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Tag : eclipse

03 Jul 2019

Stunned by the total solar eclipse

I saw my first total solar eclipse while in the Oregon desert in 2017 and decided right then that I would an eclipse chaser. I started planning for the next one as soon as I got home. Well, it was yesterday and pretty much all I can do is say WOW!

I was concerned that maybe the first eclipse would be the best and seeing another would be a let down. It sure wasn’t. The impact of seeing the moon move in front of and totally block the sun isn’t something I can do justice in words or pictures. 

This time I went to the desert of Chile, which is the ground zero for astronomy in South America. I hadn’t been to this part of Chile before and I didn’t have a local guide, which added to the adventure. I was lucky to find a cool cabin for our group to stay Monday night and during the eclipse, so logistics couldn’t have been better. (See blog post)

So yesterday was all about making sure my workshop group was ready. I had made solar filters for each of their cameras along with my own. Each person in the group shot with two cameras, I was using three. I had one with a 70-200mm and a 2X teleconverter giving me a 400mm lens. This one was mounted on a star tracker so it would follow the sun as it moved across the sky. Once totality began, I set it to shoot non-stop during the entire 2.5 minutes. I had another camera with another 70-200mm lens ready to shoot the landscape during totality. Since we knew where the sun would be during totality I set it in a fixed position on a tripod and manually fired it during totality.

My third camera had a 400mm lens with a 1.4X teleconverter giving me a 560mm lens. This was my main camera and I manually tracked the sun during the eclipse and shot all the phases. During the partial phases of the eclipse you have to use a special filter to keep the sun from burning out the camera’s sensor. The same for your eyes. But during totality the filters come off. I had my laptop running an eclipse countdown program that showed when each phase was happening, which is important to know.

Just like in Oregon, the partial phase of the eclipse is cool but not overly compelling. For this eclipse it was an hour and 16 minutes from the start until totality began. People watching are excited for the first few minutes as the black disc of the moon slides over the sun. They people tend to stop looking much and wander around. There were about 40 people in out little compound, all of them family or friends of the owners. For all of them it was their first eclipse. At one point I went over and showed a 10-year-old boy how to hold his hands so the shadow from the partial eclipse would make a very fun design on the ground. He liked it for a few minutes. But I knew the best was yet to come.

About ten minutes before totality things really start to change. We were out in a mountain desert that didn’t have many trees or wildlife. July is winter in Chile but we were so far north that the temperature was in the upper 60’s. As the totality became more imminent the air quickly cooled and suddenly birds started fluttering around. I hadn’t seen any all day but now they were appearing from nowhere. 

One of my favorite things of totality is the light. Being a photographer I appreciate light daily and love sunrise and sunset for the quality of light then. Right before totality the light gets this amazing color. It is dim but it isn’t the same warm color like a sunset. It is incredibly unique and all I could do was smile and spin around looking at the surrounding mountains.  It all happens so fast and lasts such a short time that it is hard to take it all in.

Then totality happens.

My one mistake was having the camera with the tracker too far away from me and I had to run over to it to take off the filter. There are two cool shots to get at the edges of totality. The first is called Bailey’s Beads which looks like little beads at the edge of the sun. The other is Diamond Ring, which is a very short moment when the edge of the sun is just sticking out from behind the moon creating a cool glow. At the start of the eclipse I missed both of them running from camera to camera. But I got them as totality ended!

I had told the other photographers in my group that I was there to help them get the best photos they could but during the 2.5 minutes of totality they were on their own. If there was a problem at that point it wasn’t going to be something I could fix so they should just not worry about the camera and take in the eclipse itself. I also told them to plan on not making pictures during at least half of totality so they feel what was going on around them.

As totality began I looked and the other photographers looked like they were doing ok. I realized there was suddenly a lot of noise. People in the compound and other camps down the mountain were yelling wildly. Their exuberation was contagious and then cheers of “Chile, Chile, Chile” broke out. It was a great scene. I was having a hard time monitoring the cameras and taking it all in.

