On June 25, I got inspired to photograph the Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017. I was sitting in my 97-year-old mother’s sitting room while she watched TV and I was reading articles on the Web. Looking at a NASA map of the Zone of Totality, I estimated the cheapest flight from Pittsburgh to the Zone, would be Atlanta. I chose a site in South Carolina near the Georgia border. Concerned about supply and demand, I immediately booked plane tickets and a Hampton Inn and ordered solar glasses. Within a few days of hearing my crazy plan, my husband volunteered to come with me for moral support. My mission to study specialized photographic techniques began.
Most helpful was the iBook “How to Photograph the Solar Eclipse” by Alan Dyer, who has traveled to numerous eclipse sites around the world. Dyer describes many different approaches and urges you to get geared up and practice. Which camera and which lens? Still photos or video? Weighing the relative difficulties of each, could I manage two set-ups, and still enjoy watching the eclipse?
I bought photographic solar filters in three sizes, an additional “Really Right Stuff” ball head for a second tripod and an intervalometer. I developed a plan to operate my Sony a7rII with a 24 mm lens and no filter on one tripod. An intervalometer would operate it automatically to take a photograph every 6 seconds for 90 minutes, so that later a time lapse video could be made. The second tripod would hold my Nikon D800 with a 200mm lens and a 1.4x teleconverter (for a 280mm equivalent focal length), dedicated to taking close-ups of the Corona at Totality. Examining the options, I decided the image resulting from this set-up was my top choice. The close-up requires a solar filter to capture all the partial eclipse images. During Totality I would remove the filter and bracket shots (ISO 100 and f/8) one stop apart from 1 second as the longest exposure to 1/1,000 second as the fastest (1 sec., 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000), to capture the various levels of luminosity of the Corona. These images would later be combined with layers and masks to create one very special image. It was going to be tough to remain calm and also watch and wonder during Totality, as I knew I would feel really excited and Totality would last only 2 minutes and 18 seconds.
From Atlanta, we drove 2 hours north to a Hampton Inn in Hartwell, Georgia on Sunday night. On Monday morning, we left the hotel around 9am to drive another half hour to Anderson, SC to a recreational park I had pinpointed on Google Maps on Lake Hartwell. We arrived at the park, happy to find plenty of parking spaces, a lovely lake view, blue skies and a few trees to provide shade. Thanks to our Sewickley friend Sarah Hay Rawls, who lives in Atlanta now, we had some chairs to sit in while we waited 4 hours for the action to begin.
Just imagine how we felt as clouds formed just at the WRONG TIME and covered the Sun for most of the eclipse duration. Yes, weeks of focused study, a few hundred dollars in equipment, flights, hotels, rental car and two days of priceless spousal support would result in… what exactly?
Here is the image my Sony was capturing every 6 seconds. (Turn it off.) We looked at one another and shrugged.
Okay, what is the good news? I captured a few close up images during the first few minutes of the partial eclipse.
The other advice that helped me manage my disappointment was from my photography mentor Gary Hart, an accomplished landscape photographer, who advised me to savor the moment and not get too involved fiddling with the camera during Totality. In fact, many solar eclipse experts emphasized that advice. Gary said, “I refuse to be so focused on getting the shot that I fail to appreciate this experience of a lifetime. I’ll take a great memory over a great photo anytime.”
We had a great experience in multiple ways — the wonderful Park family we met there, the serene setting by Hartwell Lake, the mystery of the darkening and lightening of the sky during Totality and the inexplicable special feeling that came with bearing witness to this phenomenon of Nature. I will post my video of totality in my next post.