August 19, 2017
I was sitting in Terminal E at Logan International Airport eating a chocolate bar and wondering if my itinerary for the next three days was completely absurd. I arrived at the airport early just in case there was a long line at the security checkpoint, but ended up going from the curb outside the terminal to my gate in under 20 minutes. With about two hours left to burn, I called a few friends and family, and eventually resorted to obsessively studying the information I had packed in my carry-on bag.
The information I was reviewing was a mixture of topographic maps and a cheat sheet I was hoping to memorize. On the topographic maps I had marked possible photo locations in Umatilla National Forest in eastern Oregon. On the remaining information I had detailed exactly what I needed to know to view and photograph the total solar eclipse that would be sweeping across the United States two days later.
The hype surrounding the total solar eclipse had built considerably over the months leading up to the event. It was the first total solar eclipse to pass over the United States in almost 40 years and millions of Americans lived within a day’s drive of the 70-mile-wide path of totality. As a result, traffic predictions for areas near the path of totality ranged from bad to borderline apocalyptic, which was one of the things that was making me stress about my planned itinerary.
The flight I was waiting to board would take me to Seattle after a short layover in New York City. After arriving in Seattle, I would have a quick night to spend with friends before renting an SUV and driving a minimum of 6 hours to Umatilla National Forest. Once I arrived, I would hopefully have a few hours before sunset to scout out a good spot to view the eclipse. And, when it was all said and done, I would have to hope that traffic was not so catastrophic that the 6-hour drive back to Seattle would not turn into a 16-hour drive that resulted in a missed flight to Hawaii. It was at that point that I wondered if the flight costs, rental car costs, and driving time would be worth the 90 seconds of totality I would hopefully witness during the solar eclipse. (Yes, only 90 seconds.) The key word there was “hopefully”, because after all of that planning, all it would take was one stray cloud on an otherwise clear day to potentially ruin the show.
I exchanged friendly small talk with a handful of people on my way to Seattle. With each of them, the conversation eventually fell on my travel plans and, inevitably, the eclipse. Upon hearing my plans, each person responded with polite interest. Most of them explained that they had actually seen an eclipse at some point in their life, so they didn’t feel a need to try to see it again. However, each time I heard this the person was referring to a partial eclipse and had not seen totality. Not having seen any part of a solar eclipse myself, I didn’t feel right telling them that from everything I had read, witnessing a partial solar eclipse was like witnessing a total solar eclipse in the same way that looking at a roller coaster from the ground is like riding on one.
August 20, 2017
On the morning before the eclipse, I woke up and checked every weather report I could find for the following day. All forecasts pointed to either clear or mostly clear skies around Umatilla National Forest. I decided to ignore the ones that said only mostly clear skies because I’m an optimist—and because I couldn’t get the money back on my overpriced rental car if I wanted to anyway. The forecast also predicted that smoke from wildfires that had been raging in the northwestern United States would hopefully stay away from where I was headed. With that knowledge under my belt, I picked up my rented SUV, stocked up on food and water, and began the drive towards Oregon.
After just over 5 hours of driving through dramatic mountain passes and slightly less dramatic wheat fields, I pulled into Heppner, Oregon, a small town of about 1,300 residents outside of Umatilla National Forest. There I met up with Gioacchino Rizzo, a talented landscape photographer from Portland. After looking over some topo maps, we decided to scout a few possible viewing locations for the eclipse, and spent the afternoon exploring some of the unpaved service roads in the forest. After a few hours of driving, several dead ends, cattle traffic jams, and, miraculously, no flat tires, we eventually realized that our best viewing location would be the spot we first saw less than 5 minutes after entering the National Forest…
Sunset in Umatilla National Forest that night was a good one, with late-day sunlight cutting through the summer haze and reflecting off a wavy blanket of clouds. Since the forecasts had called for a boring, cloudless sunset, I was still a bit anxious for what the morning weather would bring. However, as the evening went on, the cloud cover started to dissipate, and I was able to relax a bit and watch as the stars and Milky Way gradually twinkled into view. On any other night I would have had my camera out capturing photos of the Milky Way under Umatilla’s pitch-black skies, which are some of the darkest in the continental United States. Instead, knowing I wanted to be awake by sunrise to begin getting ready for the eclipse, I folded down the seats in my SUV, made up my bed, and laid down in Hotel GMC Acadia for the night.
