Behind the Scenes: Eclipse Photos

Standing victoriously next to my camera set-up

I was going to just write a sentence or two about actually taking the photos, but when this part of the story stretched to multiple pages, I realized it deserved it’s own post. Warning: possibly of interest only to would-be camera nerds.  This is pitched at a fairly basic level. Eventually I plan to edit in some links to external articles from at the end of this post. The story of my eclipse trip can be found in the previous post, and a flickr album with more photos can be viewed here.

 

My main goal was to get a photo of the sun’s corona at totality along with some photos of the partial eclipse. I wasn’t trying to make one of those neat composite images showing the entire progression of the eclipse. Since I didn’t know what it was going to look like at the park until I got there, I didn’t plan on doing anything wide-angle to capture the eclipse and the landscape. No video. Just the money shot. Simplifying was also important since I had to fly from the west coast and didn’t want to bring everything I own.

Camera: I went with my older DSLR camera (Canon 60D) over my newer camera. Although in most ways inferior, the 60D had one important advantage- a flip-out, fully adjustable LCD screen. In testing the week before, I found this amazingly helpful when trying to aim and focus when pointing almost vertically at the mid-day sun.

Lens: For the lens, I used my oft-neglected Canon 400mm f/5.6. I usually leave this at home for wildlife because I have other lenses that do the “long lens” job as well or better. But this is a really sharp lens, and since I was going use a tripod I thought the lack of image stabilization wouldn’t hurt me. Additionally, being a fixed focal length lens rather than a zoom might actually be an advantage. There’s something called “zoom creep” or “lens creep”- heavy zoom lenses can inadvertently zoom in or out if pointed much above or below the horizon due to the weight of the lens itself. Again, not often a big issue for photographing wildlife that’s in front of you, but when pointing up at the sky for long periods of time, I thought it could lead to problems.

Filter: To shoot the eclipse before and after totality, I purchased a 77mm solar filter from StarGuy. This is not a cheap filter (especially for being basically a small swatch of mylar in a filter ring), and if you enjoy doing things on the cheap you can probably search the internet for cheaper solutions to not frying your camera sensor.  Luckily the 400mm lens has a 77mm filter thread as do several other of my heavy-rotation lenses. A quick side note about filters: if you have lenses of different diameters and want to use a filter on all of them- you can buy for the larger size and buy “step-down” rings to get it to screw into the smaller one.

Tripod, etc. Even with a decent tripod and tripod head (I used my Gimball head since it’s made for bigger lenses and a little easier to control than a ballhead and easier to point vertically than the panhead I used for my spotting scope), a 400mm lens will show a lot of shake. I hung my backpack off my tripod to further minimize shake through the tripod. I used both a wired remote and the 2-second timer feature so I could capture the image after the vibrations of physically touching the camera had dampened. I also attempted keep the shutter speed as high as possible by shooting at relatively high ISO settings (I think 800-1600 ISO). Although this is an older sensor and high ISO noise can be an issue, I figured that I could fix some of the sensor noise on the computer. It’s much harder to fix an image that is blurry due to shake or motion during too long of an exposure.

I manually focused using the LCD (i.e. “Live View”) rather than the optical viewfinder- in fact I never used the optical viewfinder once it was on the tripod. Not only was it safer for my eyes not to be looking towards the sun, it was ergonomically better to be able to stand and look comfortably. Moreover, the camera has an option to zoom in during live view which really helped in seeing more detail when fine tuning during focusing.

MISTAKES WERE MADE

Even with a practice run on a full California sun the week before, this was a difficult task. The light changes as the sun disappears, and during totality there are only a couple of minutes to try to take in the spectacle while still getting some good photos.

1-    Removing the filter at totality. I remembered to do this, which is good. However, I didn’t think about the implications of unscrewing a filter when relying on manual focus. The lens rotated a bit during this process. As in rotated slightly out of focus. Thankfully I eventually noticed and re-focused when I had to re-aim the camera to track the continued movement of the sun across the sky, but the first few photos I took during totality are trash because of this blunder.

2-    Auto-Exposure Bracketing. This is a feature that’s been common in cameras for at least 30 years. Because it can be a little fiddly to know how your camera’s light meter is actually reading a scene, you can have your camera automatically capture extra images that are over or under exposed.  This is a great idea if you might end up liking one of those alternative exposures better than the “correct” one. Also, if you are into more advanced post-processing of your photos in the computer, you can combine parts of these stacks of exposures to create a manufactured image with more detail in the darker and lighter parts of the image (this is called High Dynamic Range or HDR photography). I didn’t end up doing bracketing, and I’m not really sure why since it’s “free” in every way except for adding 3 to 5 times more photos to sort through.  I ended up paying enough attention to the lights and darks on the screen in Live View that I ended up with images I was happy with, but it was kind of silly of me not to avail myself of this great tool on the camera.

