Planning for an eclipse

It’s a little odd that today, four years to the day of my last post I get the urge to write something. It’s also a little odd that in four years we really don’t have a better platform for sitting down and publishing a wall-of-text story like this one is destined to be.

Anyway, I’ve been asked for this story a few times this week and wanted to put it down as a posting to learn from. I’ve shared similar techniques in the past, but a few of those techniques failed me now that we’re in 2017.

Our plan for the total Eclipse really officially started three weeks prior to the event. We knew it was coming, we knew it was something we were traveling for but nailing down the details could come later. Being in Maryland we had a few choices of location and we started planning routes and watching the weather closely. Our target was Adams Landing North Carolina and a nice restaurant called The Lake House, but in reality everything from Charlestown South Carolina to Hopkinsville Kentucky was a possibility.

With weather a waiting game, we started gearing up photographically. None of us had photographed a total eclipse before and we resorted to the ol’ standby Flickr to do some EXIF snooping. Except, Yahoo has really destroyed Flickr. That and the addition of cell phone and heavily filtered photos being the primary source of Flickr images anymore, there wasn’t much in terms of finding totality photos and comparing camera settings. We were going to have to fly by the seat of our pants during the eclipse and hope that the mere two minutes of totality was enough to get everything done that we wanted to achieve.

Next was packing and everyone packed solid tripods, intervalometers for those who wanted to capture every step of the way and filters of course were a must. Tripods are plentiful, and as long as you have a sturdy tripod with easy to move head for your camera, there’s no going wrong there. Intervalometers are a bit different, think of a remote release with a timer inside that trips the shutter every X seconds or minutes. Running Canon gear our intervalometer of choice is the Canon TC-80N3 timer remote. The filters needed are called Neutral Density filters and their main purpose is to darken the light entering the camera without introducing a color cast to the photograph. You want to balance your needs here. Better ND filters are expensive and cheaper ones can tint your images. Of course though, if you don’t plan on using them all of the time it can be hard to justify several hundred dollars for a few ND filters. They do come in handy for bright scenes that you want photograph with slow shutter speeds without cranking your aperture down to f/32 or more, if your camera and lens handles it.

My main setup was going to be the Canon 400mm 2.8 is lens, it takes specialized filters in the body and I just don’t have ND’s for it. I had considered getting custom ND filters machined for the slot, but because my main focus was on Totality and didn’t need a filter anyway, I stuck to three layers of silver mylar emergency blanket and a rubber band to get some images of the sunspots and follow the track in the sky with the intent of removing the material when it was safe.

Our own glasses were necessary as was comfortable chairs and the other accoutrements for a long trip.

On Sunday, one day before the Eclipse we updated our routes after a week of constant changes and planned a more Western route due to a storm system coming up the coast into Charleston. Our original hope of making it to Adams Landing was fading away. Our plan was to stop in Richmond Virginia for our first weather assessment and change as necessary. Everything looked good and we decided to split to 85 to Durham North Carolina and around 3am found a Waffle House in a shady neighborhood with no WiFi or cell service. I brought up a few still images on my phone on the outskirts of town and we decided to head towards Greenville South Carolina through Hickory as Greenville was starting to cloud up for the Eclipse times. Hickory would give us a way to Greenville or further West if needed. Which we did. Throughout the night our destination changed and we ended up making our final decision. Lenoir City Tennessee.

At around 10am we pulled into the Loudon City, City Park and in front of a marina and restaurant named Calhoun’s. They had nothing on their website or Facebook page about having an event and were quite surprised when we showed up and their party deck was open. We asked if we could camp out in the grass to watch the Eclipse and they welcomed us. They also had some Cornhole boards set up and some tasty cold beer which we enjoyed after everything was set up. There were less than 25 people when we arrived and plenty of parking.

Two of our crew decided to capture the entire eclipse from start to end and had their cameras going at five to ten minute intervals, the choice was made to zoom into the Sun but that would cause more movement and the cameras would have to be re-centered on the sun as it moved through the sky.

Eclipse projection through the leaves of a tree.

About 15 minutes prior to the eclipse I started shooting video of a large piece of canvas I had placed on the ground to capture Shadow Snakes or Shadow Bands. I double checked my camera settings and had two other camera bodies at the ready for backups and also had a film camera body ready to hopefully run through a few different rolls of film. The diamond ring came and I ripped off my mylar filter.

Everyone had their cameras set up and ready for whatever could come next. This is a place where it’s really important to know your camera, apertures, shutter speeds and ISO sensitivity. Having my ISO and Shutter speeds where I wanted them, I brought down my aperture to f/4 and loved what I was getting.

And had exactly no time for anything. The shadow snakes came, the diamond ring after, Bailey’s beads and then totality. Looking back at the event just seemed like seconds. I remember reaching into my chair for the film body waiting for me and remembering to look up at the eclipse. I was in awe. My attention moved to the sounds of crickets, then the drop in temperature.

Before I could get back to the camera the trailing diamond ring was already starting. I moved quickly to the camera and started shooting again. I couldn’t believe how quickly it was over.

On the eight hour drive home that turned into twelve and a half hours due to severe accidents on 81 North, I had heard from several other friends. Many of which had clouds. We were extremely lucky that we had not one cloud pass between us and the Sun.

What would I do differently? I would like to get a 24 stop ND filter made for my 400mm lens. I also want to shoot film now that I’ve got digital photographs made. I had also toyed with a few pinhole cameras but there just wasn’t enough time. If I want to make pinhole captures they’re going to need to be on a tripod I can adjust them all at once with and a sight to easily point to the Sun. I am also going to need a trigger release system I can just pull them all at once.

Which leads me to… ‘Did you make any Tintypes?’. I didn’t, but I took plenty of notes on how to do it next time. It was also a heat index of 100 degrees, something the chemistry wouldn’t have had fun with. In 2024 totality will be further north and I feel that the chemistry can handle it. Though the design ideas are flowing through my head and constantly changing. I’m thinking of channeling my inner Muybridge and coming with a system for multiple plates at multiple times. But I have seven years to worry about that.

-JM