The solar eclipse on Aug. 21, was a rare chance to photograph the District in a unique way. There are probably millions of photos of the National Mall and its landmarks out there in the world and on the internet, but only a few that combine the beauty of the solar eclipse with the history of the nation’s capital.
Exactly 102 photos of the sun and 258 photos of the Washington Monument were synchronized and merged into this time lapse video that compressed two hours into 14 seconds. The photos of the Washington Monument were shot by a GoPro Hero 4 and the photos of the sun were shot by a Sony a99 II that was equipped with a solar filter.
The GoPro camera exposed wide-angle views of the sky and monument while the Sony camera was setup with a solar filter to shoot close-up photos for the sun. The challenge of the video project was to synchronize and merge wide-angle sky photos with close-up sun photos to create a time lapse video with smooth and accurate motion, showing the sky, clouds and the eclipsing sun.
I chose to work with still images over video because photographs provide much better resolution compared to video frames. In addition, sequences of photos work well for long-duration, time lapse videos.
If you’re curious how the video was created, here are the ten steps I followed:
- I set up a GoPro Hero 4 on a tripod with an external USB battery pack near the Washington Monument but well away from the crowd. I wanted to avoid people standing directly in front of the camera during the eclipse. The camera was set to automatically shoot a photo every 30 seconds. During the two hour shoot, I occasionally checked on the GoPro to make sure it was still firing photos but most of the time I left it unattended.
- I set up a Sony a99II on a tripod with a 300mm lens and solar filter. The lens was manually focused at infinity, zoomed to a 300 mm focal length, and the camera was set at f/10, 1/250 seconds and ISO-400. I then applied two bandaids to the lens to ensure it wouldn’t slip focus or zoom during the shoot. My bandaid idea seemed rather absurd, but they worked very well to freeze the lens during the long photo shoot which included a lot of camera movement.
3. My son, Michael, and I took turns shooting the Sony camera with the solar filter every minute. We ran a timer. The camera was moved to follow the sun’s movement across the sky. When Michael was firing the solar filtered camera, I took a Sony a7rII camera without a solar filter and walked around the Washington Monument grounds taking hand-held photos, hoping for a cloud-filtered eclipse shot which I eventually scored.
4. A thunderstorm terminated our photo shoot earlier than we had hoped, but the storm added interesting clouds to the photos. We packed up our camera gear, returned home, and downloaded the photos to a computer which has Adobe Premiere Pro and Photoshop software.
5. The sequence of GoPro photos were easily converted into a time lapse video with the Premiere Pro software. The sun appeared as a bright spot in the GoPro video, even when it was 81% eclipsed, but the sky and clouds were properly exposed. I noticed the ground did darken during the peak eclipse time in the video compared to the opening frames, before the eclipse began.
6. The sequence of sun close-up photos had to be individually aligned with Photoshop, unfortunately. This was the tough and tedious part of the project. Because the camera was never perfectly centered on the sun, each photo had to be tweaked for perfect alignment. Without aligning the sun in the photos before importing to Premiere Pro, the sun would jitter and shake as it moved across the sky. I devised a quick workflow for the aligning the sun in each of the 102 photos, but the process still took over an hour.
7. After the sun was aligned in the photos with Photoshop, I imported the sun photo sequence into Premiere Pro and created a sun time lapse video. I then overlapped the sun time lapse video with the sky time lapse video on the same time line. The sun had to be resized to fit the scale of the sky time lapse and it’s opacity “blend mode” needed to be set to “lighten” to remove the black background associated with each sun frame.
8. The fun part was mapping the sun’s position to the sky on the video time line. All of the photos were shot during the same time period so it was a process of using key frames to position the sun on the sky at the correct time and position within the time line. It sounds challenging, but it was rather easy.
9. Surprisingly, during the photo shoot, the sun exposed through the clouds on all but two photos. On the video, however, it looked like the sun was moving over top of the clouds. So I had to tweak the opacity of the sun frames during cloudy periods to make it look like it was behind the clouds and not in front of the clouds. That was an artistic touch to make the video look more natural.
10. The last step was creating a second, zoomed in version of the time lapse and adding transitions to the video clip at the start, end, and between clips. Overall, it was one of my more fun and challenging video projects.
On a final note, I planned this photo shoot and video project months in advance of the eclipse. I worried about many of the potential spoilers, including clouds, crowds, and travel delays associated with a trip to New York I had planned the day before the eclipse.
Three days before the eclipse, I had an anxiety dream that I missed the peak of the eclipse. I was rushing to D.C. to try to get a parting shot of the sun as it was returning to roundness. I knew my video idea was toast, my sequences were not going to happen, I just wanted one photo of a partially eclipsed sun and the Washington Monument as I hurried to the city.
I awoke from the dream with great relief. I had not missed he eclipse. So when August 21 arrived, I made sure to arrive in D.C. well before the eclipse was scheduled to start. And as the eclipse unfolded, the plan I had devised months earlier worked perfectly, with the exception of the thunderstorm at the end of the eclipse which quickly ended the photo shoot.
When I packed up my cameras and tripods at the Washington Monument, with a thunderstorm bearing down on the city, I remembered my anxiety dream and laughed to myself. In the dream, I would be arriving in D.C. just time for the thunderstorm clouds to cover the sun. I would have never got the shot.