Photographing USA's 2017 Total Solar Eclipse
The night sky has always enthralled me. There’s something magical about lying on your back watching the stars twinkle and dreaming of what lies beyond. As soon as I heard the exciting news of a total solar eclipse coming across the States, I immediately began planning for the shoot of a lifetime.
I knew that I wanted to create a scene rather than focus solely on the eclipse. My goal became to shoot each phase and create a composite showing its path. After what felt like months of research online (thank goodness for the internet), I learned what I would need in order to capture such a rare phenomenon:
a solar filter to protect my lenses from the harsh rays of the sun (I used these from B&H)
solar glasses to protect my own special lenses (I received a free pair from my eye doctor)
a telephoto lens to capture the phases of the eclipse (I own the Sony 70-200mm GM)
a wide lens to capture the landscape (I own the Sony 24-70mm GM)
clear skies and a landscape that would not block my view of the eclipse
There were multiple helpful resources online that showed exactly where the eclipse would be during totality as it traversed the country. I had my eye on Oregon initially, but after deciding to meet up with some new friends who lived in Colorado, we chose southern Idaho as a good halfway meeting point that fell right in line with totality.
This was my first time driving to southern Idaho and wow, what an underrated beauty it is.
I use an incredibly powerful mobile app called PhotoPills to help me align my landscape and astrophotography shots. It allows you to see exactly where the sun will rise and set, where the Milky Way will be in the sky at any given place and time, and even where an eclipse will happen. I highly recommend it for all of your planning needs.
After driving around beautiful and rugged Stanley, Idaho, we determined that Stanley Lake would be our best bet for the eclipse location. Of course, we weren’t the only ones who thought this. We arrived three days in advance of the eclipse, but all of the registered campsites were full. Luckily, there was one first-come-first-serve spot left, and we couldn’t have been more thankful.
PhotoPills told me that the eclipse would line up just to the left of the fierce Sawtooth Range, the mountains that tower over the lake, which was honestly a bit of a bummer. But sometimes not everything goes exactly according to plan, especially with landscape photography. It ended up potentially working out better in the end – I’ll explain that later.
The morning of August 21, 2017 finally came and we excitedly jumped out of our tents to stake out our spot on the beach where we would shoot. We were greeted with a very eerie sunrise, as a mixture of summer wildfires and morning fog created an ethereal scene.
I first set up my GoPro in time lapse mode to use as a reference point to track the eclipse for when I would stack them into one image afterward. Once the moon started to chip away at the sun, I whipped out my Sony a7R II + Sony 70-200mm GM lens with the solar filter to capture the first phases of the eclipse.
Time seemed to both stand still and race forward in anticipation of totality. I kept frantically going over the steps in my head knowing that I had one chance in a very short two minute window to capture what I needed. What if I struggle to switch lenses and miss it? What if I can’t even find my other lens? What if I forget to take off the solar filter and all of the shots turn out dark? I wanted enough time to shoot, but I also wanted time to be an observer; with an extraordinary event like this, I would be remiss not to see it through my own eyes.
Right around this point, everything began to feel strange. The scene grew darker and quieter, yet I could suddenly hear more critters calling out into the air (sensing that something was coming, I’m sure). Finally at 10:27 totality struck and all of a sudden it was twilight as quickly as if the sun had simply snapped its fingers. I rushed to switch to my 24-70mm lens (the switch went flawlessly, by the way) and started firing off as quickly as I could to get the landscape shot. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing through my viewfinder; could this be real? I found myself pausing, dropping my camera down to my waist, and gazing wonderingly up at this spectacle.
I could hear cicadas, crickets, and frogs chirping and croaking away as if nightfall was indeed upon us. Then everyone around me started cheering and shouting like we were at a rally for the sun’s return. I was able to switch lenses back to my 70-200mm for some tight shots of solar prominences, Baily’s beads, and that infamous diamond ring effect.
Solar prominences are large gas components that extend outward from the Sun’s surface. During an eclipse like this, you can see these red masses protruding out from behind the moon. Unlike solar prominences, Baily’s beads only occur during a total or annular solar eclipse. When the moon and sun line up, bits of light shine through the moon’s features to create a beaded effect. The diamond ring effect, when only one bead is left, is most commonly sought after for the dramatic, natural flares it inevitably provides while photographing it.
I don’t think those two minutes of glory could have possibly gone by any faster. Before I knew it, the sun snapped its fingers and it was daytime again. Back to reality. Looking around at those celebrating with me, I couldn't find one face that didn’t have a massive smile smeared on it. Strangers were hugging each other and jumping up and down. This event brought millions of Americans together; an event that lasted two minutes held an astonishingly unexpected bonding power.
But it wasn’t over yet! I continued shooting the remaining phases as another eerie fog rolled in over the lake. It was as though even Mother Nature was fooled into thinking it was early morning again.
I could hardly wait to get back to my computer to edit these photos. Once I made the twelve-ish hour drive back home, I imported the GoPro time lapse video to get my rough estimation of the path of the eclipse and thumbed through the photos. I used Adobe Bridge and Photoshop to create the final stacked image that I will forever cherish. While compositing each phase, I realized that the simplicity of the location ended up working out better than anticipated. The stacked phases take up quite a bit of the frame, and one could argue that they would have competed too much with the Sawtooth Range. Those mountains demand attention! This framing lets the eclipse be the focal point while the lake, treeline, and reflection add some context.
This eclipse was a turning point for me. I’ve got the itch. Shooting astro-related subjects has been a passion of mine for some time; this sealed the deal. I have to see and shoot another one. For a first-time eclipse shooter, it went pretty well after all was said and done. What can I say? I’m a planner. There are, of course, things that I wish I had done differently and would like to try during my next total solar eclipse in Chile on July 2, 2019. Can’t wait!