If you ever have the opportunity to go see a total eclipse, or even more impressive, an annular eclipse, I cannot urge you strongly enough to go experience it. I've witnessed lunar eclipses, but this was my first solar eclipse, and with the totality arc sweeping only a 7 hour drive from DC, I knew if I was available I had to make the trip to experience it. I am so very glad I did.
Originally I didn't think I'd even be available to see the eclipse, let alone travel to totality, despite being invited by friends' families; I had a large photoshoot planned beginning Tuesday which would have made travel outside of DC impossible, and several inquiries for the day of which were quickly rescinded when they realized that was eclipse day - I wasn't accepting shoots for Monday anyway, as I wanted to be sure to be free to at least see a partial eclipse. In the end, the large photoshoot fell-through, leaving me free to make last-minute plans to travel to totality! I booked a small shoot with an ongoing client of mine for Tuesday afternoon, which meant I could drive back immediately after the eclipse and still make my Tuesday photoshoot even if traffic slowed me down, and oh boy, did the traffic do that; we'll get to that part later.
Since my eclipse plans were completely last-minute, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, I hadn't made any arrangements up to that point, including obtaining solar filter glasses, which I'd looked up on Amazon months in advance, but didn't see anything for sale smaller than 100-packs - way more than what I needed. You can see some of my experience nabbing just two pairs of eclipse glasses in my previous blog entry about eclipse photography safety. I had considered buying a solar filter for my camera around the same time, but forwent it because A) I hadn't researched them yet, B) they're expensive, and C) they're highly specialized, specific-use tools that I'd be buying to use on only one occasion; in other words, not really worth the expense to me. Forming plans to travel for the eclipse mere days before the event was actually a good thing, because my original plan to travel to South Carolina would have been foiled by cloud-cover which prevented most of that state from seeing the eclipse at all. Thanks to late-stage forecasts from the National Weather Service, I chose Tennessee, which had the clearest skies in the country second to Oregon the day of the eclipse.
I knew finding a hotel inside the totality would have been impossible a month out, and I was ok with driving a bit before the eclipse, so I found a hotel just South of Knoxville one hour outside the totality, or 1.5hrs off of the totality centerline, and snagged a one of the last rooms available; that was about as close as one could book a few days before the eclipse anyway. The hotel was about 6hrs away, and traffic on the way down Sunday evening was just fine. The next morning, Jake and I awoke early and drove the hour South into the totality arc. With about an hour before the partial eclipse began, we grabbed a burger at Wendy's to fuel up before finding our final spot to stare at the sun. We weren't alone; seemingly everyone inside was doing the same thing, the Wendy's workers were changing their TV to a local news channel hosting an event in Sweetwater, Tennessee, and there were people setting up their telescopes under a tree on the hotel lawn next door. We easily could have stayed here to watch, but I wanted to get closer to the centerline since we had the time. We got in the car, drove another 20min South, passed Sweetwater (which I'd been considering until we saw the TV coverage) and exited in Niota to start looking for a clear spot to set up. Passing tent-cities and hippie-vans, we ended up in a youth baseball field grass parking lot with lots of other observers from all over the country. It was just by chance that we parked next to a pickup truck with a George Mason University sticker on the rear window. An ultra-light and a Cessna flew circles overhead waiting for the total eclipse to hit in about an hour and a half as folks were setting up their telescopes, cameras, and binoculars in the parking lot.
I wasn't the only person without a solar filter - in fact, I was surprised at how few people had cameras or even telescopes set up - there were more telescopes than cameras here, which meant that several people came over to see what I captured once the show had ended. I talked a little with one person who had a 1400mm reflector telescope set up, and found that his solar filter had broken in the days before the eclipse; of course he was unable to get a replacement. Quite a shame, but he was able to use the telescope to project a bright, sharp image of the eclipsing sun on a plate - the beam emanating the eyepiece was too intense and hot to hold your hand in front of for more than a few seconds!
The real star of the park was a 700mm pair of solar filtered binoculars set up on a tripod, owned by a nice lady who was letting anyone take a look. The view was tight and clear you could make out sunspots on the surface.
As the partial eclipse began, the first change I noticed was I no longer was squinting to see - I'm unlucky in that my eyes are pretty sensitive to the sun's intensity, so in broad daylight I always squint without sunglasses; this was a comfortable change that had my wishing for that level of brightness all the time - that being said, nothing looked different at this point; it was just more comfortable viewing. Alongside this change, the heat of the sun was no longer beating down on your skin, making things a lot more comfortable even though the air temperature hadn't changed yet. We noticed this about 1/3rd into the partial eclipse, and began noticing gradual brightness and temperature changes from this point onward. The puffy clouds spotting the sky an hour earlier had moved out of the area or dissipated; it's unclear if, in Niota, this was due to the eclipse, or just coincidental.
