Eclipse 2017: There goes the sun

Gary Hart Photography: Let There Be Light, Planet Earth, Solar System, Milky Way (August 21, 2017)

Let There Be Light, Planet Earth, Solar System, Milky Way (August 21, 2017)
Sony a7RII
Sony 100-400 GM
ISO 100
1/6 second

After years of anticipation, months of planning, weeks of preparation, and days of stressing, the 2017 North American total solar eclipse came and went in 2 minutes and 6 seconds. When it was over, I wasn’t even sure I had any usable images, but I’m now qualified to state that experiencing a total solar eclipse transcends any images that result.

The plan

For the eclipse, my wife and I traveled to my brother-in-law’s (dirt-road remote) 160 acres in the mountains west of Alpha, Idaho, conveniently located in the middle of the path of totality. To avoid the crowds, we’d driven up Friday evening and hunkered down until Tuesday morning. Because the two weeks prior had been occupied entirely by workshops in Madison, Wisconsin (for Sony) and (mostly) at the Grand Canyon, I was playing catch-up with my eclipse prep, I tried to use the downtime in the mountains as efficiently as possible. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to order my eclipse glasses and lens filter while they were still available, so I was good to go equipment-wise. Not so fortunately, I quickly learned I’d been a little too cocky and hadn’t test things as thoroughly as I should have.

For the most efficient use of my time, I decided to set up two tripods, one with my brand new Sony 100-400 GM (on its maiden voyage) mounted on my a7RII, the other supporting the a7SII and Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4. While I could have done the telephoto shot from anywhere, I also wanted a series of images that needed a foreground. But with totality not until 11:26 a.m. the sun would be quite high, and I knew I’d need a wide lens in vertical orientation. I did some scouting on Saturday and Sunday, picking a spot with an east-facing view of the Long Valley and about a 10-minute walk up the mountain from our base of operations.

The execution

Sunday night I cut two solar filters from a 6″x6″ solar filter sheet I’d purchased just for this purpose, a filter for each lens, but by the time I’d gotten them fitted just right, the sun was down (cue portentous music). In bed on Sunday night, for the first time since I played baseball, I found myself rooting for blue skies. The forecast promised by the weatherman, I suspect with his fingers crossed behind his back, was little comfort because he’d also promised blue skies for each of the three days preceding the eclipse, and each had been stained by an assortment of disorganized stratus clouds that seemed to appear and disappear with alarming randomness.

The first thing I did Monday morning was poke my head outside and look skyward. Blue, nothing but blue. Exhale. After breakfast I donned my camera bag and headed for my spot, arriving as planned about 30 minutes before the 10:11 start time. So far so good. The filter for the 16-35 was perfect, but the 100-400’s filter was too small to cover the entire field of view when zoomed beyond 200mm. Uh-oh. After a few minutes of panic I devised an ad lib, but I lost precious prep, practice, and composure time. (Note to self: Cut filters early enough to test them in daylight.)

The experience

When the sun’s upper right edge started disappearing, right on schedule, I began firing slow and steady, click-click, one per camera, at about 2-minute intervals. Between each click-pair I donned my eclipse glasses and monitored the moon’s progress across the face of the sun. For nearly an hour the show was pretty cool, but nothing I’d never seen before, and I was able to relax bit.

A little after 11:00, about 25 minutes before totality (11:26), I became aware of an eerie warming of the light—eerie because it wasn’t accompanied by the long shadows we’re accustomed to when the light warms. By 11:15, the air had chilled noticeably and I reached for the flannel shirt I’d packed in anticipation. The light continued to warm and fade with each passing minute, but the mountains across the valley remained noticeably brighter, another odd experience given the cloudless skies—a clear indicator of the west-to-east advance of the moon’s shadow across the landscape.

The motion of the moon was best detected indirectly, by observing the shrinking sun, much the way the hour hand’s circling of a clock is recognized by the realization that its position has changed. Even with just a sliver of sun remaining, its ability to illuminate surprised me. Then, just like that, it was dark—not pitch dark, but dark enough for a few stars. But the only star that had my attention was the absolutely mesmerizing sun, whose brilliance had been snuffed in an instant that transformed it from the brightest thing in the sky to the darkest, a black disk fringed with shimmering light that seemed to pulse with energy.

