August 21, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

I can now say that a solar eclipse is something that you really have to experience to fully comprehend. So, why am I writing a blog post about it? Hopefully, those that weren’t able to make the trek this time will be able to get a better understanding of the experience. And, hopefully, those that have the opportunity in the future will make the commitment and take that journey to be in the path of totality. Because after experiencing it firsthand you will want everyone else to have the chance to also experience the surreal event for themselves.

The planning seems pretty straightforward. Check the path, order the gear, maybe make some reservations. However, if you’re within driving distance of the path the added flexibility can actually generate additional anxiety. You will realize that you only have about 150 seconds of totality but hundreds of miles of potential locations for viewing.

In our case we first found a campsite in Nebraska right on the edge of the path so we could head there the night before. It wasn’t the perfect spot but we knew we wouldn’t totally miss it and it afforded us the flexibility to adjust our final destination based on the updated weather reports. Prior to any real research our original destination was going to be southwestern Wyoming. However, the news kept talking and talking about the traffic heading north on I-25 and so we made a decision to re-route to southwestern Nebraska via I-76 and I-80.

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Blue Heron campground in Gothenburg, NE

The campsite was very nice and very busy. It was obvious that the eclipse was bringing lots of visitors to this quiet and typically overlooked part of the country. A subtle excitement was present that cut through the heavy, humid air. We didn’t interact with our fellow eclipse seekers but we just knew they were all anxiously awaiting something exciting.

As we sat around our faux-campfire we talked about our plan for the next morning. The weather reports were indicating clearer skies to the west so we thought we’d abandon our original plans of making breakfast at the campsite. Instead we would break down camp quickly and drive west into the path. Honestly, the humidity helped dismantle any thoughts of cooking at the campsite too.

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What better way to start your eclipse day than with Bonnie Tyler’s, “Total Eclipse of the Heart!” The 80’s station on Sirius XM came through for us. No joke, this was the first song on the radio when hopped in the car. The excitement was now as real as the humidity. We thought about blaring it as we drove through the campground assuming everyone would enjoy it as much as we did. But instead the windows remained up keeping the music and the AC to ourselves.

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Using one of the many resources out there I had saved a screenshot of the eclipse path across Nebraska. This gave us enough information to decide to head north and west from North Platte towards Alliance. That’s over 3-1/4 hours of driving from our camp in Gothenburg but we’d be crisscrossing the center of the path so we figured any clear spot would do.

As we drove we headed north from North Platte and through the town of Tryon. I wish I had taken more shots of fellow eclipse viewers set up on the side of the road or in fields but we were traveling under mostly cloudy skies with the hopes of emerging in the predicted clear skies to the west. Unfortunately after driving a bit we were getting less certain and more anxious because the clouds just didn’t let up.

Upon crossing the county line into Hooker, NE we decided to play the game of chance and pull off the side of the road and wait it out. It was around 10:30 CDT and we had just over two hours until totality and about 30 minutes until the eclipse started. After sitting there for about 10 minutes we already began to second guess our spot. Not only did we not have clear skies but we also didn’t have any cell reception which meant we couldn’t check the weather apps and radars. So we got in the car and drove back towards Tryon.

A few minutes later we regained reception and pulled off Rt 97 onto Hall Church road. We saw a few other cars parked along side of this gravel road and thought we’d give it a shot. The clouds were breaking up a little but we still had a long while until the full eclipse.

Committing to this spot we started to unpack all the gear and settle in. We had tripods, camera, glasses and lens filters – my partner also had his drone (which he didn’t use) and a GoPro. Of course we didn’t practice with the solar filters a head of time so no better time than in the moment to start practicing. I actually had a few extra pairs of solar viewing glasses so I walked down to say hi to the neighbors and see if anyone else needed them.

The large group just off the main road was all set. Two people had been to an eclipse in Iceland. Luckily they researched this spot a little more than we did so they informed me that totality should start about 12:53 pm CDT. Another young couple that drove up from Denver that morning arrived without glasses so I was happy to give them two pairs. Everyone was very excited. It was odd being in the rolling hills of Nebraska with random other groups from all over the country. They mentioned running into people from all over the world too.

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f/14, 1 sec, 300mm, ISO 100, tripod with solar filter (time 11:58 CDT)

Once the eclipse starts it’s a rather slow process. I decided to shoot in bracket mode so that hopefully one of the 5 shots would come out with the appropriate exposure. I know this is probably not the best way to do it but there were so many cautionary articles about enjoying the entire experience and not viewing the eclipse from behind a camera lens. All I had to was adjust the camera position every once in a while to make sure the sun was still in the frame.

