Dave and I were in Wyoming. We'd made a hotel reservation nine months ago, by which time we were already too late to book a room in the zone of totality and settled for Laramie, a few hours' drive from the centerline.
For visual observing, I had my little portable 80mm refractor. But photography was more complicated. I'd promised myself that for my first (and possibly only) total eclipse, I wasn't going to miss the experience because I was spending too much time fiddling with cameras. But I couldn't talk myself into not trying any photography at all.
I spent several weeks before the eclipse in a flurry of creation, making a couple of solar finders, a barn-door mount, and then wrestling with motorizing the barn-door (which was a failure because I couldn't find a place to buy decent gears for the motor. I'm still working on that and will eventually write it up). I wrote up a plan: what equipment I would use when, a series of progressive exposures for totality, and so forth.
And then, a couple of days before we were due to leave, I figured I should test my rig -- and discovered that it was basically impossible to focus on the sun. For the Venus transit, the sun wasn't that high in the sky, so I focused through the viewfinder. But for the total eclipse, the sun would be almost overhead, and the viewfinder nearly impossible to see. So I had planned to point the Mak at a distant hillside, focus it, then slip the filter on and point it up to the sun. It turned out the focal point was completely different through the filter.
With only a couple of days left to go, I revised my plan. The Mak is difficult to focus under any circumstances. I decided not to use it, and to stick to my Canon 55-250mm zoom telephoto, with the camera on a normal tripod. I'd skip the partial eclipse (I've photographed those before anyway) and concentrate on getting a few shots of the diamond ring and the corona, running through a range of exposures without needing to look at the camera screen or do any refocusing. And since I wasn't going to be usinga telescope, my nifty solar finders wouldn't work; I designed a new one out of popsicle sticks to fit in the camera's hot shoe.
We stayed with relatives in Colorado Saturday night, then drove to
Laramie Sunday. I'd heard horror stories of hotels canceling people's
longstanding eclipse reservations, but fortunately our hotel honored
our reservation. WHEW! Monday morning, we left the hotel at 6am in
case we hit terrible traffic. There was already plenty of traffic on
the highway north to Casper, but we turned east hoping for fewer crowds.
A roadsign sign said "NO PARKING ON HIGHWAY." They'd better not try
to enforce that in the totality zone!
When we got to I-25 it was moving and, oddly enough, not particularly crowded. Glendo Reservoir had looked on the map like a nice spot on the centerline ... but it was also a state park, so there was a risk that everyone else would want to go there. Sure enough: although traffic was moving on I-25 at Wheatland, a few miles north the freeway came to a screeching halt. We backtracked and headed east toward Guernsey, where several highways went north toward the centerline.
East of Glendo, there were crowds at every highway pullout and rest stop. As we turned onto 270 and started north, I kept an eye on OsmAnd on my phone, where I'd loaded a GPX file of the eclipse path. When we were within a mile of the centerline, we stopped at a likely looking pullout. It was maybe 9 am. A cool wind was blowing -- very pleasant since we were expecting a hot day -- and we got acquainted with our fellow eclipse watchers as we waited for first contact.
Our pullout was also the beginning of a driveway to a farmhouse we could
see in the distance. Periodically people pulled up, looking lost,
checked maps or GPS, then headed down the road to the farm. Apparently
the owners had advertised it as an eclipse spot -- pay $35, and you
can see the eclipse and have access to a restroom too! But apparently
the old farmhouse's plumbing failed early on, and some of the people
who'd paid came out to the road to watch with us since we had better
equipment set up.
There's not much to say about the partial eclipse. We all traded views -- there were five or six scopes at our pullout, including a nice little H-alpha scope. I snapped an occasional photo through the 80mm with my pocket camera held to the eyepiece, or with the DSLR through an eyepiece projection adapter. Oddly, the DSLR photos came out worse than the pocket cam ones. I guess I should try and debug that at some point.
Shortly before totality, I set up the DSLR on the tripod, focused on a distant hillside and taped the focus with duct tape, plugged in the shutter remote, checked the settings in Manual mode, then set the camera to Program mode and AEB (auto exposure bracketing). I put the lens cap back on and pointed the camera toward the sun using the popsicle-stick solar finder. I also set a countdown timer, so I could press START when totality began and it would beep to warn me when it was time to the sun to come back out. It was getting chilly by then, with the sun down to a sliver, and we put on sweaters.