Suddenly I was having a hard time concentrating on photography, but I snapped a series of images with my long lens, bracketing like crazy, and a couple of frames with my wide lens. Then I watched some more. And then it was over.

I’ve witnessed several partial eclipses, and one annular eclipse, but they were more memorable for what they represent than their spectacle. A total eclipse catches you off guard because in a heartbeat it goes from an amazing but familiar show to a visual extravaganza that defies both description and photography. A partial eclipse is to a total eclipse as a transistor radio is to a live symphony.

The method to my madness

I know that it’s virtually impossible to capture an eclipse photo that doesn’t look like thousands of other eclipse photos, but the image here is my attempt. If you read my blog, you know that I believe the opportunity for unique images lies in the ability to capture the world as the camera sees it, not as the human eye sees it. So, in the months leading up to the eclipse I thought about how to achieve this.

In a fast-shutter telephoto click featuring nothing but the sun, I lose the opportunity to leverage my camera’s take on motion and depth, but I can use the way my camera handles light. One plan was a shotgun approach to exposure, bracketing many shutter clicks across a wide exposure range, then see what I got. And I wanted to create a starburst effect when the sun reappeared. But rather than stop down to the f/16 or smaller f-stop I usually use for a starburst, I opted here for f/9 to broaden the sunburst rays. (To hedge my bets, I also tried f/16, but I like this one better.)

Because I know you’re going to ask…

When I say I want to capture the world as my camera sees it, I mean that I want my creativity to happen in my camera, not my computer. This image is a single click that’s nothing like what my eyes saw, but it is very much what my camera saw. The processing I did was minimal: To get the orange-yellow that I saw with the solar filter in place before totality, I warmed the color temperature in Lightroom, then somewhat desaturated it. I also tweaked the Exposure, Highlights, Whites, and Blacks sliders. In Photoshop I ran Topaz DeNoise, did a little selective desaturation (yellows), removed some lens flare. That’s it.

I should add that this image would probably not be possible without a camera that delivers the dynamic range of my Sony a7RII.

In retrospect

I’ve been photographing seriously for over 40 years, but never have I felt as much like a rookie as I did on eclipse morning. Walking down the hill when it was over, I was hyper-aware of the mistakes I’d made and the things I’d do differently. I don’t think my wide images will ever see the light of day (no specific problems, I’m just not thrilled with my results), but this is the first of several telephoto images that I like a lot. I know I’ll soon be processing a handful of images that look a lot more like what my eyes saw (but also look a lot like the eclipse images you’ve already seen). The one I share here is my favorite because it doesn’t look like what my eyes saw, but it does most accurately express the feeling I experienced when the sun burst from behind the moon and once again bathed the world in light.


My calendar is already marked for April 8, 2024.

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Celestial Wonders: Sun, Moon, and Stars

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21 Comments on “Eclipse 2017: There goes the sun

  1. Beautiful photograph! Would love to see a few more… (hint, hint). As I was reading about what an epiphanic moment totality was for you, it reminded me of 2007 McNaught’s Comet here in Australia. Up until then I had seen a few comets, but none of them particularly impressed me – fine, sure, but what’s the fuss? Then in January 2007 while going for a daily walk (McNuaght’s Comet had been visible for a few days at that point, though I had not yet noticed it, I turned a corner down a long walkway that stretched into the West, and there in the sky was McNaught’s comet in all its maximum glory and it was extraordinary – no camera but I took an indelible mental picture! We have an 11 year wait for a total eclipse down here in Australia. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

    • Thanks, Sabrina. I’ve always had a special affinity for comets. I sat alone on a hill in the Sierra foothills to watch Comet McNaught. We didn’t get it so good in the Northern Hemisphere because it was almost lost to the twilight glow when it was brightest, but it was clearly visible to the naked eye if you knew where to look.

      • When I saw it McNaught’s comet stretched across a vast amount of the late summer evening sky with two tremendous clearly defined tails of differing hues. I instantly ‘got’ why we humans have been raving about them from time immemorial.

  2. Hi Gary,

    I love your photos and your blog — I live just south of Santa Cruz and hope to be able to join one of your workshops some day.

    I was at Moose Creek Ranch near Victor, ID, in the path of totality, and took the attached photo using a Sony SLT-a77 with Sony 70-300 f/5.6 G SSM lens at 300mm, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/30 sec +/- 0.7 EV. I really like Sony equipment — I’ve been lusting after the a7RII but am not looking forward to buying new lenses (although I realize I can use my A-mount lenses with an adapter).