You can now find lots of shots where people saw crescent shaped images on the ground under a tree (or even better when holding up a colander!). The gaps between the leaves are essentially making hundreds of pinhole cameras. Since we were in a field where the trees were scarce and flat surfaces were even more so we had to improvise. If you make a crisscross with your fingers you can make your own pinhole camera and get a quick view of the eclipsed sun.

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As the anticipation grew a lot of the time was spent just peaking at the sun through our glasses or our camera. My partner set up his GoPro to do a time lapse throughout the duration. There was a lot of misinformation about wide angle cameras and whether or not you need to put a filter on them. My understanding is that you don’t because the sun occupies a very small part of the image. It’s the long lenses that focus the light that you have to worry about.

Anyway, we tried to occupy ourselves over the next 90 minutes as we waited for totality. Unknowingly I took a photo of the surrounding area before the eclipse started and then took another one about 20 minutes before totality. Below are the two shots side by side. You can really see how the light levels are dropping off at this point. I used an online exposure calculator and determined that the second shot is 1-1/3 stops brighter yet you can see how much darker it is. It was a very weird phenomenon because it was like someone had put a dimmer switch on the sun. Every few minutes it was noticeable.

Things were starting to get exciting about 30 minutes before totality. There was a noticeable change in the temperature. At first we were asking each other if any one else thought it was getting cooler. With all the clouds passing over it was hard to really tell, however at this point it was unmistakably cooler and the light was really starting to fall off.

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fellow viewers – f/8, 1/200 sec, ISO 720, 190mm, 12:41 CDT

The surrounding landscape has this desaturated look to it. Maybe Instagram will create an Eclipse filter 😉 My brain was starting to perceive changes that conflicted with expectations for that time of the day. The subtle and gradual progression meant they sometimes went unnoticed, at least at first.

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f/11, 1.3 sec, ISO 100, 300mm, tripod with solar filter, 12:34 CDT

About 15 minutes before totality things really got strange. An unmistakable darkness crept in and changes were much more rapid. The temperature really dropped off and the lighting went with it. At some point I noticed the sound of crickets around me. We kept staring up at the surrounding clouds. Just a few minutes prior to totality a large cloud was blocking the sun. We were convincing ourselves that it would pass and the next clear patch would be right on time although none of us knew for certain. The anxiety was as real as everything else around us.

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f/8, 1/2 sec, ISO 100, 300mm, (-2 exp bias in the bracket sequence), tripod, no filter, 12:52 CDT

I’m sure I mumbled some expletives at those clouds just as we were approaching totality. I remember shouting to my partner and our friend to remember to take off our solar filters when totality occurs. It was coming so fast now that I know it was impossible to hide my excitement. A cloud moved out just in time for the moon to pass directly in front of the sun. The timing was perfect. We had about 2-1/2 minutes of totality since we were just off the center of the path of the shadow.

Being such a short duration experience I almost felt overwhelmed. At the first appearance of the corona we were all fixated on the sun and the visual overhead. But at some point, maybe to mess with my camera, I broke my gaze and looked around at the surrounding country side. I had read that it would be like a sunset in all directions. That’s probably the best description you can give it but it’s different than that – the lighting is darker in the immediate surrounding but very light at the horizon in all directions. The view to the east was particularly spectacular. We were in the shadow but the horizon was still in sunlight.

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f/8, 3 sec, ISO 100, 72mm, no filter, tripod, 12:53 CDT

A smaller cloud skimmed across the eclipse for a portion of totality but it wasn’t heavy enough to block out the sun and the corona. It did throw off my photos for a bit though. Again, with the solar filter off I was shooting in bracket mode which turned out to be a smart choice because it allowed me to be a bit hands off and enjoy the full impact of the experience. I noticed that most of the images of the corona that came out best were 1 or 2 stops below neutral. If you’re focusing on the photography next time that might be a good place to start.

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f/8, 0.8 sec, ISO 100, 300mm, (-1 exp bias in the bracket sequence), tripod, no filter, 12:54 CDT

The shot above was my best shot and before we knew it was all over. The sun began to re-emerge and the landscape returned to its normal appearance. As we were packing our stuff up and the others were making fun of how excited I was during the eclipse my partner noticed that the birds in the fields were going crazy. The swallow or warbler size birds appeared to be taking advantage of the confused insects that were now trapped in the mid-day sun. It was another interesting site to see.

As we were heading home I couldn’t help but wonder what earlier cultures would have thought of a solar eclipse. It had to have been quite scary to be in the path of totality without any warning. Even with our understanding of what was going on the emotional impact was quite impressive.

Luckily we don’t have to wait too long for the next total eclipse in the US. There will be another one passing over several states on April 8, 2024. You can see the path here. And the next one passing over Denver is just around the corner… August 12, 2045.  Can’t wait!