necklace" of a near miss eclipse. (I tried once again to use the same trick on an even narrower near-miss in Gabon in 1987, but thin clouds ruined the attempt. I'll post the images I did get here eventually.)
book 84Sky and Telescope again printed my image nice and large (thank you, all!), and it caught two other magazines who requested reprint rights. So a few months later it showed up in Japan, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, on the cover of a new book written by the founder of the Swedenborg Foundation, titled: "Divine LOVE & Wisdom." Lovely people, who even paid me a couple of hundred dollars (!) for the permission, and offered to send me a copy. While I declined the book (not my taste -- see the open letters for why) I accepted this press-proof of the color cover with a smile. The intense magenta coloring that I apologized for to them as not completely "real" (as the lens and film increased its appearance) turned out to be the main reason that they wished to use the photo -- it fit with some of the book's theological philosophy! Isn't that something? They even had their printer exaggerate the magenta on the cover, which appears to the left. Unfortunately, they also printed it upside down...
set!leaf1984 Total - Once again a totality path crossed mostly ocean, and I found myself having to prepare to record my third ship-based totality. Oh, well. This time the vessel was to be a large transport vessel, sailing out of Noumea, New Caledonia. About 36 of us were booked, and got the meager bunk beds that had seen years of use, although perhaps never before for coronaphilic obsessions. On the left you can see my rig, taken just about 10 minutes before totality. You'll note that the camera is a medium format size (a Mamiya 645) which looks rather strange mounted to a Celestron telephoto. In this configuration I got a fairly long focal length (about 840 mm,) with a medium speed of f/7 or so. The tripod head is an oil-damped affair, custom mounted on a sturdy tripod, and the handle I made from PVC tubing, cut to be as long as practical. That made the "steering" on tossing seas a bit easier than the usual dinky affair. I practiced for a few hours on board, and even earlier, to be sure I could manage.
2nd c.The eclipse began as usual with a diamond ring to the left edge of the indigo lunar disk. As I had a terrestrial mount, the views I captured were all with North rotated around 40 degrees CW. I have not traced this down yet, but believe the faint rainbow pattern that occurred near the diamond to be an artifact of the optical train. As there was an active ocean spray in the air, it may have also contributed to the color spectrum effect. Kinda pretty, don't you think? This fast shutter photo made me aware that we were having VERY choppy seas, worse than expected. But the built-in efficiency of the long handle damped mount worked pretty well anyway, although trying to track the eclipse even with my large frame, that was many times the expected corona size, was damn difficult.
total 84And here is the lovely mid-cycle corona that we saw that morning. It has a double arrow shape, nicely symmetric, with helmets and streamers added in. The sky conditions were near perfect for a sea level observation (only a mountaintop would have been much more transparent.) A plane overhead was tracking us with an accurate navigating fix to assure we were very near the centerline. From the timings, and from the fact that the two diamonds were almost exactly 180 degrees opposite one another, it was obvious they had done an excellent job. (This image is a composite of quite a few negatives. seven of them, as the smaller image size and faster film (400 ASA) required going that high for a decent result. Again, note that true North is to the right by about 40 degrees.)
total 88leaf1988 - In March of 1988 I went to the Philippine Island of Mindanao to see totality. While we had a few thin clouds at times in General Santos, but often the seeing was very good, and I got off a decent series of exposures of this in-between type corona. There were some unusually vivid loops in this one, like the one over the prominence at 2 o'clock, in this newly digitized image (the prior version here wasn't as sharp nor as carefully processed -- practice makes perfec ...better!)
It was a wonderful surprise to run into Roger Tuthill, who's been a friend and astronomy enthusiast for years. Roger has been selling thoughtful amateur astronomy accessories he designed for years, along with telescopes -- see his ads in any astro-magazine, "The Astronomer's Friend." He happened to be at the City Hall, where we all were checking in on some other observing groups, including the legendary High Altitude Observatory. I saw their innovative cameras right there. Alas, while leaving the hotel I discovered from Dick Fisher, who was the HAO leader that year, that Gordon Newkirk, mentioned above, had died recently, so I never did get to meet him. Damn.
When my good friend, fellow synthesist Larry Fast, decided to start a new CD label to re-release some of our old albums, this one became the starting image of our logo for "Third Contact", the new label's name. I added a diamond ring to it, so it became the image of the *end of total eclipse*, a metaphor for our older music (much of which has been unavailable for years, and never on CD.) Larry used the logo on his current batch of remasterings through PolyGram, while I somewhat later became involved with East Side Digital, and we went in directions that, alas, did not seem as well suited to the 3rd Contact idea.
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= The '90's =