I wish I could describe in words or pictures the feeling I get during totality. Many times during the planning and worrying about logistics I wondered if it really was worth all that time and effort just to see something for 2.5 minutes. There is no doubt it is worth it. After totality ended and I got the camera filters back on for the rest of the eclipse I just stood out in the Chilean mountain desert and looked around thinking how absolutely fortunate I am. I got quite emotional. This was special. Incredibly special. Amazingly special. 

The next total solar eclipse is in southern Chile and Argentina in Dec. 2020. I scouted the area last year and I can’t imagine missing it.

01 Jul 2019

The perfect place for eclipse viewing


Running around Chile without speaking much Spanish is a bit intimidating but what a great adventure!

This is the first time I’ve done a workshop and hadn’t either been to the location or worked with something who knew the area. I billed the workshop as an exploratory adventure and so far it has been fairly free anxiety or stress. I did a ton of research before going so I had a good idea where the best viewing locations would be but not exact places. I’m on a Facebook group of hard core eclipse chasers and they helped with pre-arrival scouting and logistics. The hardest part was finding hotel rooms around La Serena, they were sold out early but I found accommodations through AirBnB. All I could get was a three bedroom so I only brought three other people with me, Burt and Evelyn, an American couple living in Ecuador and Jane from New York City.

Sunday I took the group an hour east of La Serena to the Eliqui Valley and the town of Vicuña, near several international observatories. It is one of the darkest places in South America and is well known among people who care about that sort of thing. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get into the big observatories but I had read about a smaller one run by volunteers. We drove right up to it, ok, we had to kinda open the gate, but there weren’t many people around. We tried talking to a guy wandering around but he wasn’t a whole lot of help. A woman came over and said she heard English being spoken. She was from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and working with other universities around the world to film and study the sun during the eclipse. She told me what experiments they were doing but it was way too detailed for my brain to handle. I told what we were up to and while obviously not impressed, she asked if I had heard of Fred Espenak. Yea, he is the king of eclipse photography. She said his group was using one of the three buildings on the site. If Fred is here, then this is the place to be. A while later the observatory’s head guy arrived and told us the place would be full for the eclipse and we couldn’t be here. Drat.

As we were leaving there was a small camp next to the observatory and they had a little sign selling food. There were several small buildings in the complex and it looked like there might be room for our group to hang out on eclipse day. I had driven past it a little bit but we thought it might be a good idea to see if we could come back for the eclipse. I pulled the van into a dusty area near a tent and a couple of very friendly young people in their 20’s came over. They spoke great English, which makes things so much easier. We asked them what the deal was and the guy said they had two cabins for rent. How interesting! He gave us a tour of a newly constructed cabin and it was barely large enough to hold our group. It had two bedrooms and futon in a small common area. I was thinking the others could have the bedrooms and I’d take the futon.

One of my main concerns about any location was going to be traffic from La Serena. For months the government issued warnings about how bad the traffic would be since there was only a two-lane road out to Vicuña and the Elqui Valley and that they would be making much of it a one way road before and after the eclipse to handle all the traffic.

If we could spend Monday night on location and not have to fight traffic in the morning, I’d have no stress at all. The weather forecast was perfect and there wasn’t a better place to view the eclipse. I asked how much for the little three room cabin and he said $900 for a night. Ouch! I let him know that was way too much and I offered $200, pointing out that it was only two days away and $200 was better than nothing. His whole family lived there and he went to talk with his mother and aunt, the “chef” at the “restaurant.” He came back and said $300, telling us how good the food and wine was. Toss in two bottles of wine and we’d do it. We shook hands, I gave him a deposit and I was thrilled to be in such a great spot. It would also allow us to be out in a dark place for the night to shoot the Milky Way and stars. As we were walking out, workers were coming out of the second cabin, they had just completed both of them and we were their first guests.

We came back Monday afternoon in time to see exactly where the sun would be during the eclipse. Totality was at 4:42 p.m. so the sun would be pretty low on the horizon. I had found several maps online that showed where the shadows would fall at that time of day, which wasn’t a place I wanted to be. Interestingly the government had set up 11 official observation locations that had restroom facilities and most of them would be in shadow during totality, which was going to disappoint a lot of people. 