My one wide-angle shot from a point&shoot camera

3- More “scene” images. There’s only so much one can do in the 2-plus minutes of a total eclipse. One of my biggest priorities was to make sure I was experiencing the eclipse- pausing to take in the wonder with my senses and let the spectacular phenomenon wash over me. That said, next time (in 7 years), I’d like to squeeze in a few extra snaps from a second camera to get the whole sky and horizon, and maybe have a video camera aimed at the crowd to get their reaction. I had my phone set to do this but somehow abandoned the plan once we got near totality. Or maybe I should just leave this for a friend to do!

My Eclipse Story

My eclipse story was almost one of regret. My home in the Bay Area was in a zone of about 70% totality and frequently foggy, so I thought I might miss the total eclipse entirely. I was yearning to see it at our sage-grouse site in Lander, which was just inside the band of total coverage. How magical would it be to be among my favorite Monument Draw rock formations or in the ancient petroglyph site at Castle Gardens when day turns to night?

Thankfully my dad had a plan. When he suggested a trip to South Carolina, I jumped at the opportunity!

We left in the morning the day before. Although it was less than 250 miles from Durham, we were concerned about the possibility of getting stuck in traffic or not being able to find a good viewing location once we got within the path of totality. The extra day also gave us a chance for a more relaxed drive down, allowing us time to explore a long-leaf pine forest in southern North Carolina border. This is a threatened, fire-dependent ecosystem characterized by towering pine trees and limited undergrowth.

Long-leaf Pine forest on state game land near Hoffman, NC

Since we took back roads on the way down, we didn’t hit much traffic before settling in for the night in Camden, South Carolina. Eschewing the “it’s just like Applebees” restaurant next door to the hotel, we found a surprisingly decent Mexican place just north of the Camden downtown. Eclipse morning, the breakfast zone in the Comfort Inn was full of excited groups sharing their viewing plans for the day. Many were headed to the fairgrounds in nearby Columbia, SC.  We checked the weather forecasts for the umpteenth time, decided no place within easy driving distance looked any more or less likely to have clear skies, and set out for on our initial target: Pointsette State Park.  Lynn selected this place since it was

  • a little closer to the center of the path of totality, meaning a longer total eclipse
  • not in/near a large population center, so maybe less crowded than some other places
  • likely to have open areas for picnicking and recreation where we could see the sun overhead without those pesky trees.

I couldn't resist stopping for a photo of this one. Nice driveway!

Our anticipation climbed as we drove south from Camden through small towns and past stately plantation houses. It was a couple of hours before the beginning of the eclipse, but a few people were already set up with tents and umbrellas in clearcuts in the state forest land outside of the park. We were not the first, but certainly not the last people in the park itself. After estimating about where the sun would be in the early afternoon, we found a place in the thin but growing crowd, and then concentrated on not melting in the brutal midday heat and humidity.

 

At one point I escaped to the shade of the woods, and an excited young lady pointed out these orb weaver spiders (probably genus Nephila).  Not much other wildlife with the exception of some butterflies and dragonflies. Other people swam or paddle-boarded in the lake, caught up on their reading in the shade, or played cornhole.

 

We had a typical summer sky- hazy, with scattered clouds. Although the cooling effect of a thunderhead covering the sun was welcome, it made us a little nervous about the eclipse. What if we drove all this way and couldn’t see anything?

A few sunspots visible through the cloudcover

Some time after 1PM, I stepped back to my camera setup and re-centered the sun in the viewfinder. Wait, is that a little nibble! It has begun! My cries of “It’s happening” caused folks to don their solar glasses and peer skyward.

Of course, there is a long way to go between nibble and totality. The day stayed sunny and hot. Many folks returned to their blankets or spots of shade. Others were drawn to the small pinhole images of the eclipse you could see projected on the ground. My dad planned ahead and brought a colander, which was a huge hit!

Eventually somewhere around 75% coverage we started commenting on how the sunlight light was a little dimmer and the temperature was coming down a bit. The passage of time felt a little funny to me, both crawling and racing towards totality. It continued to grow darker and cooler and at last the final sliver of the sun zipped away.

Totality! There was a gasp, then a cheer from the crowd. The sky now looked like dusk, but lighter all around the horizon. It reminded me of late night at Toolik Field Station above the Arctic Circle, where the light lingers and seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. A few stars or planets peaked out in the deeply dark blue sky. And the corona! The black disk of the moon was now wreathed in a silvery aura. The strange and sudden darkness, the eerie twilight quality of the light, the beautiful foreign object that replaced the familiar sun… Amazing. Absolutely amazing. It is really challenging to put into words how unreal and joyous this moment was, and in the back of my mind I thought about how utterly unnerving this would feel if one were not expecting it.

We heard a few katydids call. In what seemed like 10 seconds and 10 minutes, the moon finally crossed to the other side and the sun flared back. The light was still quite dim, with the quality of a single bright but distant street light.

