Total Eclipse of the Sun

I’m a little late to the game here, but after all of the frenzy around the solar eclipse, I needed to decompress a little bit before I thought about the experience again.

My newsroom was directly in the path of totality; located in the first state capital that would experience the eclipse, in the first state it would be visible in, in the first USA Today/Gannett newsroom that would get the chance to report on it. So it’s safe to say that it was a big deal for our paper. We spent months and months leading up to it discussing our plans, and the week-of was a frantic rush of activity.

I went to Central Oregon to cover the event, stationed in a small town called Madras. Or, at least, it was a small town… Until thousands of eclipse viewers descended on the fields outside of town and set up camp for a few days. Myself included.

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Much of what myself and reporter Capi Lynn covered were the happenings in the camp we stayed in. Solartown was set up on farm fields just north of Madras, and hosted about 5,000 campsites for the weekend. I spent most of Friday and Saturday wandering around camp, getting the lay of the land, practicing my shots for the big event.

We met people who had traveled from as far away as Netherlands and as close as Washington and California. There were a handful of Oregonians there, but many of the people in the Madras area seemed to be from out of state. I talked to amateur astronomers, eclipse fanatics who had already seen five total or partial eclipses, and families who turned the event into a road trip. Though my newsroom is in Salem, we knew that Madras – a NASA designated site for one of the best places to view the eclipse – was going to be a large gathering point. While we were obviously there to cover the eclipse itself, the almost-bigger story was all of the people who had come together to experience it.

09152017_BLOG-eclipse_MJS_005Brann Smith flies his balloon above Solartown on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017.Brann Smith flies his balloon above Solartown on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017.09152017_BLOG-eclipse_MJS_009

We had some fantastic sunsets and a great view of both Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood, so every evening I’d scale the RV and photograph the skydivers that descended each sunrise and sunset.

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We also met one of the locals – an alfalfa farmer named Dean, whose fields bordered the ones that had been rented out for the weekend. Dean had declined an offer to rent his land, hoping to avoid the insanity of eclipse weekend. Unfortunately for him, his neighbors took advantage of the situation and rented out their adjoining fields.

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Capi and I stopped by on Saturday evening to chat with Dean (and meet his adorable puppy!), and follow him out into the field as he changed some watering lines. Imagine our luck when we found out he’s originally from Salem. It was a great local tie-in for us. Dean was gracious with his time and even invited me back the next day to climb on top of his hay barn for an overview of the campsite, although this ended up not panning out…

Because the next day, Capi and I were called out to one of the weirdest things I’ve had the fortune to photograph. One of the largest events in Oregon for the eclipse was a festival out past Prineville; we’re still unsure of what the official name is but it’s been called everything from Oregon Eclipse 2017 to the Symbiosis Festival to just ‘that weird thing near Prineville.’

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On Sunday our newsroom decided to dispatch us to this event, and after an hour drive to Prineville, another ninety minute drive down some dirt roads, and about an hour and a half waiting to get approval to get in, we walked through crowds of festival-goers dressed in anything you could imagine. Including their birthday suits. I would have loved to stay longer than we did, but after all the red tape we had about 45 minutes on the ground before we had to turn back. It was a complete overload of visuals and sound, and I could hardly decide what to photograph as we walked through the dusty landscape.

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I’ve only got a few photos to show here, but if you’re interested in seeing what this festival really looked like, I highly recommend the work by my friend (and former mentor/colleague) Beth Nakamura for The Oregonian

All of a sudden it was Monday and the big day was here. Camp was quiet in the morning, but quiet in a hushed, excited way. People were making final adjustments to their telescopes and cameras. Some were already packing up camp and ready to hit the road the second totality was over.

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I set up my cameras on the roof of the RV – I’m going to get a little technical here but I know I’ve been asked many times how I photographed the event.

The biggest shot I needed to pull off was a composite image I’d been planning of the scene throughout the eclipse. Around 9 a.m., I set up my Nikon D810 with a 24-70mm, at 24mm, on the roof. I attached my solar filter and started the intervalometer to click every 10 minutes – this was capturing an almost completely black frame, with the sun’s orange disk being the only thing visible. During totality I would need to remove the solar filter to make an exposure for the foreground – crossing my fingers that people would decide to view the event from the roof of their RVs, I’d set up a vertical frame with the RVs in the bottom and enough room to show the progression of the sun through the sky.

I’d practiced this two or three times in the days prior to get the framing right and make sure I had room to capture the complete line of suns, but it was still nerve-wracking trying to decide if I really was in the right spot.

The exposures had to start just before 9 a.m. – with first contact of the sun and moon occurring at 9:06 a.m. – and run until about 11:41 – when the last contact on the exit path would occur. Though I wish I’d done shorter intervals to add more suns to the image, the end result is something I’m happy with. My hunch that people would be on their RV paid off, as you can see a number of families watching from their roofs. This is one image of the eclipse during totality (RVs, twilight sky, people watching, etc), with 16 tiny suns layered over the top (the orange disks from the exposures that were taken with the solar filter attached).

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During totality, as I made the above exposure, I also had a number of other cameras in play. I’d set up a GoPro timelapse, attached to the legs of the tripod holding the Nikon D810. I put a 360 Camera in the center of the roof in the hopes of catching both totality and the horizon behind me in the same video – watching the horizon change during totality had to be one of the most magical things about this event. I haven’t had time or resources to put this together yet, as our paper is still experimenting with 360, but I think it came out ok. I had a Canon 5D with a 70-200 to photograph the crowds around me as they watched the event, and a Canon 7D with a 400mm on a tripod to photograph a tight shot of the sun. And because I’m crazy, at the last minute I threw my iPhone onto a time-lapse mode to capture it as well. Because five cameras wasn’t enough already, you know?

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The eclipse passed in the blink of an eye for many, and I’m a little sad to report that it felt that way for me, too. Running all of those cameras and sweating trying to get my composite to work properly was incredibly stressful. I hardly had time to look at the total eclipse in the sky, as I was too busy jumping between each thing on the roof and making sure it was working.

You’ll notice that I don’t have a large image of the sun and moon during totality. This is partly because, as I mentioned above, the bigger story for us was the crowd that had come from all over the country (and the world) to watch. We also knew that hundreds of photographers would be capturing the typical eclipse image of a black frame with the sun’s corona shining around the disk of the moon. So knowing that I didn’t need to make this image a priority because we had other photographers shooting it, I left it until last on my shot list. And by the time I’d managed enough crowd shots to feel comfortable, and I’d worked on my composite image, I jumped back to the 400mm, removed the solar filter, put my face up to the eye piece and… the sun was beginning to peek around the side of the moon again and totality was over. In the blink of an eye.

But now, a few weeks later, when I think about what it was like? I’d use the same words as everyone else. Breathtaking. Once-in-a-lifetime. Unreal. Watching the sky suddenly go dark, seeing what looked like a 360 degree sunset, noticing the last light on Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood, hearing the crowds around me whooping and cheering… it was simply incredible. When the sun started to re-emerge just two short minutes later, I was so thrown off and sad that it was ‘daytime’ again. If you ever get the opportunity to see a total solar eclipse, I cannot recommend it enough. And put the camera down and enjoy it! I hope to get that opportunity for the next one.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: 2017 in Review « Molly J. Smith


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