Solar Eclipse - WellsFineArtPhotography

In September of 2016, I was flying back from photographing Fall colors in the Wasatch mountains and happened to talk to some passengers who lived near the line of totality for the August 2017 eclipse. They said that many of their friends and neighbors had rented out their spare rooms the night before the eclipse for as much as $500. I had been planning to book a hotel room in Jackson Hole, thinking I could spend a few days in Yellowstone and then photograph the eclipse. Apparently, so did a lot of other folks. When looking for a hotel room or campsite in that area, I found everything was already booked. So was everything West of the Tetons in Rexburg, Idaho and other places in Idaho and Oregon. I didn’t look closer to the coast in Oregon because of the likelyhood of cloud cover. I figured I would have to sleep in the back of my car near Stanley, Idaho until my friends Susan and Jim told me they have a vacation home in Rexburg and I would be welcome to stay with them!

As the time approached, news reports began say that Idaho was expecting up to a half million visitors and that Rexburg in particular had the greatest probability of clear skies on the day of the eclipse. Fearing traffic congestion, I decided to go up a few days early. My photo buddy Gary wanted to go as well. Susan and Jim graciously agreed to host us both. I made camping arrangements for the trip up and back that would also provide some photo opportunities. From Los Angeles, it is sixteen driving hours to Rexburg. To break that up, I made reservations at one of my favorite points along the way, Cedar Breaks National Monument.

If you’ve never been there, I recommend you give it a try. It is much less popular and also less photogenic than nearby Zion or Bryce canyons, but it is beautiful in a similar way. Cedar Breaks is composed red and white cliffs that fall away toward the West from a high, forested plateau. The elevation is over 10,000 feet, so the air is refreshingly cool in the Summer and wildflowers abound. The elevation and also the distance from major cities makes for beautiful night skies as well.

Approaching Cedar Breaks

Campground sign

Road to camp

Meadow near the campground

What are those yellow flowers?

Wildflowers along the path

Our campsite

After setting up camp, Gary and I went out onto Point Supreme and began shooting. To capture the moving clouds and changing light of the late afternoon, I set up a time-lapse. While the camera was clicking away, we brought out our ice chest and enjoyed a picnic dinner in a glorious setting. We chatted for a while with a family from England. Time-lapse photography seems to attract conversation like walking a dog.

Click to watch the time-lapse

While I was shooting a time-lapse, Gary got some good detailed shots from our location. I especially liked his shot of a marmot out on the rocks.

Gary's shot of a marmot in paradise

When the sun actually began to hit the horizon, we switched over to capture the last moments of light on the red rock. I am a big fan of sun rays at the horizon. The trick to getting that effect is to use a small aperture (high f-stop number). This of course requires a longer exposure or higher ISO. Using a tripod allows for a longer exposure (the tripod prevents movement that would otherwise blur the image). Higher ISO causes more noise in the image, so the longer exposure is preferable. If you were just going to post something for your friends on social media the noise isn’t noticeable on a small screen. This is how cell phone cameras and point and shoot cameras allow you to hand hold a shot in a dimly lit environment. They are noisy but you don’t have to care.

Sunset from Point Supreme

That night, I went out again to Chessman Point and Point Supreme to capture the night sky. The twilight lasts long at that altitude, giving a little blue to the sky, long after the sun has set

Milky Way from Chessman Point

Looking up at the stars

 While out on the point at night, some people came by and heard me clicking away in the dark. When they asked what I was doing, I showed them some images in my LCD screen on the back of the camera. They were blown away, so I took a photo for the of their car with the Milky Way, using my headlamp to light the foreground.

Milky Way with car at Point Supreme parking lot

The next morning, we were up just before sunrise. I saw the light hitting the meadow behind our camp and couldn’t resist getting a few shots. Breakfast could wait!

First light on the meadow behind camp

More flowers in the meadow

Gary soon joined me

Showy Goldeneye by downed tree

Back to our campsite

Even the path to the bathroom looked good

After a quick breakfast, we got back on the road. We made one stop along the rim of Cedar Breaks on our way back to the I15.

Chessman Point

Eight hours later, we were warmly greeted by our hosts in Rexburg, Susan and Jim. Staying with them for the next three days was almost as good as the eclipse itself. Gary gave them a 5-Star Michelin rating for healthy, organic food. Jim is a master of the barbecue and Susan is a marvel in the kitchen. We arrived on Friday, hoping to avoid the crowds predicted to arrive over the weekend before the eclipse. Apparently, we were successful as we saw few out of town visitors. At one point, I was sitting on the front porch with Susan talking for about ten minutes when a car came down their country road. She commented without a trace of irony, “We usually don’t see this much traffic.”

I guess many people read about the crowds and traffic and decided not to come. It reminded me of a Yogi Berra saying, "No one goes there anymore because it's too crowded."

Saturday morning, Gary and I followed Jim’s directions to a waterfall on the Snake river. After going the wrong way up Fall Creek road (and sharing the road with a bull) we made our way to the falls.

Falls Creek

Bull by the road...does my insurance cover bull collision?

