Total Solar Eclipse—2017

I first started thinking about the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse (TSE) about ten years ago. I looked at the path of totality and then began to figure out where good places to shoot the eclipse with interesting foregrounds might be. One of my first choices was Alliance, Nebraska, home of CarHenge. A lot of other folks considered this location as well.

Composite image from 1740–1750 UTC. The totality image is a blended composite of two images at different exposure settings.
Composite image from 1740–1750 UTC. The totality image is a blended composite of two images at different exposure settings.

Then I began to look carefully at the sun angles and realized the eclipse was near mid day and the sun would be high in the sky. Getting this shot to work would require a wide- or ultrawide-angle lens and that would result in a very small solar disk. Hmm—not quite what I wanted.

After pondering this for a few years (yes, years) I decided to forego the wide-angle view with an interesting background and do a close-up using a telephoto lens. Just the sun—no foreground. That simplified the issue because almost anyplace would work. So, where?

I’ve spent a fair bit of time in this part of Wyoming and Nebraska as part of my storm chasing and storm photography so I had a fairly good idea of places that might work. For a few years, I planned on using the Orin Jct Rest Area located along I-25 in eastern Wyoming. That should work. After all, not that many people were going to be there. Right?

Well, things changed in the year and months leading up to the TSE. Every media outlet was running stories and the public was getting pretty enthusiastic about this eclipse. My plan didn’t look so good anymore.

I spent several months looking for alternatives and eventually narrowed it down to a few locations in eastern Wyoming. Using aerial maps I was able to find pullouts along roads and highways and figured that these could work. Other folks probably had the same idea. Hmmm…

Glendo, Wyoming, kept coming up in my short list. They are a small town but realized that they were in the center of totality and they were going to be visited by a great many people. I decided to be one of them but held out for some of my other options.

Viewing the early stages of the eclipse.
Viewing the early stages of the eclipse.

We left Denver on Sunday afternoon to drive to our hotel in Wheatland, Wyoming. I had booked it almost a year in advance and checked several times over the months to make certain my reservation still existed. It did. Good. Traffic to Wheatland was not bad but heavier than normal. That was expected. Upon arrival, we drove a few miles more to one of the alternate Rest Areas (Dwyer Junction) I had selected and discovered folks were already filling the parking lot with cars, campers, and telescopes. This did not bode well for arriving here the following morning. Glendo was looking more and more like the best choice.

The next morning we awoke early and headed out the door around 5:15 a.m. for the 30 minute drive up the highway to Glendo. Travel was quick and traffic was light. And then we crested a hill and all I could see was billions (well, maybe thousands) of tail lights on cars moving very slowly. Oh, no! This might be a problem. Although we moved at a crawl, we did move and we arrived in the field at Glendo by around 6:30 a.m. and I was taking test photos just a few minutes later.

Plenty of time to take a nap.
Plenty of time to take a nap.

We had arrived at our destination with plenty of time to spare. That was a major success. Now, all we had to do was wait a few hours for the spectacle to begin.

Observers watching the early stages of the eclipse from the meadows at Glendo, Wyoming.
Observers watching the early stages of the eclipse from the meadows at Glendo, Wyoming.

I had considered different cameras—including cameras I already have and cameras I might rent. I thought about different lenses for my cameras. I even rented a telephoto lens a few months earlier to test and eventually decided not to use it for the eclipse.

Right up to the moment I got into the car in Flagstaff I was still trying to decide between my Nikon D750 full-frame DSLR and 80-200mm f/4 manual focus lens versus my Panasonic Lumix FZ150 25-600mm (equivalent) “bridge” camera. I had already tested and compared both extensively. The Nikon would give me better images (larger sensor, newer technology) and I could easily run of a set of bracketed images without touching the camera. The Lumix would give me a much larger image of the Sun/Moon but would require constant attention to focus and manually setting all the bracketed images.

I chose the Lumix. I decided that I wanted bigger images rather than better images. After all, I had used a Nikon D700 and 50mm lens to shoot the annular eclipse in 2012 so I wanted to do something different. So, the Lumix won. And I didn’t regret that decision at all. As I said, I had tested both and concluded I could get good enough images from either system.