As the eclipse continued, the brightness noticeably began dimming. Jake accurately described it like wearing permanent polarized sunglasses - brightness was comfortably reduced significantly, and colors popped vibrantly, though there was not a color temperature change as there is during sunset or sunrise. The strength of dimming wasn't really evident since it took place gradually and shadows of course linearly followed; it wasn't until I shot a few environmental photos that I noticed how drastic the change in brightness had become; I was flabbergasted that I had to quickly move from ISO100 all the way up to ISO6400, and I was still at 1/60th at just f/5.6 for some of these photos - it felt dimmer, but not *that* dim. Looking toward the sky without solar glasses showed the sun with visual intensity just like any other day, however the ocular reflex to squint or avert your eyes was completely gone now - I now understood that this is the reason NASA and all outlets were almost comically compelling viewers to use the solar glasses at all times outside of totality - after experiencing this, I completely understand how people may have the temptation to look at the sun without protection - at this point you body wasn't providing any reflexive discomfort to try and stop you. Jake and I of course understood this, but between the ocular comfort, the vibrant colors, and the the dimming intensity, things already felt a bit hyperreal.
In the last 5 minutes before totality, the dimming really began picking up to the point where the change was actively noticeable, as though somebody had a dimmer switch on the sun. The area was getting darker in the way everything darkens when a large storm is moving in quick, except the sun was still shining intensely, if not slightly smaller looking in the sky if you can imagine that. The temperature had already dropped a bit, but it was now beginning to feel cooler by the minute. The bugs in the nearby treeline had gone quiet, adding an eerie silence to an already eerie sight. Jake and I tried out the pinhole viewer to see how it compared to what we were seeing through the solar filter glasses.
Knowing totality was only a few minutes away, I got my camera out of the cool car and on the tripod to ready it. To ensure I didn't fry anything, I pre-set a two minute timer on my phone, in airplane mode to avoid social interference, so I'd have an audible 30 second warning when to take the last burst of photos, divert my camera, and enjoy watching totality complete; I'd begin this timer the moment totality began. The sky itself was quickly becoming dark at this point, as though dusk itself was surrounding us in all directions, except with the sun still high above. Nearby streetlights began turning on.
In the final moments before the moon totally blocked the sun, the temperature dropped significantly, probably around 10°F. The sky was already dark as it is during dusk, and the sun, although still emitting intense light, felt foreign; instinctively it felt as though a celestial body was in the sky, but it was no longer the sun. This feeling was a bit unnerving, but moments later when totality hit is when things really felt alarmingly eerie.
Watching the moon intercept the sun through the solar glasses revealed a small, arc of light as though someone had swiped a single curved brushstroke with a brush that painted with light. This reduced into a razor thin arc so sharp I can't really describe how crisp it was. In the moment the sun was finally obscured, the brightness we are so familiar with receded as if the sun were an explosion in reverse, and everything went dark in an instant, just as though the Sun were a candle that had been blown out leaving behind just the residual glow of embers in the wick. Moments later, all of the nighttime bugs began their din of hissing and chirping, jolting in their abrupt reminder of how quiet it had actually become. The dog in the car next to us, who was already agitated with the dimming light, became scared, and was barking frantically trying to warn everyone of an unknown danger. The glowing white ember of the Sun's corona floating in the sky was now visible as a ring of white fire with the moon obstructing the Sun's direct intensity.
The corona was beautiful. The corona was spooky. Totality was like instantaneous nighttime under a full moon, but the moon had been stolen and replaced by a black hole. Staring up at the dark sky to see a foreign celestial body surrounded by twinkling planets and stars in all directions was the most jarring feeling of the whole experience - losing your thoughts into the heavens was the surreal, and again, eerie, feeling as if you were living a sci-fi film; staring at the corona in totality felt like the black hole Gargantua in Interstellar has appeared in the sky like the Death Star and was imminently going to suck you in. The first look through the viewfinder to line up the shot and ensure focus froze me and dropped my jaw it was so shocking and beautiful and clear - the extreme zoom brought the sun so close, and you could see waves in the corona gently moving as if in a calm breeze. In the picture you can even see some small solar prominences. I am so very glad I was fortunate enough to travel and see and experience this in person, because absolutely no photo, no video, and no description can properly convey how overwhelmingly awesome totality is to witness. But of course I tried.