    I processed the three shots using DxO Optics Pro 11, then combined them using Aurora HDR Pro with final minor touch-ups using Luminar and Photoshop. The result, I think, comes very close to what I saw during the total eclipse (albeit probably not that different from many other eclipse images, as you point out). If you look carefully, though, it’s even possible to make out the faint image of the “rabbit pounding acorns” on the lunar surface.

    Best regards,

    Ray Reinhard


    • Thanks, Ray. It was a tremendous experience, wasn’t it? Definitely worth the trip. How were the crowds in your neck of the woods? I was in the mountains above Alpha, Idaho—we were fully self-contained from Friday-Tuesday and didn’t venture down into the mayhem once. FYI, I’ll be posting a few of my more conventional eclipse images as well.

  3. An absolutely gorgeous and unique shot. I can’t say that I saw very many photos that look like this one. I wish that I could have captured what was visible from where I live (we were in the 75% zone of the eclipse), but alas. I didn’t have a solar filter for my camera. I hadn’t even planned to be outside to see it, but we made time at my job to do it. If I had known, I would have prepared. One question about your image: what is that bright spec beneath the sun at about the “7 o’clock” position? Keep on clicking!

  4. So amazing and full of impact…
    Your camera has soul!!!
    Love this

  5. Great work Gary. I look forward to meeting you face-to-face in Yosemite in October. Until then, get out and shoot! — Alan I.

  6. The shot is extraordinarily beautiful and certainly conveys the emotional impact it had on you. Nicely done! Thank you, once again, for sharing your “how to” knowledge on the experience and shot. The writing is superb as always!

  7. Dear Gary, Little did I know that when I signed up for the Monsoon August 2016 workshop with you and Don would I benefit from both of you with your blogs.

    Thank you for sharing your solar eclipse image, along with the narrative of preparing, shooting, editing, and reflection.

    Although I prepared for the eclipse I ended up making a dopey final decision … to stay at Glen Eden (just south of Lincoln City) and not pack up the gear and tell my husband, John, to drive east. I was lured into a mindset of faith … as many folks at the hotel were setting up on the driving range, and the sun was clearing the (damn) marine fog. And indeed faith seemed to prevail … until….. moments before totality another wave of marine fog rolled in! But we did sense the complete quiet darkness and temperature change. Quite extraordinary.

    While the pain of it all was still raw, we played golf with a fellow from Depoe Bay … and there came the salt into the wound … clear skies just a few miles south of Glen Eden for the totality!

    Your image is amazing and once (and if) that image is up for purchase I will certainly get one!

    Hoping in the next year I can join you again for another workshop … might see what you might suggest since you know I’m not keen on heights w/out railings!

    I’m sure you’ve been following the horrors of the Eagle Creek fire … how one mindless (or maybe not so mindless?) punk can cause so much havoc and destruction. Thankfully the 150 day hikers returned safe and unharmed despite an overnight stay hearing and seeing the fire. The Gorge landscape will be changed for a long while.

    Thank you again for all your poetic narratives and images.


    On Wed, Aug 23, 2017 at 11:17 PM, Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart wrote:

    > Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart posted: ” This e-mail is the first edition of > this post. Click here to read the most current version. After years of > anticipation, months of planning, weeks of preparation, and days of > stressing, the 2017 North American total solar eclipse came and went in 2 > min” >

    • Thank you, Annemarie. I had no idea how much pressure photographing the eclipse would cause, even after writing a blog about enjoying the moment and not getting too caught up in the photography. I feel very fortunate to have captured images that make me happy. And at least we only have to wait seven years for another one more or less in the neighborhood. You can purchase most of the images on my blog can be purchased by clicking the image—here’s the link for that one:

      Yeah, I’ve definitely been following the Eagle Creek fire—I’ll probably try to get up there once the smoke has settled, just to see how it will affect the workshops. It’s just such a a tragedy.

  8. I just re-read your post here, almost what, 3 months later?.., anyway the impact is even greater now!! The image your camera saw is amazing and spectacular! Well in the fantastic category of your “through my (Gary’s) eyes” realm…
    just had to let you know! All the best, Gary !

  9. Pingback: 2017 in the Mirror | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  10. Pingback: The View from Space | Eloquent Images by Gary Hart

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