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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.