Back in August 2016, when the news of this Great Eclipse first started to be a subject of discussion in the media and on social networking, it was not something that had interested me greatly. I was well aware how easily Mother Nature could ruin these sorts of things and how you had to be in a very specific area to even see totality of an eclipse. Not to mention any drive to that small area would be a ten hour drive at minimum. I was also not confident in my photographic abilities by any means. Sure, I thought I took decent pictures but certainly not enough to bother spending the money to go specifically to photograph it. Additionally, I lacked understanding of how great this phenomenon could be in person compared to videos of similar events. I had even probed my father about going and his feelings on it were quite lackluster. Needless to say, I had determined that I was going to watch this one from the sidelines in my home state of Maryland.
Then, in November of 2016, something changed. I was 4 months into owning a Nikon D810 and learning it is such an amazing piece of gear. The sky seemed like - literally - the limit and I began to dabble in astrophotography. As it turned out, it wasn’t that difficult and I quickly became obsessed with it. I felt good enough about my ability that I bought an astrotracking mount, a Skywatcher Adventure. The forecasts were good so, while I waited for it to arrive with next day shipping, I skimmed through a few online tutorials quickly before bed that night. The next day when it arrived, I went out and took my first try at the constellation Seven Sisters (left side of below image). I was not largely impressed with myself but the fact that some nebulous blue was poking through all the noise inspired me as it meant that a novice like me could image these heavenly bodies without a huge telescope. Just a week later I was able to make the image on the right with just a little more thought and refinement. Cross my ‘t’s and dot my ‘i’s sort of stuff.
I was content with this image. And honestly deep sky astro is not really a passion of mine; I just did it to say that I could. Satisfied, I set my sights on the moon. I have always taken photos of the moon just to do it. In fact, I had used it so commonly as a target for evaluation of cameras and new lenses that I can track my photos all the way back to 2015 (far left) when I first had my long time point and shoot of preference, the venerable Nikon Coolpix P90, then when I got my Nikon P900 mid 2015 (left middle), and D7200 in later 2015 (middle right), and D810 and tracking (right) sometime in 2016.
I suddenly found myself interested enough in the moon to want to see it in it’s more rare form, totality. I had bounced it off my dad again sometime in June 2017. Turns out, in the midst of all the growing media attention he had had a change of heart and thought maybe it’d be worth seeing after all.
We planned for Charleston, South Carolina and made reservations. On August 19th the forecasts deteriorated to thunderstorms. We were keeping an eye on the weather and were able to make a shift before the media began reporting the same observation. We lucked out and were able to get a hotel in Clemson, SC. Forecasts showed partly cloudy with 3% chance of rain there and in the surrounding areas.
The big day came and, on Monday morning at 1:00 AM, we started our 10 hour drive down to SC. There was quite a bit of traffic and we arrived around 11:00 am. Upon arrival, I decided to try a more scenic and less crowded location just 7 miles south of Clemson instead (though, in hindsight, we should have stayed at Clemson as it remained clear there throughout the day). I also opted not to bother with landscapes as it was simply too weird an angle for my Sigma 20mm Art to capture. It was up to the task and certainly wide enough but the perspective looked quite strange.
I began to feel rather stressed out as I began to set up, not just for photographing totality but to see and enjoy the eclipse properly for myself with my own eyes. Often I find that I get so obsessed that I don’t enjoy myself as much as I could have without the camera. For example, my attempt to get the meteor shower just a week prior had ended badly. I had bought tracking equipment and even made a custom DSLR cooler only to have picked the wrong spot for clear weather due to incorrect forecasts. I did not get to enjoy the meteors with my own eyes as I was too busy trying to get to a location that the camera could see them. All this culminated in a lot of self doubt for this attempt at totality.