I had spent months planning—and practicing—how I was going to shoot and observe the eclipse. And when it happened, I still forgot a few things and made a few mistakes. Here are a few of my post-eclipse notes:

And, then, it began. A small nick in the sun from the encroaching moon. Crowds were briefly excited but quickly became subdued as we waited for totality. It was warm, but slowly cooled as the sun’s disk was blocked. The light became soft. Crescent sun shadows were everywhere. It became cooler and darker as we neared Totality. Twilight was upon us but the sun was still too bright to watch. The Diamond Ring effect was stunning and the crowds were in awe. A few more seconds and TOTALITY. It became dark and we could look at the sun and see a “hole in the sky.” It was an emotional moment and I was surprised.

I forgot to look around me for the shadow and light in the distance. I forgot to look for the planets in the sky. I forgot to look for the “shadow bands.” I did remember to take photos at a variety of exposures but forgot some important details. I forgot a lot of things but I’ll never forget TOTALITY.

It was over too quickly and the Diamand Rings reappeared, followed by a thin crescent. The moment was gone—but the memory will remain.

In spite of the mistakes, I still managed to capture some good images.

I shot several images on the Lumix every 15 minutes and kept checking focus. Still, several images were not sharp. That is where the 80-200mm f/4 lens for the Nikon would have been better since it has manual focus with a hard stop at infinity. So easy to focus. As totality approached, the Lumix began having trouble focusing. Oh, no! But it managed. And during totality, I made certain that the camera did not go into “sleep” mode as that would require focusing again.

Wide-angle view of Totality. Amazing!
Wide-angle view of Totality. Amazing!

The only real mishap was with the Sony RX10 which I used as a secondary camera. I wanted to shoot images in wide angle (24mm equivalent) during totality but I was so busy with the Lumix that I was rushed shooting with the Sony. I should have already had it on the tripod—in fact, it was on the tripod earlier but I took it off to shoot photos of the crowd. So I shot hand-held images at very long exposures but a few of them were good enough.

Earlier, I had accepted the idea that even if all my cameras failed and all my pictures failed I would still consider it a success if I witnessed Totality. There would be thousand, even millions, of great pictures to look at from other photographers. All I needed was to see it.

It was a success. Totality was so amazing that it is hard to describe.

And then there was the traffic after the eclipse. We traveled 15 miles in 3 hours.
And then there was the traffic after the eclipse. We traveled 15 miles in 3 hours.

The next eclipse across the United States is in 2024. Maybe I’ll just watch and enjoy the experience and leave the camera at home. Hmmm…..

Monsoon thunderstorms continue across Northern Arizona

The North American Monsoon continues across the Southwest bringing thunderstorms almost every day to northern Arizona. Rainfall amounts across much of the state have been well above average with Flagstaff receiving 4.5″ compared to a normal of 2.6″ in the month of July,

Of course, all this storminess brings opportunities for photographing interesting skies, lightning, and sunsets.

I was heading towards the South Rim of Grand Canyon when I decided that Wupatki National Monument might be more interesting. Although there wasn’t much in the way of lightning there was a nice sunset with a thunderstorm in the distance.

Sunset at Citadel Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.
Sunset at Citadel Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.

Another day brought a great sunset with beams of light illuminating the inner canyon.

Sunset from Lipan Point, Grand Canyon National Park.
Sunset from Lipan Point, Grand Canyon National Park.

I found myself in Sedona a few nights later hoping for lightning at sunset. The lightning was there but clouds to the west blocked the light of the setting sun. This spectacular bolt of anvil lightning traveled horizontally for a great distance before terminating above Cathedral Rock.

Lightning over Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona.
Lightning over Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona.

Early afternoon cumulus development near Marshall Lake on Anderson Mesa resulted in this small cumulus cloud producing a very photogenic shadow.

Cumulus cloud over Marshall Lake.
Cumulus cloud over Marshall Lake.

And, later that afternoon, we found ourselves at Lower Lake Mary watching another cumulus cloud develop to our east and reflected in the water.

Cumulus cloud reflected in Lower Lake Mary.
Cumulus cloud reflected in Lower Lake Mary.

I’ve been trying to capture evening thunderstorms and lightning (image) over Grand Canyon with a crescent moon illuminating the interior the canyon. Not very easy to do. I was able to get the moonlit canyon. And there was lightning but it was over 100 km away and resulted in teeny, tiny bolts in the phots. Well, I’ll just keep trying.