August 21, 2017
The partial phase of the eclipse was scheduled to being at just after 9 a.m. at my viewing location, so I had set an alarm for 6 a.m. to coincide with sunrise. Excitement (pronounced “full bladder”) got the best of me, however, and I awoke at about 5:15 as the first light appeared in the eastern sky. As soon as it was bright enough outside, I set up my tripod (a Feisol CT-3442) and my main camera setup (a Nikon D750 and a wide-angle lens) in front of the lone tree I wanted to use as my foreground, tweaked my composition, and snapped a few test shots. My backup camera, which I had rented just in case an untimely catastrophic failure rendered mine unusable, was affixed with a telephoto lens a few yards away so that I could capture some of the phases of the eclipse up close. Aside from a few wispy clouds to the east, the sky was completely clear.
The photo I had been envisioning all summer was a progression of all of the phases of the eclipse from the very beginning of the partial phases to the very end, with totality situated in the center of the frame directly over the tree I had chosen for my foreground. This meant that I had to plan my composition very carefully, and that I would ultimately need to snap a photo every five minutes to get the correct spacing of the sun across the frame. In addition, I knew that a total eclipse could potentially be a once-in-a-lifetime event, so I wanted more than anything to just stand back, be present in the moment, and enjoy—even if that meant missing the shot altogether. Knowing I would have 90 seconds of totality to work with, I planned to allow myself to have about 15 seconds at the beginning of totality to try to capture photos, after which I was going to stand back and observed everything going on around me, regardless of whether I got the shots or not. I warned Gio beforehand that if I started weeping like a small child during the eclipse that he should just ignore me. I had a feeling that the eclipse had the potential the join the last scene of Homeward Bound and highlights of the 2004 Red Sox playoff run and as one of the few things that could bring a tear to my eye.
When I chose Umatilla National Forest as a viewing location, I did so in part because I hoped it would be away from other people so that I could have a quiet experience in nature. And while Gio and I still managed to end up in a place that was fairly secluded when compared to one of the more populated areas in western Oregon or other parts of the country, we watched as cars began to file into the forest shortly after sunrise. We chatted with a few people who had parked near us, a pair of whom mentioned that they had been planning for the eclipse for three years, and I immediately felt completely underprepared. With only a few minutes left before the eclipse began, I read through my cheat sheet a few more times, obsessively checked all of my camera settings, and waited excitedly for the show to begin.
The eclipse began just after 9 a.m. and, at first, it was almost completely undiscernible. However, after ten minutes or so, I could begin to see what looked to be a small sliver taken out of the right side of the sun when looking through my eclipse glasses. I diligently snapped photos every five minutes through my main camera, playing around with my backup camera during the free minutes in order to capture a few images that were a bit more zoomed-in.
To be completely honest, a partial solar eclipse is far from life-changing. I found myself looking up at the sun through my eclipse glasses every so often during the partial phases to check its progress. Seeing what looked like a small bite that had been taken out of the Sun was interesting, but it certainly wasn’t an event I would have driven six hours and slept in a car for. I completely understood why all of the people I encountered during my travels who had seen only the partial phases in the past would think that a solar eclipse was underwhelming, especially given all of the hype that had been surrounding this one.
At about 10:10 a.m., I was able to start noticing the effects of totality creeping up on us. The temperature felt slightly cooler and the lighting had a sharpness that, even months later, I still have trouble adequately describing. For those who have experience using Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, it looked like nature was slowly turning up the Clarity slider, giving the shadows and features around me a crisper look. In other words, the edges of shadows looked sharper and looked to have more contrast than usual. Hoping to have something to share with friends and family at home to show what the eclipse was like, I set up my phone to take a video to show the changes in ambient light and sounds when totality hit.
