While the lunar and annular solar eclipses are fresh in our minds and travel is gradually returning to some semblance of normality, it’s a good idea to begin to think ahead to future eclipse photo opportunities (especially total solar eclipses) in the next few years. Why plan so far ahead? Unfortunately for most of us, the opportunities to photograph a solar eclipse within our lifetimes can be counted on a few fingers. Lunar eclipses are a little easier to plan for but still require some planning.
And what’s the big deal about photographing a total solar eclipse? Think about the technical challenge of photographing an event that goes from (literally) blindingly bright to the darkness of night in the span of a few seconds, darkness which lasts only a few minutes (during which you may not be able to see your camera controls), and with no practice opportunities. Are you up to the challenge?
Add to that the logistics of traveling into the path of totality with cases of photographic equipment and it rapidly adds up to a serious expedition to plan, especially if you are traveling to another country. I always plan a longer vacation around an eclipse so that I don’t come home empty-handed if the weather turns against me (so far just once in eight total solar eclipses).
Conventional wisdom you’ll hear at astronomy clubs is that if it’s your first total eclipse, you should take it easy and just plan to visually observe the eclipse. But as a photographer, I completely disagree here. Modern cameras and lightweight equipment make it very feasible to come away with excellent shots the first time out, especially with the help of the internet and print resources on how to do it. Even if your attempt is clouded out, you will have gained valuable experience with the planning and logistical realities of getting your equipment prepared.
Even as a strictly visual experience, the experience of totality should be on everyone’s bucket list. If you’ve only experienced a partial or annular eclipse, rest assured that the experience of totality is far beyond that — think of being at the Superbowl in person versus watching a playoff game on TV. Most people I know who have seen a total eclipse have actually added it back onto their bucket list for the next one.
Planning for an eclipse begins with an awareness of the opportunities. While you can search the internet and collect your own information, a convenient summary of eclipses (both lunar and solar) for the next decade is available in book form: Eclipse Almanac 2021-2030. If you’re really ambitious, subsequent decades are covered in other volumes in this series! Note: I recommend the printed color versions of these volumes. While the Kindle versions might seem tempting for compactness and convenience, the resolution of the Kindle publications is not adequate for a close look at the maps and diagrams.
For solar eclipses, after June’s arctic annular eclipse, the next total eclipse is in December of 2021 in Antarctica, and for 2022, both solar eclipse chances result in partial eclipses. However, for the U.S., 2023 and 2024 are annular and total solar eclipse opportunities. The 2023 annular eclipse path slashes diagonally from the Oregon coast through Texas and continues through Central and South America. For the big 2024 total eclipse event, the path of totality crosses Mexico into Texas, through to the northeastern U.S., and into eastern Canada.
Because the U.S. portions of these eclipses provide many opportunities to drive yourself into the paths, there are detailed driving guides available that have the eclipse path superimposed on road maps, complete with exact timings for the eclipse totality start and duration. Again, I recommend getting the printed color version (not available for Kindle as of this writing) for both the 2023 eclipse road atlas and the 2024 eclipse road atlas. You will probably depend on Google maps or some other electronic map for the actual trip, but paper maps will cover you in the case of poor cell phone coverage in some areas as well as provide the important eclipse timing information at each location.
A major factor in planning for an eclipse photo trip is the weather. While the specific weather can’t really be predicted with any reliability until just a day or two before the eclipse, general recommendations can be had based on years of weather records. The "eclipsophile" website (hosted by a well-known eclipse chaser and weather expert) has good information such as the plot of average cloud cover along the eclipse path during the predicted time of the eclipse. See the graph of cloud cover for the 2024 eclipse as an example. This plot indicates that being in Mexico would be better than places in the U.S., but other factors such as accessibility and availability of vehicles need to be considered.
Lunar eclipses are a bit less of a challenge. The light change from a full moon to an eclipsed moon is still a technical challenge, but you typically have many minutes to do your shooting. Positioning yourself to see a lunar eclipse is also much easier because the eclipse is visible over a very wide area, but it’s always a good idea to combine an eclipse trip with a vacation if the eclipse is not in your home region.
In 2022, although there are no total solar eclipses, two total lunar eclipses will be visible in the Americas. Asia is excluded in the May 2022 eclipse, while Africa is excluded in November 2022. Refer again to: Eclipse Almanac 2021-2030, which covers lunar as well as solar eclipses.
Why Plan so Far Ahead?
Why not wait till we get closer to the event to start planning? Beginning planning, say, six months in advance is too short in my experience. Ahead of the 2017 total solar eclipse, which crossed the U.S., astronomical solar filters were already unavailable, and even the flimsy cardboard eyeglass filters which are normally given away free were being sold on eBay for up to $100. Airplane flights, rental cars, hotel rooms, and even camping spots were also scarce.
The only aspect of planning I would hold off on is a final decision as to what camera(s) to use. Camera technology is evolving so quickly, I would hold off until about a year in advance, which still leaves enough time to get comfortable with a new camera.
Do you think I’m getting out too far ahead? Check out the books and other merchandise already available on Amazon for the 2024 eclipse. I’m already hearing about organized tours filling up, and I’ll bet these tours have already booked blocks of hotel rooms and buses!