A crescent moon illuminated the interior of Grand Canyon.
A crescent moon illuminated the interior of Grand Canyon. (120 second exposure, f/4, ISO 200, 16mm)

Sunset and Lightning at Grand Canyon

The other day provided a good opportunity to photograph both lightning from thunderstorms and sunset at Grand Canyon. Satellite imagery from the new GOES-16 satellite indicated that skies remained clear across western Arizona as well as southern Nevada and California. This would allow the setting sun to appear below the cloud deck from the thunderstorms and—maybe—create a great sunset with the clouds glowing from below as the sun approached the horizon.

GOES-16 visible satellite imagery.
GOES-16 visible satellite imagery.

Close, but it didn’t quite happen that way. The clouds never took on that beautiful glow. On the other hand, an abundance of monsoon moisture in the lower atmosphere allowed the sun to create beams of light and shadow through the depths of the canyon. This was at its best when the sun was briefly obscured by some mid-level clouds creating some shadows at my location—but with sunlight streaming into the canyon below.

Beams of light and shadow play across Grand Canyon.
Beams of light and shadow play across Grand Canyon.

After the sun had dropped below the horizon the beams were gone, of course, but there was still color in the western sky.

Twilight colors at Grand Canyon.
Twilight colors at Grand Canyon.

The earlier thunderstorms over the area had dissipated but new storms developed about 50 km to my west. This distance meant the visible bolts were fairly small. I wanted big bolts dropping into the canyon near me. What we want and what we get…well, you know.

The radar image shows my location (circle) and the storms to the northwest.

Twilight thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.
Twilight thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.
Evening thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.
Evening thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.

The lightning images are composites of multiple photographs taken over a period of several minutes. The shutter was left open for 15s for each photograph. Some had multiple lightning bolts while others were dark. Even though it was almost 90 minutes after sunset the photographs were still able to pick up twilight colors on the western horizon.

All in all, an illuminating evening (bad pun intended).

Mountain Man Triathlon

Sometimes my photographic plans just have to be thrown out the window and Plan B put into place. That’s what happened recently.

I’ve been renting and testing a telephoto lens (Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR) for a week. After getting shut out by clouds three nights in a row trying to get moon rise images I decided to photograph water birds at sunrise along the shores of Lake Mary.

I should have checked the weekend event calendar. The Mountain Man Triathlon event was taking place at the lake. So, instead of shooting birds, I chose to shoot swimmers and bikers (I skipped the runners).

Having not given a lot of thought to shooting athletes, I found myself just winging it with no obvious good locations or setup. Well, that’s what happens when you fall back to Plan B but didn’t actually have a Plan B.

It turns out this lens is a bit slow on the auto-focus speed. That means many of the photos missed sharp focus as the riders were moving fast. Swimmers? Not a problem.

Here are some images of swimmers and bikers from the Mountain Man Triathlon held in Lake Mary near Flagstaff on July 9, 2017.

Men's Olympic swim.
Men’s Olympic swim.
Another wave of swimmers in the water.
Another wave of swimmers in the water.
Waiting for the start.
Waiting for the start.

Triathlon family.
Triathlon family.

Waiting for the Moon at Lake Mary

During the late spring and early summer the waxing crescent Moon will align with the long axis of Lake Mary. The end result is that as the Moon sets it will have a long reflection on the lake. So I found myself on the east end of Lake Mary a few days ago waiting for the clouds to clear and the Moon to put on a show.

Sunset and early twilight over Lake Mary.
Sunset and early twilight over Lake Mary.

While waiting I shot several images of the lake using slow shutter speeds. This produces very smooth water—although it may appear somewhat unrealistic. No matter. I was having fun.

Twilight colors are reflected in Lake Mary.
Twilight colors are reflected in Lake Mary.

Here is an 8-second exposure:

Long exposure at twilight.
Long exposure at twilight.

Finally, the clouds cleared and the Moon appeared with its reflection in the water.

Moon and reflection in Lake Mary.
Moon and reflection in Lake Mary.

The crescent Moon is about 6% illuminated by the direct light of the Sun; the remainder of the Moon is lit by Earthshine which is bright enough to show detail on the shadowed face of the Moon.

Definitely worth it.