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Two Minutes of Darkness: Notes on What Worked and What Didn't

It was nearly impossible not to know about the solar eclipse this past Monday. Some people just soaked in the experience. Some tried to photograph it. I was in the latter group, and this is my tale.

This was my first attempt at a solar eclipse. I have shoot lunar eclipses before, something that might seem similar, but trust me, the two types of eclipses have only a passing relationship with each other. Yes, both do require you to be in the right place at the right time to witness the spectacle, but the concept of "right place" requires a much higher degree of accuracy for solar eclipses than for lunar. Total lunar eclipses are visible over an extremely wide area. A solar eclipse is visible only along a relatively narrow path. Last Monday, you could see a partial solar eclipse over the entire continental United States. The totality was visible along a path less than a hundred miles wide.

But only one of these two types of eclipses come with warnings regarding the need for special filters to avoid blindness. Put simply, the moon's brightness pales in comparison to that of the sun. Even when you aren't looking directly at the sun, there's a lot of glare, making it hard to see what you are doing. There's no doubt about it, a solar eclipse is harder to do justice to with a camera than is a lunar eclipse.

With that in mind, I have an admission to make. The two hours or so leading up to the start of the eclipse last Monday was probably the most stressful, frustrating experience I've had as a photographer. I knew I was only going to have one shot at this, and it was proving harder than anticipated.

First off, I wish I had driven down on Saturday rather than Sunday. I shot the eclipse from a spot along the Snake River Road near Huntington, Oregon, right where the road intersects the path of maximum totality. No crowds, and a clear, unobstructed view to where the sun would rise, out across the Snake River and into Idaho. I didn't have any problems with traffic from waiting a day, having already chosen a route that I hoped would avoid most of the traffic. But I would have loved to have the extra day for a dry run of the eclipse path. I could have shot as much as I needed to to prepare, without the added pressure of the real eclipse bearing down on me.

I had two tripods set up, with two cameras. One setup was fitted with a 200mm lens and connected to Helicon Remote running on a laptop. At that focal length, it took just over 15 minutes for the sun to drift across the frame. During the central part of the eclipse, I was shooting a frame every two seconds. The other camera setup had a 400mm lens plus a 2x teleconverter. This gave me a framing where the sun was considerably larger than the other camera, but where there was still some room around the sun for the corona to show during the totality.

Unfortunately, at that magnification, the sun would drift out of frame in just a couple of minutes, and once it did, I found it was extremely difficult to reacquire. With a solar filter over that long lens, everything was pitch black until a managed to stumble onto the sun. I spent a good deal of time scanning back and forth, trying to find the sun. Once I did, I could shoot a few frames, but if I looked away for very long to simply enjoy being there, the whole process would begin again. The sun would have moved out of the frame, and I'd need to find it again. The next total eclipse in the United States won't be until 2024, but my plan right now is to invest in a motorized equatorial mount to keep things in the frame automatically. These aren't cheap, and I probably won't use it much other than for the next eclipse, but money spent on being able to relax and enjoy the eclipse more seems well worth it to me.

Speaking of solar filters, I had come well supplied. I had both cheap cardboard solar viewing glasses as well as some cool, plastic wrap around glasses. Hilariously, the cheap cardboard ones worked out better as they fit over my regular glasses. My super cool plastic pair didn't. For cameras, I had made a couple of filters from Baader Planetarium AstroSolar Film using the instructions they provide. The smaller one made use of a threaded Cokin filter ring for attachment rather than the describe cardboard ring. I also had a Marumi DHG ND-100000 Neutral Density solar eclipse filter (16.5 Stops) as I really didn't know what would work best. The Marumi seller ended up being one of the ones that Amazon decided to refund as it couldn't be properly sourced from a recommended manufacturer, but I used it anyway as it seemed legit to me. One of the things I did that worked out extremely well is to purchase my filters well ahead of time. As it got closer to the eclipse date, prices skyrocketed, and supplies dried up.

Also on the topic of filters, I found the use of Xume quick release filter adapters to be extremely helpful. I wrote about these several years ago when they first came out, but if you aren't familiar, they are extremely narrow hollow filter rings that come in pairs, one that screws onto your camera lens, and the other that screws onto a filter. The two halves are held together by strong, rare earth (neodymium) magnets. You can't see the magnets, but you can tell they're in there. The two ring halves snap together easily and securely, but pull apart just as easily when you pull on the attached filter. With this system, it was simple and quick to pull the solar filter off when totality started, and just as simple to reattach it when the eclipse reached the end of totality. Since I wrote about Xume adapters back in 2015, it looks like the company has been bought by Manfrotto.

Overall, the experience of the eclipse was truly awesome, like nothing else. Up until shortly before totality, it would be easy to remain unaware that anything was happening. Without at least the cheap solar glasses, everything seemed quite ordinary. But once we reached totality, the lights went out, literally. Over a span of perhaps ten seconds, it was as if someone hit the dimmer switch for the sun, and it turned to night. The sun set, while still high in the sky. Once totality started it became impossible not to know something was happening. Two minutes and nine seconds later (based on my location along the Snake River), the dimmer switch was flipped back on, and the lights came back. Truly surreal. And well worth it. An experience I will never forget, and as you've probably already figured out, an experience I hope to have again come 2024 when the next United Stated total solar eclipse comes around.

Once the eclipse was over, I wish I had stayed put a while longer than I did. As it was, I wanted to get back to civilization and attempted to make my way to Baker City, Oregon, only to end up in total gridlock on Interstate 84. Abandoning my goal of Baker City, I changed plans to get off at the next exit and get out of the traffic jam. But even though the next exit was only six miles away, I was moving at barely three miles per hour. After a slow slog to that exit, I headed for the nearest National Forrest and camped there for the night. It seems that although people staggered their arrivals to where they watched the eclipse, far too many people like me tried to leave at the same time once it ended. Lesson learned for next time.

The great American Eclipse of 2017

Date posted: August 27, 2017


Copyright © 2017 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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To See a Total Eclipse of the Sun
The Dark Side of the Sun: More on the Great American Eclipse

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