With about five minutes to go before totality, I started to hear and feel the energy in myself and the people around me building. I took my last shots of the partial phase, put the solar filter and lens cap back on my cameras to avoid damaging my equipment that had been pointed directly at the sun all morning, and took one last look at my cheat sheet so I wouldn’t forget everything I was planning to do once totality arrived. At that point, it was slightly darker and the temperature was noticeably dropping. I stood in between my cameras and prepared for the show.
When totality finally occurs, it does so quickly. While the ambient light does dim in the minutes approaching totality, the Sun is so bright—literally blinding—that it still puts the Earth in daylight until the last minute or so before the Moon fully covers the Sun’s disk. And it wasn’t until the final fifteen or so seconds before totality that everything began to rapidly change. At the time, I was trying to notice everything around me—the cooled temperature, the crisp shadows, the strange lighting on the few clouds on the horizon, and, most importantly, the Sun and the Moon. When it was clear that totality was only a few seconds away, I took off my eclipse glasses and began quickly glancing up at the Sun to check its progress. When the bright flare from the Sun finally looked small enough, I kept my eyes trained on it and saw the “diamond ring” effect shown in the photo below. A few seconds later I began hearing whoops, cheers, and gasps from onlookers farther down the dirt road from us. In the second it took me to process the fact that the Moon’s shadow had already covered them and was about to reach where we were standing, the flare of the Sun shrunk and vanished, the lighting dropped, and instantaneously I understood all of the cheers I had just heard.
I can think of plenty of times in my life that I’ve been outside, gazing at a scene in front of me, and have been, in some way, emotionally affected by it. Some of my best memories have come while watching sunrises, standing on mountaintops, or lying under a dark, clear night sky. However, in each of those instances, the scene I was viewing was, in a way, familiar to me, because they were all things that I had seen before in photos or had watched in videos.
No photo or video does the experience of witnessing a total solar eclipse justice. I had watched videos, listened to first-hand accounts, and researched totality while getting ready for my trip. I looked at countless photos from totality, all while keeping in mind that in low-light conditions a camera can pick up far more detail that the naked eye can discern, so my eyes likely wouldn’t see the same thing. I thought I knew exactly what to expect. Yet as soon as the Moon covered the last sliver of the Sun during the eclipse, I was completely dumbstruck.
Standing under a total eclipse feels like standing in a scene out of a science-fiction movie. The horizon in every direction is lit with an orange glow and I remember thinking that the sky was a shade of blue I had never seen before. The ambient lighting was similar to that of blue hour (the light you might see around a half hour before sunrise or after sunset). However, during an eclipse, that light still looks like nothing you would see at any other time of day. During blue hour on a regular day, the light source (the Sun), is below the horizon, so shadows are not cast by you and the objects around you. During totality, although it’s very diffuse, the source of light is still above the horizon, meaning that I was still surrounded by faint, but crisp shadows. Even so, while all of those things help make totality the experience that it is, all of it pales in comparison to the appearance of the Sun.
While I was looking at the Sun in the last two or so seconds before totality, I remember being surprised that I could see the same “diamond ring” effect that shows up in photos. (I also remember wondering if I was looking at the sun without eclipse glasses too soon and was ruining my eyesight forever, but I decided to ignore that part and deal with it later.) And as the last hint of direct sunlight disappeared behind the moon, it was like a switch was flipped, and all of a sudden, the Sun’s outer atmosphere—the corona—was visible just like it is in photos. I could see the irregular structure of shimmering, silvery white reaching out from behind the Moon in every direction (click here to see a prediction published prior to the eclipse of what the corona would look like to the naked eye, which ended up being very accurate). I could even see the red solar prominences shown in the photo above, and at the time I was sure it was just my eyes playing tricks on me. Several stars and planets even became visible. All the while, I heard the cheers of happiness from the people close by to me, as well as the cheers of those farther down the road echoing off of the hills in front of us. But of everything to notice and enjoy during totality—the temperature drop, the stars and planets, the color of the sky, the light and shadows, the cheers of the people around, and more—seeing the corona with my own eyes is what left me speechless. And anyone who knows me knows that speechless isn’t something that happens easily.