total 91leaf1991 - The big sequel to the "Big One". Many of us took the minimum chances with the weather for this July eclipse, and went to San Jose del Cabo, Baja California to view it. While nearly all the other chasers at the hotel decided to go up to a site on the center line, this was between two mountains, a location where cooling would probably generate cloudiness. Indeed, they were clouded out, while near the water at our hotel we had nearly perfect conditions. This nearly maximum type corona was distinctive for the unusual way the biggest streamer veers to the north (NNE) and south (SSW), while the actual east and west portions of corona have a strong resemblance to polar plumes, seldom seen at these latitudes. A very atypical example (an exception that "proves" the rule?)
total 91 cu Since this was nearly the closest the moon's shadow will come to passing through the center of the Earth (note the comments above on the 1973 eclipse,) the sun was right up at the zenith during totality (not many miles away the moon's disk actually covered the actual zenith during totality -- an exceedingly rare circumstance!) This is quite an awkward spot to be staring at at trying to photograph with a long lens, when you think about it! Considering the huge size of the moon (which gave us a long totality, almost 6:20 -- my record was in '73, with 7:01 in Niger, Africa) it was a big surprise to see the two enormous prominences on either side of that bloated disk (any smaller and they'd have been hidden.) Capturing their details made this one of the most difficult composites I ever made (see the second 91 jpeg to the left). But it also is also the best image I've yet produced to capture what the eye sees during totality.

total 95leaf1995 - Since I was unfortunately unable to get to the October '95 toality (damn!), it was a good stroke of luck when an eclipse chasing friend, Fred Espenak, sent me a Photo CD of some of his excellent images, taken from near where I'd originally planned to go, in northern India. Fred, who produces those excellent NASA Eclipse Circulars many amateurs and most pros depend upon, with my encouragement used fine-grain color negative film in one of his camera bodies. This gives the widest range of reconnaissance of the corona's shape and details. Always use that for serious work, as slides are just too limited in their dynamic range (think of non-Dolby cassette tape.) If you still must, get every possible exposure, dark to light, and be prepared for a long seige at compositing! (You'll need at least twelve such slides to do a smooth job.)
Starting with six of his exposures on the CD, I began duplicating all the steps that I had done before in the darkroom, but now on my Mac. The '91 images used a combination of both methods. This was the first time no darkroom work was used at all. It is the best example I've seen of a true minimum sunspot type corona, nearly all east and west (north is up in all our pictures, as a convention), with some magnificent polar brushes on top and bottom. The clincher is the notable prominence at 2 o'clock.
total 97 leaf1997 - Here is one of only three coronal images on this page (besides the '95 image just above, and '02, down below) that is from a totality I did not personally witness. It was impossible to get away in March of 1997, although I certainly was disappointed. But not quite as much as the prior one, for good reason. The region favored was not much of a "favor" for those who did get to go see it. It was in the frigid early spring of northern Mongolia, Siberia, and into Northern China -- brrr!
I was sent a few snapshots by friends, which were grabbed in China. At least the sky was mostly clear, only a few cirrus clouds. A few other images were also posted on the Net, and showed up in the astronomical magazines over the next several months. For this view I used what I could as the starting point, the inspiration. A few image pieces from other similarly shaped eclipses were interpolated, and I had to use a lot more Wacom tablet than usual to tie it all together. It's a good idea of what the corona looked like that totality, as I checked my work against satellite images of that day, lo res, but accurate. (Please understand that unlike all the other eclipse images on this page, this one is NOT 100% accurate to reality.) Note that the shape is less purely horizontal and "minimum" than the 1995 eclipse was, but less active than we had in 1998.
radgrad 98 cor+sun 98leaf1998 - Totality in Aruba
(The description of the photography and trip (to Aruba) to see the February 26th 1998 eclipse is rather long and detailed, so it's included here on its own page. Just click "1998 Totality in Aruba" above.)

