“Ever since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun. I shall do the next best thing: block it out.”―Mr. Burns
The Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017 was a magical time. I’m from Portland, OR and my parents still live in the area, so it felt like my home town was getting something special. Since the last total solar eclipse visible in Portland was in 1979, I guess the 2017 event was technically my second experience. I have only a vague memory from 1979 (something about a pinhole in a shoebox), so 2017 would be the first really memorable one for me.
Since I currently live in the Seattle area, I figured it would be an easy trip down to Portland, where I could avoid the outrageous prices being charged for accommodations by staying with my parents. Although not in the direct path of totality, the Portland metro area would enjoy 99.4% occlusion. I figured that would still be great and decided the Portland metro area was good enough for me to view the total solar eclipse.
To avoid what was being billed as apocalyptic traffic, I drove down on the Saturday before the Monday of the eclipse. There was no extraordinary traffic the whole way. I spent the night at my parents’ house and then got up early the next morning to practice. My dad is a photography enthusiast who also happens to be the Mayor of Fairview, OR. He’s been shooting longer than me and planned to use an array of equipment to capture the event.
Here’s our setup, just at the end of the driveway in Fairview.
That’s my D810 closest to the camera. I was using a 200-500mm lens with a 2x teleconverter. That gave me 1000mm of focal length and a maximum aperture of f/11. Initially I was concerned about that f/11 max aperture but later discovered it was a pretty good setting. The filter on the front is just the sheet of film you can buy from Amazon. Nothing special. Next, from the left, is my dad’s D600 with the same 200-500mm lens. He wasn’t using a teleconverter though, so his max aperture was f/5.6. I don’t know what he ended up using. For a filter, he has a 10-stop ND plus a polarizer. Next is an unfiltered D750 that my dad planned to use to capture the corona. His thinking was that he wouldn’t be able to get his glass filters off fast enough, so he setup a second camera. Last in line is an inexpensive video camera to capture the entire event.
It’s a good thing we went out the day before to practice. We looked at where the sun would be the following day and found good shooting positions, but the main thing was getting our settings dialed in. We would have been way off if not for this pre-trial. In spite of how hard we tried to prepare, it seemed like everything went out the window as soon as we pointed our cameras directly at the sun. I already mentioned that I had to shoot at f/11. I wasn’t expecting that my other settings would be ISO 400 and 1/15 second, but that’s what they ended up at.
Focusing was another story. Everything I read and watched told me to simply put my camera on manual focus and set it to infinity. That seemed pretty reasonable with the sun being so far away, but it only produced a huge blob of blurry light for me. Eventually I was using autofocus to get sharp focus and then switched to manual to lock it in. I just used the edge of the sun as a focus point, and that worked perfectly. The most important piece of equipment turned out to be a couple of black towels. It was so bright out that our rear LCD screens were all by unviewable, so we draped the towels over our heads to see the backs of our cameras. I’m sure we looked very cool to passersby, but I was with the mayor at the mayor’s house so I didn’t care.
You can see sun spots in these images, so I figure that I really nailed focus. I’m pretty happy about that and was very excited for the big day and the ultimate moment. We got up early, spent a couple hours watching the local news about traffic and the weather at various locations, and got even more excited about this total solar eclipse. A little before 9:00 am, we went outside and setup our photo array at the end of the driveway to capture first contact.
The next hour was very exciting. We listened to the local radio station for updates and interviews from around the state. We talked and drank coffee and asked each other if we “saw that” and waited for totality.
Friends, I learned an important math lesson that day that you’d think I would have already known. 99.4% does not equal 100%. At the penultimate moment of totality, we waited breathlessly for the corona to become visible. The radio played a medley of sun-and-moon-related songs. It got pretty dark, a weird darkness that was not like twilight. The temperature dropped noticeably. We continued to wait. The songs ended. Still no corona. For some reason, people on the radio were cheering. Seconds went by, and then one of us wondered out loud if the sun was actually getting bigger. None of us wanted to believe it, but the truth was that the total eclipse had passed, and we didn’t see totality. Close, but not quite.
So that was a little disappointing. I thought for a moment about capturing the sun as the moon passed away and then considered another hour in the driveway, knowing I never got to see the greatest moment. When I packed up my gear quickly, in a huff I said it was because I wanted to avoid traffic on the way back up, but really it was out of resentment toward . . . what? The sun, for not being totally eclipsed in front of me? The moon for not trying harder?
At any rate, this is the last picture I took of the Great American Eclipse of 2017. I hope to be in Indiana in 2024 for the next one.