The Great American Eclipse in Motion

Posted by Jake Parks
on Monday, March 26, 2018

During last year's total solar eclipse (also known as the Great American Eclipse), Matt Francis captured a series of wide- and narrow-angle images that he later spent dozens of hours balancing and merging into a single image. Shortly after, he learned of a software program that allows you to add motion to an otherwise still photograph. Using the program, he was able to produce this animated image that simulates the movement of the Sun's corona during the total solar eclipse. // Matt Francis

Guest blog by Matt Francis

I was watching my friend Bob, wild-eyed and using dramatic arm-waving gestures, as he attempted to describe the indescribable — a total solar eclipse. He told me that no matter what he said, our clumsy language could never paint a realistic picture of what it’s like to be in the path of solar totality. And boy, was he right. In the end, it wasn’t his description (as good as it was) that convinced me to go to Australia with him to see a total solar eclipse. It was both his passion and the obvious way witnessing a previous total eclipse had changed him as a person. That was in 2012, and immediately afterword, I began planning my next opportunity to stand in the path of totality.

On August 19, 2017, I arrived in Glenrock, Wyoming, and set up my equipment so that I could prepare for the main event. Over the next few days, family and friends arrived, drawing my attention away from my instruments and instead to celebration. I had the photographic goal of creating an image that would convey what I saw as accurately as possible. However, I went into the eclipse knowing full well that no matter how hard I worked, or how good my photos came out, they would be like Bob’s passionate description: beautiful, inspirational, but in the end, nothing like being there.

To create the final static image that would be used for the animation, the author spent hours learning to seamlessly balance and blend eight separate images of varying magnifications. // Matt Francis
Imaging details:

  • 3-inch Takahashi FS-78 refractor, Bisque MYT mount, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, 1/60-, 1/30-, 1/15-, 1/8-, ¼-, ½-, and 1-second exposures
  • Sony a7R II, Sony 24-240mm telephoto lens set to 240mm, 2-second exposure

The seven Canon images and one Sony image I captured were imported into Photoshop CC, rescaled, rotated, and processed to balance the color and lighting conditions as much as possible before merging. Once merged, I spent dozens of hours learning new techniques to blend these images together seamlessly to create a single, best representation of what I actually saw. This was a lesson in patience and perseverance, and it taught me not to give up (even though, at times, it looked hopeless).  

To animate the merged image, the author used a software program called Plotagraph, which allowed him to set anchor points and add directional arrows to guide movement within the image. // Matt Francis
I wanted to capture the clear contrast of the shimmering white corona that extended for what seemed impossibly far into the indigo colored sky. I wanted to show just the amount of detail I remember seeing, and nothing more. The unbelievably hot pink limb prominences needed to be as obvious in my photo as they were to my eyes. After many long nights at the computer experimenting and learning, I finally created an image that I knew was as good as I could get. But then as I was relaxing by perusing one of my favorite photographers websites (Trey Ratcliff of stuckincustoms.com), I noticed an article Trey had written about new software called “Plotagraph” — and it seemed like this might help my image represent reality a bit more.

After purchasing the software and learning how to use it (thanks to Trey’s tutorials), I was able to quickly transform a single image into a movie. By using masking techniques, defining anchor points of what shouldn’t move, and applying directional arrows to what I wanted to move (and how much movement I wanted), I was able to create an image in motion. I personally think the movie is more dramatic than what I remember, but it is as close as I can come to showing those poor souls who missed the eclipse a tiny piece of what “really” happened. I hope you enjoy it!

To view more work by Matt Francis, check out his SmugMug.com page.

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