Our compound was near the top of the mountain and it was a windy dirt road to get there. I had noticed there weren’t any utility lines to be seen and asked about the electricity. The camp ran on a generator that they turned off at midnight. Since we wanted to be out photographing stars, I was thrilled the place would be dark. They did have great cell phone service, so all was wonderful in the world!

The brightest and most colorful part of the Milky Way rose above the mountains around 8:00 p.m. so we made sure we were out there. Several camps had sprung up in fields below us and they had generators too. And they created a lot of light. I was hoping for legendary darkness but we could see town down in the valley and light from the other camps. It didn’t bother the Milky Way though, it glowed brightly in the sky. I wanted a photo of the complete Milky Way arch, which is hard to photograph in the Northeastern U.S. I have cell phone apps that show stars’ locations and knew the shot I really wanted was going to be between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. It was a perfectly clear night and I have never seen so many stars.

I used a flashlight to illuminate our cabin as a foreground and made some fun shots. I had also wanted to do some star trails shots. In the old days you left your camera’s shutter open for a couple of hours and hoped the film could handle it, which usually wasn’t the case. Now with digital it is a matter of making a bunch of photos and putting them together in the computer. If you aim the camera at the North Pole or in Chile, the South Pole, the stars rotate around it. Yes, it is actually the earth’s rotation that causes the starts to move. Earlier in the evening I aimed a camera at a mountain to the east and let it shoot for a couple of hours. I did 30 second exposures with a gap of 10 seconds between shots to give the camera time to process. You get a weird effect shooting to the east rather than the pole. Before I went to bed for a few hours I set up another camera behind the cabin aiming south and let it run all night. I set an alarm to get up at sunrise to fetch the camera before somebody else saw it and it was still firing away.

It was the perfect lead up to a total solar eclipse.

23 Aug 2017

Fun times in Oregon for the solar eclipse workshop

The day after always seems to be the hardest. I got back yesterday from my Oregon Total Solar Eclipse workshop and I’ve finally had a little time to look through some images and think back on what a great experience it was.

The most important part of any workshop is the people attend and I had a great group once again. They came from across the country and Israel and we spent a lot of time driving around Oregon and they were loads of fun to be with.

We started in Portland and had dinner at one of their famous food truck pods before shooting dusk along the Willamette River reflecting the skyline. Then it was two days on the coast photographing the beauty and uniqueness that is Oregon. On Sunday we drove through the Columbia River Gorge stopping to photograph the large waterfalls on our way to our lodge at Timberline ski resort on Mt. Hood.

But it all came down to experiencing the total solar eclipse. Words or pictures can’t describe the event, although I tried in yesterday’s blog post.

It was a great trip, I made many new friends and experienced something that will last a lifetime, although I’m already planning the next eclipse workshop. I hope you enjoy the photos.

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22 Aug 2017

Experiencing a total solar eclipse is undescribable

There are some things in life you just can’t explain, you have to experience. Words or pictures convey the encounter. I had heard that viewing a solar eclipse is one of those things.

I now know that to be true.

Last year I decided to host a photography workshop based on the eclipse. I wanted to make sure the weather wouldn’t block the view so I researched where the least likely place for cloud cover would be and it was the desert of eastern Oregon. I’d been to Oregon several times, my sister Lynda and her husband Bill live in southern Oregon, but not close to where the eclipse would be in totality. My research showed that Madras was the town where all the serious astronomy folks were going so I thought it would be simple enough to grab some hotel rooms, after all I was more than a year early.

I couldn’t have been more wrong, the hotels had been full for three years. Now I really knew this was the place to be but there wasn’t anyplace to stay and I didn’t think my workshop attendees would want to camp. Bill suggested checking Timberline, a fairly small ski lodge on Mt. Hood, over an hour away from Madras. Sure enough they had rooms and I grabbed a bunch.