Falls Creek Falls

Gary found a precarious perch to get a better angle on the falls. It was a lot better than my idea of climbing down the cliff to get a better view. I think he only shared it with me because I had the car keys.

Falls Creek Falls

This is a tight crop of the only circular waterfall outside a theme park

That evening, we joined Jim on his walk through the neighborhood at dusk. Smoke from fires in Montana added to the sky color.

Sunset over Rexburg

There were irrigation ditches everywhere we looked

Last of the sunset over grasses by the ditch

The next morning, we hiked with Jim up the Cress trail. It has a commanding view of the area. On the way down, we followed the creek through a riparian woodland back down the hill to our car.

High on the Cress Trail - we started near the river

Nice lichen at the top

Watercress and yellow flowers along the stream

I had scouted a location the day before that I thought would make a good foreground for the eclipse. At around 10:30, we went to that location to check where the sun would be on the following day during the eclipse. Driving around Rexburg that afternoon, we saw a few campers, but no where near the crowds that had been anticipated.

Blocking the sun for a test shot at my chosen location

Much of the rest of the afternoon was consumed with testing our camera set ups and discussing possible exposures and what we wanted to capture during the eclipse. We all agreed that experiencing the eclipse was more important than any image we might get, so we tried to have our cameras, remote triggers and tripods set up and ready to go.

Me, Jim, Susan and Gary - ready to watch

Despite not seeing any crowds in Rexburg, we went down to my chosen spot along the Snake river about 9:00 AM and set up our gear. Other people, seeing tripods and long lenses decided that we must know what we were doing and soon set up nearby. A little community of witnesses gathered and became friends as we stood by the flowing river.

Gradually, the moon took bites out of the sun

Gradually, the sun began to dim. Then the temperature dropped and it became darker. As the eclipse approached totality, the sky to our right became dark, like twilight. I quickly took a couple more photos, hoping to get the last wink of the sun disappearing behind the moon, an effect compared to the look of a diamond ring.

Diamond ring

I stopped taking pictures of the crescent sun and just watched. After days of preparing and hours of waiting, everything was happening so fast. The sky to the right began to turn a deep, twilight blue, complete with a star. Suddenly, like flipping a light switch, the sun was completely covered. I can’t overstate the difference between a little sliver of direct sunlight and none at all. It was as if night fell in a split second. It became dark enough to see a few stars (probably planets) and we could look directly at the sun. The temperature dropped more. We were in and alien landscape, lit by a strange sun.

I let out a huge roar and felt an explosion of joy in my heart.  We could take off our solar glasses and look right at the sun. The sun looked smaller because the brilliance that normally causes us to avert our eyes was gone.. The sun was a black hole in the sky with a ring of fire around it. I felt connected to the alignment - the sun, moon, me and the Earth all in a straight line - and an upwelling of tears in my eyes. It was an experience like no other. After a few brief moments (during which I remembered to take some photos) the light peeked out again from the other side.

Totality over the Snake River

This was shot with a 14 mm lens to take in the whole scene. I had set up the tripod so that I could quickly flip the camera to portrait from landscape position. You can see in the few seconds from the photo above, the darker blue in the sky has shifted from the right in that image to the left in the one below.

Vertical view of Totality

With my 400 mm, I took a few shots as well. It was all I could do to make sure the sun was in the center of the frame and press the remote trigger. I had meant to bracket the shot, but I just pulled the trigger without setting the exposure. I didn't even check until that night to see if I got anything. I'm very happy with what I did get.

I like the little hints of fire pouring through valleys on the upper right side of the moon. I also like the little white dot to the lower left. I think it is the planet Mercury.

Totality at 400 mm

People yelled with excitement at the return of light and put their solar glasses back on. We were all emotionally shaken, exultant, exhausted and overwhelmed. None of us felt the need to watch the rest of the sun’s return. We had brought down coolers and had planned to stay, eat lunch and take photos of the Sun’s gradual return. We were all too emotionally spent to eat or take any more photos. In our own way, each of us needed to process what just happened, so we said our goodbye’s and got into the car. While we may not have seen many people gathering in Rexburg, we did join a flood of people trying to get onto the I15 and find our way South. It took us six and a half hours to get to a restaurant I like in Kimball Junction (Loco Lizard), normally a 4 hour drive. After dinner, we found our way to Wasatch State Park and camped for the night. In the morning, we took a few shots of the pond by the visitor center in Wasatch State Park and then headed down towards the I15 South.

Wasatch State Park Visitor Center

We saw a few thunderstorms and some beautiful clouds on our way South.

Rain beside the I15

Sunshine returns

We were headed for Las Vegas for the night. That gave us a little time to visit the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. It was 102 degrees, so we didn't do any long hikes. We plan to come back in cooler weather.

Road through Valley of Fire

Though it required a lot of time in the car, the totality was well worth the trip. As the author Anne Dillard once wrote, "Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him."

Everyone responds differently. I know for myself, seeing the totality was a powerful emotional experience. I don't know if I will have a chance to see another, but I recommend everyone sees at least one in their lifetime. It's worth whatever it takes.

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