By ~11:45 am I was all set up. For this shoot, I wanted to use my tracking mount to follow the sun as the 500/4 AF-i lens weighs nearly 11 pounds and it is difficult to constantly change the ball head position to follow the ever moving sun across the sky. One thing that is hard to notice is how fast the sun moves. It is almost unnoticeable until you try to frame it with telephoto lens; within several minutes it is out of the lens view again. This tracker has a motor that follows it across the sky as it moves and takes the lens with it. Having never set it up in daylight, it took some time to acquire the sun but once I did, it tracked very well. My custom hand controller made keeping alignment prim and proper quite flawless. Focusing with a Modified Hartmann mask was very easy and quick and worth the extra hours to make the night before.
At 1:09 pm, the first glimpses of the moon beginning to transit the sun appeared in my view finder. I started taking exposures at 1/4000 7 1/8000 with bracketing 9 stops up. It was exposing well and I was quite overjoyed that I was actually here in South Carolina imaging the moon blocking out the sun! Things were going quite well at this point. However, by 1:40 pm this had all changed: clouds began to roll in and almost continuously block our line of sight with only intermittent windows, seconds at a time, through which to see the unfolding eclipse. The clouds got worse and worse, growing more voluminous and stationary. I had never seen two layers of clouds form and move in perpendicular directions over such flat terrain. In Maryland, clouds only move west to east. These moved east to west and north to south. I was flabbergasted and saddened by this as the outlook was becoming so very bleak.
At 1:59 am, just 39 minutes before the main event, I expressed my misery over this sudden clouding with a contact from Reddit, John Kraus, whose launch photography is something I quite admire. He, in turn, reported that he was having better luck and was just several miles away at Williamston, SC. He was even nice enough to send me a photo and stay in contact with me even while busy with his own imaging.
The time was 2:00 pm and packing up in 10 minutes, driving 20, and setting back up seemed impossible. I was stressed and indecisive about relocating. Typically as soon as you move or put your camera away fate messes with you and changes things back to optimal conditions. I figured the clouds would clear just to be cruel. However, fate reached out and talked to me in that moment of angst: a huge rain drop landed on my tripod leg right before my eyes. It was then I knew I had no choice. It was going to rain! With lightning speed I packed up my gear, practically ripping it into pieces and messily tossing it into bags and bins. Running around with my huge 500/4 Nikkon AF-i 11 lb monster around my neck, I began hauling things back to the car. Other parties were doing the same, backing up and asking where we were headed. One even joked alongside me, talking as I hauled my bin of gear to the car. As soon as we jumped in the car it began to down pour like a monsoon. So much for that 3% chance of rain, you pesky weather forecasters!
The race was on. We flew down back roads and raced ever closer to the huge hole in the sky that was now visible just a few miles ahead of us down what I think was 85. At 2:28 pm the GPS said we still had 12 minutes to our destination with totality only 10 minutes away! Checking my Google Maps app, it was clear we would not make it to Williamston in time. My father saw an exit ahead, the last before a several mile stretch to Williamston, when suddenly the sky cleared. Fearing it’d be the only chance I had, I stuck my whole camera and lens out the window and began firing away shots (to my amazement, I captured several images this way). I told him to take the ramp since we were simply out of time. We were not alone in this revelation.
Suddenly, every car began to turn towards the ramp almost simultaneously as if the sudden sunlight had infected every mind it touched with some sort of brain washing or connected us all in some sort of Borg hive mind. All had come to the same decision. “This is the only exit close enough and the sky is now clear.. there’s 3 minutes left till the main event… this is it! Our only chance.” In amazing, unplanned choreography 2 lanes of traffic and those already driving on the shoulder suddenly all converged on a singular point on the exit ramp. It was something you’d imagine Tesla hopes its autopilot could one day do when all cars are autonomous. We were unable to obtain a spot on the exit ramp. Turning up into the main drag, a row of gas stations and restaurants lined this small reststop-like exit. The small traffic jam was growing larger by the second as more and more vehicles flooded into this last bastion of clear sky for those that were rained out in other directions.