After the first few seconds of totality passed with me staring at the Sun in amazement, I quickly snapped back into photography mode and triggered the shutter on both of my cameras, first capturing the wide-angle shot of totality I was hoping for, and then triggering a series of shots on my backup camera in hopes of getting a zoomed-in view of totality. Once I spent about 20 seconds or so capturing photos, I spent the next 70 seconds staring up at the sky, grinning ear to ear, and giggling like an idiot.
When totality ended and the first rays of direct sunlight began to poke out from behind the Moon, I looked at my backup camera and, in disbelief, saw that I had left the lens cap on. I had at least noticed it soon enough to remove it and quickly snap the shot of the diamond ring above and was able to laugh it off. However, when I walked over to my main camera and saw that I had left my solar filter in front of it, meaning my shots came out completely black, I admittedly had a brief moment of dejection, even though I had gone into the eclipse preparing to have capturing photos being a secondary goal to just witnessing the eclipse in person. That moment of dejection mostly passed quickly, however, and I went back to experiencing the wave of happiness caused by what I had just witnessed.
After recapping the experience with Gio and some of the other happy eclipse watchers around us, I realized that missing my shot during totality meant I no longer had a need to stay and try to capture the remaining partial phases of the eclipse for the wide-angle photo I had planned. So, knowing I had at least 6 hours of driving ahead of me, I packed up my gear, said my goodbyes, and began to drive north out of Umatilla National Forest and back towards Seattle.
As I drove, I reflected on the experience, trying to commit to memory every bit of what I saw, heard, and felt, knowing it was all something I wanted to remember for a lifetime. The simplest advice I can give is this: If you have the means to do so, go see a total solar eclipse before you die. I can confidently say that the weeks of planning, days of travel, and hours of driving just to witness a 90-second natural phenomenon I may never see again were worth it.
The photos that I take are typically snapshots in time. Those snapshots may last a fraction of a second or they may last 30 seconds or longer depending on how long I leave my camera’s shutter open. Similarly, the combining of exposures I typically do is for the purpose of reducing noise in a night sky photo or capturing darkest shadows and brightest highlights in a daytime scene so that the final image more closely resembles what we can see with our eyes. The shot below, however, is a departure from both of those practices. My goal was not to capture an image that represented a few seconds in time, but the show the overall experience of viewing the eclipse and to give myself a memory that signifies that. And because of mistakes I made while trying to take the photos during totality, I had to get a little more creative than I originally planned.
Once I got home and began going through my images from the day of the eclipse, I realized that I got extremely lucky. The photos I had captured with my backup camera happened to be spaced fairly evenly throughout the partial phases of the eclipse leading up to totality. And thanks to the test shots I took of the foreground just as the sun was rising, I had a base image to work with. As a result, my final image is a combination of seven different exposures—six for the sun in various stages of the eclipse which were taken on my backup camera, and one for the foreground and the rest of the sky to represent totality which was taken with my main camera.
When post-processing, I darkened the base image to match the lighting during totality, comparing the lighting and coloring to the video I captured on my phone and the notes I wrote down after totality ended. Since I wanted the base image to reflect the lighting I saw during totality, I also flipped the image so that the shadow cast by the tree would match where I wanted to place the diamond ring phase in the image. I then took the partial phase photos and arranged them rising rose over the tree to get the final composition. The final product certainly isn’t the usual type of image I make, but because of the event that it represents, it might just be my all-time favorite.