Ring of Fire

Annular Eclipse of the Sun, Iceland, May 31, 2003
[Iceland Journey] [Photos]

 Peak of the annular eclipse.  Click for a larger image.
The peak of the annular eclipse at 4:04 a.m. Click for a 1024x768 image. Exposure 2
seconds at f/8.

Research seemed to indicate that the best chance for good viewing weather during the eclipse would be in northern Iceland, and what better place than the village that advertises its great view of the midnight sun, lafsfjrur? Since I am used to seeing the sun more or less to the south, I didn't understand at first that the north coast location also would give a view unimpeded by mountains. One of the weird things about this eclipse is it was at 4:04 a.m. so the sun was to the north-northeast and we viewed it from the "wrong" side of the earth. The shadow of the moon traveled from east to west over the earth, the opposite of most solar eclipses.

Going in, I didn't know what an annular eclipse was and how it differed from a total eclipse. The moon's orbit is not circular, so when an eclipse occurs when the moon is near its maximum orbit, it does not completely cover the sun. It is still too bright to look at directly, but viewed through a solar filter, the sun appears as a ring with a giant hole punched out of the middle. The Latin word annulus means ring, so the scientists refer to such an event as an annular eclipse. I also read that a clear view of a total eclipse is much more spectacular than an annular eclipse because all direct sunlight is blocked and the sun's corona can be seen. However, I was thinking later that it was good we "only" had an annular eclipse because a total eclipse is much fainter and it might have been impossible to see anything through the clouds. As it was, the sun/moon broke through at literally the last possible second to provide a faint view of the Ring of Fire.

I drove out to the chosen site near town and saw a number of people disembarking from a tour bus. They headed up the mountain on foot. I was very happy with my location right next to my parked car. I mounted the 100-400mm lens, 1.4x extender, and Canon 1D camera on the tripod. The first test shots were completely black, which caused some concern. After slowing down the shutter speed to 1/8, I got my first murky image.

I saw a report on Icelandic TV later about the eclipse. Although I didn't understand what they were saying, I got the impression that most of Iceland was afflicted by clouds. The images they showed were no better than what I got. Then they showed a location where people had clear viewing, so I theorized that they must be in Scotland or the Faroes otherwise they would have led with that. It looked like a town park so it certainly didn't look like Greenland, the only other location where the eclipse was visible.

Eclipse facts: Annular eclipses are just as common as total eclipses, but probably don't get the publicity because they aren't quite as spectacular. Total eclipses happen because of the remarkable coincidence that the moon is the same apparent size in the sky as the sun. However, the moon is spiraling away from the earth at 1.5 inches per year, so in a few million years there will be no more total eclipses, just annular.

Here is the timeline as I observed it from lafsfjrur:

  • 3:11 - After bolting out of bed at 2:50 a.m. and driving 3 km to a cliff overlooking the fjord, I snap my first fuzzy shot of the sun trying to show through the clouds. The partial phase is supposed to be beginning at about this time.
  • 3:27 - The layers of clouds have moved sufficiently to reveal a partially-eclipsed sun.
  • 3:39 - The sun/moon pass behind another layer of clouds.
  • 3:50 - It doesn't look as though the clouds will clear. I start to console myself with having seen at least a partial eclipse.
  • 3:59 - The sun is trying to peek through but the annular phase is starting in just three minutes.
  • 4:02 - It's unbelievable, but the beginning of the annular phase is faintly visible. I was planning to photograph the eclipse with a shutter speed of about 1/60th of a second at f/8, but it is so faint that I need to boost my exposure by 120 times (i.e. shutter speed of 2 seconds) to get a decent image.
  • 4:04 - The peak of the eclipse. A perfect ring can be seen through the solar filter and the clouds. Shutter speed is still 2 seconds.
  • 4:06 - The annular phase ends. Conditions improve as the eclipse enters another partial phase and I can set my shutter speed as high as 1/15th of a second.
  • 4:14 - Clouds once again obscure the sun/moon, making the decision for me on how long to stick around and watch the partial phase.

If the eclipse had been five minutes later, viewing of the peak would have been much better. But if it had been five minutes earlier, it would have been totally obscured. Many locations in Iceland were obscured from start to finish. So I should be thankful that I got to see as much as I did. (By the way, conditions the previous morning had been ideal. Yes I did get up to check.)

As indicated, the photo at the top of the page was taken at the peak. Here are five more photos, two before the peak, two after, and one of my equipment. Photos (except as noted) were cropped from images taken with Canon EOS 1D digital camera set on 200 ISO, 100-400mm zoom set at 400mm, 1.4x extender, solar filter constructed of Thousand Oaks black polymer.

Before peak:
Partial phase.  Click for a larger image.
At 3:33 a.m. one of the somewhat clear views of the partial phase. Six minutes later and it clouded over again. Click for a 1024x768 image. Exposure 1/4 second at f/8.
Clouds.  Click for a larger image.
At about 3:50, the clouds were blocking the partial phase and it looked like we were doomed with the annular phase just a few minutes away. Click for a 1024x768 image. Unfiltered shot on Provia 100 slide film, Canon 1v, 17-35 zoom.
After peak:
Just after peak.  Click for a larger image.
At 4:05 a.m., just a minute after peak, viewing conditions improved slightly but the moon had moved off center already. Click for a 1024x768 image. Exposure 1 second at f/8.
Four minutes after peak.  Click for a larger image.
The view continues to clear but at 4:08 a.m. we're back into a partial phase. Click for a 1024x768 image. Exposure 1/8 second at f/8.

My setup. Click for larger image.

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All photos 1998- by Thomas O'Neil