radgrad 99leaf1999 - The Champ -- Totality in Romania. Yup, we did it, and pretty well, too. While the weather was fairly dismal over much of the earlier part of its path, through southern England, France, Germany, and so on, once one got east of the Carpathians (beautiful mountains in many ways) things cleared with alacrity. I observed with a friend from the Eastern outskirts of Bucharest, right on the center line. We were alarmed when the early morning prevailing winds over those mountains turned from CW to CCW rotation. This made things better in the area North and West of us (see comment below), but brought a few smaller convection clouds into Bucharest, the only real cloudiness that day, or for three days prior to the eclipse. Rats!
Fortunately there were some reasonably large holes in the deck, and with a bit o' luck one of these moved over our site during the middle of our 2:22 totality. So several seconds of totality had thin clouds moving off, then it was clear for over a minute and a half, then thin clouds encroached again, which became thicker after the diamond ring ended the big show. We missed parts of both partials, but one can't complain, not when much of the actual city of Bucharest saw nothing of the corona that afternoon, yikes!
99 opt tot
One Glorious Corona! (click either for a 10" wide CU view)

And -- oh -- what a corona! Just about the best I've ever seen: symmetrically round, intricately busy, many neat arches and helmet streamers, a great many notable prominences, also many fine long streamers all the way around the bright, graceful solar "crown" of glory, talk about a c-o-r-o-n-a...! Take a look for yourself. This is my final optimum version, after an additional week of Photoshop work. It's the same image just sent to Sky & Telescope magazine, for the cover of their eclipse special issue, November 1999. This may be about the best look any of you "eclipse virgins" will get at a corona without actually going to one, and Jon Kern and I (egotistically?) suspect it's the best total eclipse image ever made (at least thus far...!)
The partner image on the right includes the image of the sun, captured by the wonderful SOHO satellite as totality was occurring (I'd like to thank and credit the Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope team (EIT), part of the joint NASA/ESA project.) This is seen in Fe light of ionized iron, processed to show local temperature ratios, the image scaled and adjusted to fit within the lunar disk. It's what we'd see if the moon were made of a special filter material, instead of that astonishing yet desolate dark gray rock we explored 30 years ago. All the images above are intricate composites from 5, 6 and 7 originals, respectively. The top preliminary version uses the original mediocre negative scans we first made, the lower one to the left came from excellent scans, combined to highlight many extra details, especially inner corona and prominences, and the lower right adds in the SOHO data to the optimum corona image, then cropped a bit.
bell jarA few words about the negatives, and how they came to be: the first two I took through a custom radial gradient filter generously made for me by fellow eclipse photographer and veteran, Jonathan Kern, of Louisiana (note the 1998 eclipse description) who I just mentioned. He's a true wizard with optical and mechanical fabrication, and has developed his own precision ways to evaporate metal coatings onto glass rotating below a mask under a high vacuum bell jar, as shown in his photo to the left. Fascinating stuff. I'm most grateful to him in many ways once again, and his controbution to this image is definitely the major reason it's so special (thank you, Jon!). His filters make capture and compositing a LOT easier than my usual 4-8 negatives graded along by hand, although there are other good reasons to optimize and combine images, still, and I expect that will never change. Here we've combined the best of both worlds!
rg filterThe left photo shows a completed filter. Jon observed under clear skies just NW of me, in the town of Rimnicu-Vilcea (at Jay Pasachoff's busy site), and took six long exposures through a similar radial filter. I combined two of Jon's fine images with my more moderate filter images, plus some additional limb and prominence detailing from another negative, no special filter, to obtain the above composite. The scans were preliminary, and slightly flawed, but the results betray all that. Nothing like practical experience to get the best with what you've got. Now if someone could explain to me how it is we got a highly maximum type corona when the solar cycle was still about 3 years from the max of its 11 (or 22) year cycle, I'll be grateful. Always wanted to nab another one of these rare ones (see 1980 & 1991, above), and this was a beauty!

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= The '00's, A New Millennium =

01 tot total wa 01 tot

leaf2001 - Totality in Zambia (one for the ages!)

It's the first total eclipse of the sun in the new millennium! (The description of the photography and trip to Africa to see the June 21st 2001 eclipse is another longer, detailed report, so it's included here on its own page. Just click on the words: "Totality in Zambia" above.)

 02 tot 

leaf2002 - African Totality, PART TWO (the vicarious experience)

Not often does totality engulf the same region again as soon as it did on 12/04/02, less than 18 months later. While Wendy was unable to attend, her friend and long time collaborator, Jonathan Kern, did get to South Africa, and with his wife, Jan, very successfully captured the latest totality digitally and on 6 x 7 film. Read about how Wendy was able to begin work on their latest composite image the next day, and see some of the methodical process to put it together, in our latest eclipse report, click HERE or on the thumbnail image just above.  