The pair of eclipse veterans at our pullout had told everybody to watch for the moon's shadow racing toward us across the hills from the west. But I didn't see the racing shadow, nor any shadow bands.
And then Venus and Mercury appeared and the sun went away.
One thing the photos don't prepare you for is the color of the sky. I expected it would look like twilight, maybe a little darker; but it was an eerie, beautiful medium slate blue. With that unworldly solar corona in the middle of it, and Venus gleaming as bright as you've ever seen it, and Mercury shining bright on the other side. There weren't many stars.
We didn't see birds doing anything unusual; as far as I can tell, there are no birds in this part of Wyoming. But the cows did all get in a line and start walking somewhere. Or so Dave tells me. I wasn't looking at the cows.
Amazingly, I remembered to start my timer and to pull off the DSLR's lens cap as I pushed the shutter button for the diamond-ring shots without taking my eyes off the spectacle high above. I turned the camera off and back on (to cancel AEB), switched to M mode, and snapped a photo while I scuttled over to the telescope, pulled the filter off and took a look at the corona in the wide-field eyepiece. So beautiful! Binoculars, telescope, naked eye -- I don't know which view was best.
I went through my exposure sequence on the camera, turning the dial a couple of clicks each time without looking at the settings, keeping my eyes on the sky or the telescope eyepiece. But at some point I happened to glance at the viewfinder -- and discovered that the sun was drifting out of the frame. Adjusting the tripod to get it back in the frame took longer than I wanted, but I got it there and got my eyes back on the sun as I snapped another photo ...
and my timer beeped.
I must have set it wrong! It couldn't possibly have been two and a half minutes. It had been 30, 45 seconds tops.
But I nudged the telescope away from the sun, and looked back up -- to another diamond ring. Totality really was ending and it was time to stop looking.
The trip back to Golden, where we were staying with a relative, was hellish. We packed up immediately after totality -- we figured we'd seen partials before, and maybe everybody else would stay. No such luck. By the time we got all the equipment packed there was already a steady stream of cars heading south on 270.
A few miles north of Guernsey the traffic came to a stop. This was to be the theme of the afternoon. Every small town in Wyoming has a stop sign or signal, and that caused backups for miles in both directions. We headed east, away from Denver, to take rural roads down through eastern Wyoming and Colorado rather than I-25, but even so, we hit small-town stop sign backups every five or ten miles.
We'd brought the Rav4 partly for this reason. I kept my eyes glued on OsmAnd and we took dirt roads when we could, skirting the paved highways -- but mostly there weren't any dirt roads going where we needed to go. It took about 7 hours to get back to Golden, about twice as long as it should have taken. And we should probably count ourselves lucky -- I've heard from other people who took 11 hours to get to Denver via other routes.
Dave is fond of the quote, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy" (which turns out to be from Prussian military strategist Helmuth von Moltke the Elder).
The enemy, in this case, isn't the eclipse; it's time. Two and a half minutes sounds like a lot, but it goes by like nothing.
Even in my drastically scaled-down plan, I had intended exposures from 1/2000 to 2 seconds (at f/5.6 and ISO 400). In practice, I only made it to 1/320 because of fiddling with the tripod.
And that's okay. I'm thrilled with the photos I got, and definitely wouldn't have traded any eyeball time for more photos. I'm more annoyed that the tripod fiddling time made me miss a little bit of extra looking. My script actually worked out better than I expected, and I was very glad I'd done the preparation I had. The script was reasonable, the solar finders worked really well, and the lens was even in focus for the totality shots.
Then there's the eclipse itself.
I've read so many articles about solar eclipses as a mystical, religious experience. It wasn't, for me. It was just an eerily beautiful, other-worldly spectacle: that ring of cold fire staring down from the slate blue sky, bright planets but no stars, everything strange, like nothing I'd ever seen. Photos don't get across what it's like to be standing there under that weird thing in the sky.
I'm not going to drop everything to become a globe-trotting eclipse chaser ... but I sure hope I get to see another one some day.
[ 20:41 Aug 27, 2017 More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]