A photograph is all about visual communication and telling a story.
Combining multiple images into one composite photograph helps to tell a complete story in one view. The process however, takes some forethought.
First you have to visualize the end result. Do you want to produce a sequence of the eclipse at several phases, or a series of images of the entire eclipse crossing the sky with a recognizable foreground? With that decision in mind, you have to put a plan into motion and begin accumulating the hardware you’ll need to make it happen and begin scouting your foreground location.
The illustrations shown below are composites, meaning that each image is composed of numerous individual component photographs. What makes the two composite images different is the concept and the execution.
In this article, we're going to discuss using an image-editing program (such as Adobe Photoshop®), to stack numerous individual images of the sun into one finished composite image. It's beyond the scope of this article to go into detail about the software process of layering images, working with layer masks, and so on, but this information is readily available online from numerous sources. We won't be using the in-camera multi-exposure feature found in many Canon EOS and other digital cameras, although that's an alternative users can consider. One benefit of the composite approach — using individual images and creating a final image in software — is the creative flexibility it provides, after the eclipse has occurred.
The first composite illustration was made from individual time-lapse images made by meticulously tracking the sun with the lens and keeping the sun disk in the center of the frame. Each image was made at four-minute intervals, allowing the moon to progressively cover and uncover the sun throughout the eclipse.
The second composite image was made from a stationary mounted camera that didn’t move. Instead of moving the camera as in the first composite, the sun was allowed to move in front of the camera. Each frame recorded the sun in a different part of the frame and when they were all layered in Photoshop, it shows the entire eclipse progression across the sky, through the different phases in one composite image.
Five Image Composite
The first image is a five image composite made after the 2012 Annular eclipse. Each individual image was captured with a Canon 800mm lens on a Canon EOS 50D APS-C sensor body. Check out our Choosing Lenses article to see the different sun disk sizes each lens will produce. Annular eclipses don’t show a corona like total eclipses do so you can get away with a larger sun disk in your frame.
The first step in putting this image together is to decide on how many images you want to show, then scrub through all the images to find their mirror opposites before and after totality.
Once you’ve made your selections, bring them into Photoshop and layer them. Then you’ll align them with each other and finally space them equally horizontally, or at an angle, on each side of the totality image. You can choose any number of images for your own composite image.
The banner image of this eclipse project shows the different phases of totality and was made in the same way except that each of the seven images were spaced equally apart from each other to show the full sun disks.
37 Image Time-lapse Composite
This composite image is the same yet completely different. It’s different because of the execution. It’s the same because of the component image post processing. It consists of 36 eclipse images and one background image.
Instead of moving the camera to follow the sun, this camera is mounted stationary on a tripod and the sun was allowed to move during each exposure. These were time-lapsed exposures made at five minute intervals using a Canon Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3. Some recent Canon cameras have the intervalometer built into them.
The set-up requires a little planning. Do an actual shooting rehearsal a day or two before the eclipse, with your solar filter, and then shoot the background. Then, bring these rehearsal photos into Photoshop and see if you have the process down. The only difference will be that the center photo on eclipse day will have a totality glow around the “hole-in-the-sky.”
Use a location app such as LightTrac® to determine where the sun will be during the eclipse. These terrestrial composite images work very well if you have something recognizable to frame the final image.
Remember, the sun will be high in the sky for most of the country, so you’ll really need to scout your foreground location days before the eclipse at the exact times of the eclipse.
Once you know how the eclipse will look in the scene, make a decision as to how wide you want to cover. Keep in mind, you want totality in the middle of your shot. Eclipse apps such as Eclipses by Olav Andrade and Solar Eclipse Timer by Gordon Telepun will tell you, based on where you will be, the exact moment of totality.
A few days ahead of the eclipse, you’ll visit your site and decide upon the width of your image based on the time of beginning and ending of the eclipse. Look at your watch and note where the sun is at the moment when the eclipse is supposed to start. Line up the sun with a landmark on the horizon. Then, repeat this observation for the moment the eclipse is supposed to end.
Now, put on a zoom lens and find the focal length you’ll need to get the beginning and end of the eclipse in the frame. Remember to allow a little extra “breathing” room on each side of the frame. Now you are ready to do your set-up on eclipse day.
When eclipse day arrives, you know your visual landmarks. Set up the camera and the intervalometer and begin shooting. Remember your solar filter. As totality begins, take off the solar filter. Once totality ends replace the solar filter for all the remaining time-lapse images. Since you’ll be photographing this with a wide angle lens, you won’t be photographing the diamond ring or Baily’s beads. For more information on filter removal and replacement, re-read our Photographic Exposure article.
Once the eclipse is over, you still need to make one last image before you break down your set-up. You need to take one more image of the scene without the solar filter at regular daylight exposures (preferably without the sun). This image becomes your base image for the composite in Photoshop. Bracket this foreground scene a lot and shoot in RAW format. When you’re in front of your computer creating the composite, you’ll have a different sense for using light, normal or dark exposures. Give yourself all the flexibility you’ll need.
If you want to have some fun, use a different base image made of a landmark somewhere else with your component images. Just make sure the foreground image was shot with a comparable focal length as the eclipse images were. Otherwise, the completed composite image will look unbalanced.
You can re-purpose the centered time-lapsed images you shot in producing the five image composite we discussed above. If you’ve already invested in a new equatorial head to keep your sun disk’s centered in your frame, consider taking all those individual images and creating a Quicktime® movie. With Apple’s Quicktime Pro or comparable Windows® software, you can assemble all your eclipse phase images into a movie.
All these time-lapse scenarios require exact alignment of each image. If you’re shooting on solid dirt or grass, consider using tent stakes to secure your tripod legs from accidental bumping. If you’re shooting critical alignment series such as time-lapses or using a new equatorial head (that requires precise alignment with the North Star at night) you will soon realize the importance of this step. To be extra safe, consider using two stakes per leg. Tent stakes are available at any sporting goods store.
If you’re shooting from a solid surface such as pavement or a rooftop, consider using a liberal amount of gaffer’s tape to secure your tripod’s legs.
If you have questions you'd like Dave and Ken to address in an upcoming article, email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here for more information on photographing the solar eclipse!
SAFETY FIRST: Never look at the sun without accredited and approved solar filtration over your eyes. Permanent, irreversible eye damage and/or blindness can result in seconds. Never point your camera into the sun without an approved solar filter over your camera lens(es). Not using a solar filter at eclipse magnifications will ruin your camera in seconds. Never improvise, modify or use general photography neutral density filters.