Just as quickly as totality had begun, the moon's obstruction waned. My two minute alarm sounded, alerting me there was just over 30 seconds of totality remaining - Niota, Tennessee experienced 2 minutes and 38 seconds of totality; one of the longest in the country, only behind Kentucky who experienced an additional two seconds, since they were at the very top of the Earth's eclipse path. In the last moments of totality the white ring of light began getting brighter along the opposite edge, and a few seconds later the sun burst back into view with an explosion of light along the side of the moon. Just as quickly as the lights went out, they came back on - shadows returned to the ground, and the sun's brightness increased just like when stadium lights get kicked on but take a few minutes to warm up to full brightness. From here, everything began happening in reverse, although it seemed quicker than the onset - the quieter daytime bugs started their calls again, temperatures began rising, the dog calmed down, and the surreal vibrance began to wear off. We took our time packing and cleaning up the car; enjoy a few extra minutes of the moon's remaining transit across the sun, and relax - we knew we were going to endure awful traffic getting home regardless. We hit the road when we began feeling the sun's heat on our skin again, with the Sun still about halfway obstructed by the moon.
I won't bore you too much with the traffic nightmare - it truly was a nightmare. A trip that should have taken 7hrs ended up a 15hr endurance run that we split. 75, 40, 81, and 66 were all the same for the entire 15hr journey - solid, standstill rushour-like traffic with brief and sporadic areas of speed with equal volume. This was the worst sustained traffic I've ever experienced, and I've been on plenty of roadtrips of much longer distances. Waze helped a little, but with the volume, hundreds of other Wazers also clogged the few country roads routing us around construction Tennessee and Virginia inexplicably chose to conduct on a day they knew traffic would be some of the worst ever seen. We got back home a little after 6, just before sunrise; I was able to snag 5hrs of sleep before my photoshoot, and Jake unfortunately had to head straight to work because of, you guessed it, traffic. I'd absolutely do it again though. Totality was worth it.
Camera Gear Geekery
In the days before the eclipse, I'd researched and considered how I could photograph the astronomical event without a solar filter, and I was content to just see it without photographing, but when I learned you could safely photograph the corona during totality, I knew I'd at least do that (I'd previously always heard you couldn't look at even the corona during totality of a solar eclipse because even-though visible light is cut down to safe levels, ultraviolet light was not - I was happy to find in my research that this is not the case, and you can safely view and photograph the corona during the brief totality period without any protective measures).
On a whim, I found a way to mount an old crop-sensor telephoto lens to my 2X teleconverter, bringing it to 540mm on full-frame, or a whopping 854mm on a crop body (which I don't own). The reason this crop-sensor lens contraption works without vignetting on a full-frame camera is because the field of view is so narrow shooting through a teleconverter. I taped this Tamron lens to 540mm so it wouldn't accidentally zoom back in and damage the lens elements (remember, this is a lens combination I had to modify to even get to mount), and found that infinity focus is at the very end of the zoom, so no need to lock in focus. At the same time, I also pre-focused my 70-200mm and taped the focus in place (the 70-200 can focus beyond infinity, whereas the Tamron stops at infinity); the plan was to take a few photos during totality with the Tamron's 540mm extended focal reach, and quickly switch to the Canon's 400mm to ensure I captured sharp images - the Tamron is an old, entry-level lens being used in a way it was never intended, in an un-proven theoretical setup, whereas the Canon is known to be razor sharp, and I use it with the teleconverter more often than not.
Originally I'd planned to use my 5D Mark II for shooting the eclipse, since it's older and a bit more expendable / affordable to fix the event I made a mistake and accidentally fried my shutter or sensor, and it also has a slight megapixel advantage which could be utilized since the ISO should stay pretty low, but last minute I decided to use the 1D X instead because I wasn't feeling convinced at how well the 5D was metering on-the-fly, and I knew using the 1D would be faster in all ways, which is crucial when you only have a little over two minutes to shoot. Here is the Tamron contraption ready to be aimed and shoot just a few minutes before totality; the Canon was kept cool in the car, waiting to be switched quickly - I shot with both lenses for about 60 seconds each during totality. In the end the Canon was indeed sharper, and I opted to use the images shot on the Canon rather than the Tamron; the bump in focal reach wasn't... eclipsed... by the level of sharpness, which I had suspected but at least wanted to give it a shot. This isn't to say the Tamron's photos weren't usable - they absolutely were; I just had sharper photos from the Canon, so I used those instead. This just goes to show you can photograph worry-free with entry-level lenses, but the pro level lenses do offer better results, and should definitely be used in mission-critical professional contexts. And since we're being technical, my focus for the Tamron was spot on, but my pre-focusing on the Canon was a little off, so when I threw that lens on the camera I had to quickly adjust the focus before continuing to shoot - that only takes a second or two, but with only 2 minutes 38 seconds of totality, seconds are extremely valuable.
Here is the Tamron contraption; it could still be useful for some applications such as nature or macro photography - I found that the minimum focal distance of this combination is just a few inches - 540mm at 4" is pretty incredible magnification!