The saturation and hues began to drain as the sunlight drew white with totality’s impending arrival. It was as if someone had begun to drag the Lightroom vibrancy slider to the left into the far negatives. Meanwhile, everyone stared up paying no mind to the surrounding world. It was all so surreal, strange, and just out of this world. The only thing I have ever seen like it has been Yom HaShoah and when the Sirens sound to honor the fallen.
I jumped ship while attempting to park in a gas station parking lot with just my camera my old backup gitzo metal tripod. There was no time for anything else or to put my ballhead back on my Carbon Fiber Gitzo. I began to set up near some other folks on their nice wide paved pad in the middle of the grass. In hindsight, I can only imagine I was standing atop their septic tank, why else would there be a large concrete box stick up out of a grassy field beside a building?
As I set up one of the workers came out and began to yell at me claiming that this area and parking was for customers only. I told her that I did not park here and that I walked. She went on complaining until I promised I’d come buy something afterwards. I found it quite strange she was so concerned with me becoming a customer and yet being so nasty to me. I suppose she targeted me specifically as I had the biggest lens of all. It was just so odd that she seemed quite blind to the fact that there was a huge traffic jam on the road, in the parking lot, and people just standing outside their cars on the main road. How could anyone be so concerned with someone buying a candy bar while something so rare and magical was happening around them? I simply told her I promise I’ll be in to get a candy bar, and informed her that no right-minded person is going to be crazy enough to pump gas while this amazing display is going on, and that if she did not like it she could call the cops but there’d be no way for them to get here as the roads were a frozen stream of cars whose owners abandoned them to view this event. I was called a smartass, not surprisingly. However, I was amazed that she turned her back on the beginning of totality and went back inside, oblivious and uncaring of the events just outside the door 10 feet from her cash register.
I ended up setting up with only 50 seconds to go, and I began firing away letting my intervalometer and automatic bracketing do the work. I had switched my AF-i lenses clutch to Auto focus so it was still focused from the previous site. Finally able to look around and enjoy the event, to the west I could see the shadow racing towards us at ~1500+ mph. All those clouds I had hated moments ago for raining on us suddenly made it clear how quickly the eclipse moves. Coast to coast in 94 minutes. The loathed clouds turned ever darker the closer they were. On the far horizon the clouds lit up like sunset. All around everyone was bathed in white glowing light that was ever dimming as the great shadow descended upon us. Totality arrived abruptly. It is like the opposite of the scene from Forrest Gump when the sun suddenly comes out after the rain. Expected, yet unexpectedly.
Totality was indescribable. Looking up at the sun and seeing the many solar prominences poking out around the edge of the completely black moon; how quickly it all shifted from very bright white to black and dark; the stars and planets shining brightly in the sky while the clouds on the horizon shown like daytime; the qualia of this experience are impossible to explain. You’ll never know till you see it yourself. It went on so shortly that before you knew it you could see the shadow leaving and the light returning from west to east. I kept firing my camera and waited until the last minute to put my filter back on. I was happy to see I got a nice diamond ring shot and several other great shots. In hindsight, I wish I had changed my exposure times a little more but auto bracketing 9 stops worked well enough for this noob’s first time. And to be honest in a lot of ways I am glad I did not. I was able to enjoy it, watch it myself. The timer did the work while I beheld the amazement.
I came back to reality and I found myself suddenly quite sad. My dad ended up in the next parking lot down, an abandoned gas station 100 yards or so away. I wish I had known the exact time. I wish I knew I had time to run down and be near him. I felt bad for the greed to see it in my camera over seeing it with him. I called him and discussed it with him while we were both still in awe. I talked to a few people nearby, gave out my website. I wish I had business cards! Maybe it is time for those now. Then I headed down to start shooting near him till it faded out totally and the moon was invisible again at ~4:10 pm. I took this picture before packing up, everyone else gone, this small rest stop exit empty again. The traffic jams cleared and the horde of zombie-like sky starers all returned to their tasks. Just me and another photographer remained till the very end. In the back left you can see where I shot totality, and where I ended up. To the far left are the cars of other photographers that watched it till the very end.
Here are some images I put together quickly before the hype dies down too much.