Coronophiles -- Great news!
(Hang a naked-eye corona on your wall...)

NOTE: At present S&T has discontinued this print and the links below. Please contact
them directly to inquire about making a new edition available:
Sky & Telescope Store.

Spotlight Prints of the Kern-Carlos Images described above are being offered for sale by Sky & Telescope magazine, and Sky Publishing. For the many of you who have written to us, wanting to obtain high-quality photo prints of this uniquely beautiful picture, at last you can do so. CLICK HERE to follow the link to the Skypub page for this new spotlight print. If S&T changes their links without notice, just go to the Sky & Telescope Store website. Once there, in the search box in the upper left just type the word "spotlight" and press "Go!" to see the entire list with mini images. Click or navigate to the one titled: Solar Eclipse 99 Spotlight Print, and you can order from the page with image and description that will next display.
These are not merely computer color prints, many of which still fade rather rapidly, but are genuine Kodak Professional Color C-Prints, a very large 16" x 20" in size, printed on heavyweight glossy paper, suitable for framing or display. Since these are photographically reproduced with traditional photo darkroom and chemistry methods, the colors and tonality will differ slightly from the versions above. But the test prints we've seen are very close, somewhat darker than the on-screen images, but lovely, dramatic images you'll enjoy owning and sharing with friends.
Please note: we have licensed S&T to produce these prints, and provided very high-resolution non-compressed custom optimized Photoshop images to them for just this purpose. But we have no other connection with them, aside from a very modest royalty. Just go to their website, or obtain a copy of their magazine with ads for the Spotlight Print series, and follow their instructions. They are a very reputable company which has been in business for many years, and their prices are reasonable, their turnaround time generally fast. Don't write to our site here for information or for prints, we have no facilities to handle this, but you can use the links we've placed above to get to their store site with a minimum of hassle. Thanks!

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= Postlude =

leafAs I slowly go through all my prior eclipse photos, I intend to use computer processing to optimize and re-composite each, and get them to a similar consistency of contrast, scale, rotation and tint, for easy comparison. I'll continue to post 72 dpi about 7" wide JPEGs (done at max quality), until the set is complete of those I've seen, or in the case of Fred's, worked from a respected friend's original materials. With the recent additions in early '99, you already have a good idea of the full set, About half of my collection is now available online here (mostly chosen at random) with more good (I hope) surprises yet to come... (airborne eclipses, polaroid series, some in startling colors, multi-exposure series, sun-moon size comparisons, IR color, and other site pix in exotic locations.) It's my wish that the set might inspire others to do likewise, and that I'll eventually enjoy browsing other naked-eye coronal image sites, but without all that work...;-)!
Aside from slight color cast (hue) differences that are easier to see in nearly neutral images made during a wide time span, if placed side-by-side like this, it is a unified set by one observer. So a uniformity of techniques, equipment, and personal bias are maintained, lending them a fair base of comparison over a large group of eclipses. Admittedly you become very jaded in such a tiny specialties like this. Thus I regret that I'm generally underwealmed by most eclipse imagery I've seen, especially those taken in color, and more recently, by formula composites with those phony-looking "spin-mode" calculations and unrealistically rounded corona shapes (ick.) I've mentioned this elsewhere on this page. Sorry -- I want to applaud your skills and ideas, adjusted to match the given corona, not your willingness to follow a blind one-size-fits-all recipe. All of this in turn has driven me nuts to try to come up with results that resemble as closely as I know how to make them, what I've been privileged to see so many times in person.
For those of you who've seen a total solar eclipse, no justification for this obsession (it is) will be necessary. For those of you who have not seen even one total eclipse (notwithstanding as fair an idea as you may get from this collection) no explanation is possible. And please note that partial eclipses, as well as all but the narrowest annular ones, are not even close to the sight of "Darkness at Noon", what Indonesians more imaginatively still describe as: The Moon Swallows the Sun (like our Javanese icon at the top of the page.)

--Wendy Carlos

On viewing the photos: These images will not necessarily look correct unless displayed on a color monitor with at least 16-bit color. Images of the sun's corona are particularly difficult to reproduce without 24-bit color, although you ought get the general effect of the image in 16-bit mode. We're sorry, if there were an easy way around this, we'd all be millionaires!

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