To round out the workshop I thought it would be fun to start on the amazing Oregon coast for a couple of days, photograph the massive waterfalls in the Columbia River gorge and then spend the last two nights at Mt. Hood.

It was a perfect plan until earlier this year when Bill pointed out how many people were planning on going to Madras, a town of 6,000 people with the probability of getting 100,000 visitors for the eclipse. There is only a two lane road coming to Madras and tons of people would be pouring out of Portland. Bill had visions of traffic like the Woodstock music festival.

In May I made a trip to Oregon to do scouting and find a good location for my group to experience the celestial show away from the crowd. I found a small site near the little village of Clarno that is part of a National Monument but it is out of the way and one the least visited National Monuments. It had things I was looking for: restrooms, shade and beautiful surroundings. It was 2-½ hours from Timberline, which was far from ideal but I thought it would be worth the drive to avoid the crowds.

So my plan was perfect again until wildfires erupted all over the Northwest U.S. and western Canada a few weeks ago. Nobody mentioned smoke clouding our view so I started looking for a plan B. Staying at the beach wasn’t a good option because morning fog frequently covers the area. Hotels in that area fill up fast normally in August but I tried anyway. Nothing to be found, especially for a group. Maybe Portland and do even more driving. The city was 99% full and only crazy expensive rooms were available. After much consultation with Lynda and Bill, my only real option was to stick to the original plan.

The workshop started on Wednesday and we saw great scenes and made terrific pictures in Portland, on the coast and along the Columbia river but I could tell people were anxious about the eclipse.

Sunday we started the day photographing a beautiful lake reflecting Mt. Hood and headed for Clarno and practice for the big day. We arrived to find quite a few people a couple of park rangers and several volunteers. We got a picnic table and got out our gear. Nine photographs tend to haul around too much stuff and none of packed very light. I had rented a 12 passenger van and took out a row of seats so there would be room for people and gear and we barely all fit in. Since there was no food for many miles, I had cooler with plenty of water and lunch provisions.

I had purchased sheets of solar film and offered to make filters that could be quickly removed during totality when they weren’t needed and quickly put back on after totality. The prototype I made at home worked great but was such a weird shape that there was no way I could travel with a dozen of them. I made the filter part but we had to customize each one to fit the different size lens each photographer would be using. So we had craft time at a picnic table in the Oregon desert. Each person glued and taped and created their filter. They looked funny but worked great in the tests we did.

Suddenly this eclipse thing was feeling real.

Our little park was closed to overnight camping, which was good for us. It opened at 6 a.m. yesterday and I had planned on leaving our hotel at 3:00 a.m. But talking to the rangers made me a bit nervous since they were expecting a big crowd and there was limited parking so I decided to leave at at 2:30 a.m. which would get us there and hour before it would open. I guessed that since this area was so secluded people who were staying nearby wouldn’t bother coming that early and hopefully there weren’t many people as crazy as us and drive that early.

It turns out I was right. When we rolled in there were four cars waiting in line. We started carrying equipment in and got one of the nice picnic tables under a little shelter. After the sun came up I made pancakes featuring Vermont maple syrup on a camp stove and people were getting giddy.

One participant brought a telescope and had a program that tracked the sun’s movement through a laptop computer. It also gave us voice messages when the eclipse started and sure enough we could see it.

The partial phases were cool but I was feeling a bit underwhelmed. As the moon was covering more of the sun, things changed. A unique light surrounded the area, it was like nothing I had experienced before. As the landscape got darker, it was a cool bluish color, not the warm color usually seen at sunset. Shadows from trees showed the sun’s crescent on the ground.

Then the diamond ring appeared, that little sliver of sun still showing before the moon totally covered the sun.

Whoa! This is what everyone had been talking about!

Everything was quiet, the air became cooler, the sky was dark and this amazing disc was hanging in the sky. I was firing my camera as fast as I could and changing exposures to make sure I got it right but we only had a minute and forty-two seconds of totality. I wanted to make sure I experienced this crazy phenomenon and not spend the whole time goofing around with camera settings.

102 seconds never went so fast.

And there are no words or pictures to accurately describe it.