The famous "Diamond Ring" effect

The spell broken, people chatted excitedly while packing up, many exchanging contact info to share photos and video of the event. While we did the same, I looked overhead and noticed the sky (still with a partial eclipse) now populated with chimney swifts and barn swallows. I didn’t notice any of these aerial insectivores before the eclipse started, so it could be they were triggered to emerge and start foraging by eclipse conditions. I didn’t keep careful enough notes to add to citizen science projects like the one on iNaturalist, but hopefully other eclipse watchers around the country were able to document potential responses such as this.

I don’t know what the interstates were like, but our plan to use back roads did not work quite as smoothly on the way back. We encountered delays approaching pretty much every small town with either a traffic light or stop sign. After a stop for dinner at an Irish pub in Southern Pines, we made it back to Durham by about 9 o’clock. Thus ended our eclipse adventure, although the memories will be with me for the rest of my life.

If you missed this total eclipse, please make every effort to get to the next one on April 8, 2024. I can’t overstate how special this was, nor how big of a difference even high-90% occlusion is from totality.

I’ve got a few more photos in a public Flickr album here.

Also, I’ve written up some technical discussion on how I took the photos in separate post.

Nature Sounds Society Workshop (Part 2)

Sandhill Cranes

Of course, the biggest part of the workshop was getting out to appreciate nature sounds! We were fortunate to have great weather for the morning recording sessions- the heat didn’t really take over until late morning when we were mostly done.  For more about the sessions at the field station, check out Part 1.

 

 

Eric listening to the dawn chorus

The first full day saw us waking up at 2:45AM to drive from the field station to Sierra Valley on the other side of the pass. Our caravan parked along a gravel road in a marshy area at about “nautical twilight”- that time before sunrise when the sky lightens enough to accurately discern the horizon line. We spread out along the road as the eerie pulsing “winnow” of Wilson’s snipe sounded out of the darkness. Gradually the sky became lighter, and we were treated to a whole range of sounds including bullfrogs, sandhill cranes, 3 kinds of blackbirds, meadowlarks, cows, and one of the most powerful and prolonged coyote chorus that I’ve ever heard. I can only speak for myself, but it took every ounce of restraint not ruin 18 people’s sound recordings by yelling “Holy crap that was amazing!” (we were specifically warned not to do this the night before)

A Brewer's Blackbird pauses on a fence line in Sierra Valley

Our next stop was a one-lane bridge a little farther up the road. The bridge hosts a large colony of cliff swallows, so we were treated to the sights and sounds of hundreds of swallows darting and wheeling around us.

Cliff Swallows, Sierra Valley

After a quick stop to eat (coffee, breakfast sandwiches, fruit, homemade muffins and granola- the organizers spared no effort to keep us happy and powered up!), we headed to a forest meadow site called Carmen Valley. It was getting hot and summer insect sounds started to replace bird vocalizations before too long, although we did see some of the typical Sierra Nevada birds like White-headed Woodpecker, Lincoln Sparrow, and Mountain Chickadee. Most exciting was surprising a young bear with unusually blonde fur. The bear was definitely more scared of us than we were of it.

Brewer's Blackbird

The next morning we woke up at the leisurely hour of 3:15 AM to check out the dawn chorus at the Yuba Pass summit just a few miles up the road from the field station. The mosquitoes finally found us up here, but even so, it was well worth it to hear the forest come alive. There’s not much that beats hearing the ethereal flute-like song of hermit thrushes in a towering forest or the sounds of a sapsucker’s drumming echoing among the trunks. It was also a treat to see several flocks of Evening Grosbeaks along the side of the road.

Dawn light, Yuba Pass Summit

Male Evening Grosbeak

Beautiful scenery, great wildlife, and intellectual and aesthetic stimulation. What could be better than that! I definitely hope to return one day, and would recommend others with similar interests in nature sounds and soundscapes to check out the Nature Sounds Society and the field recording workshop in particular.

Photo Credits

Photo: Gail Patricelli

I’ll use this page to attempt to maintain this as a list of photos that have been picked up by various media outlets and non-profits. Most of these appear on my Flickr account. Most are available for non-commercial use (check the license), so if you see something you’d like to use, please let me know!

Sage-grouse Photos

Center for Biological Diversity

Boise State Public Radio [here, here, here]

Yale Environment 360.

Nature Conservancy Blog [here , here]

National Audubon Society Action alert [here]

Other Photos

Golden Gate Audubon 2015-2016 Annual Report

Berkeleyside [here, here]

KQED Quest

Super-moon photo sent to BLM-Wyoming, National BLM, and Department of Interior. instagram accounts.

East Richmond Heights Art and Music Festival 2017, 2018.

California Raptor Center

Trailcams are blowing my mind!

Sunset, another time when the grouse may be courting!

I LOVE that I can still be surprised by the sage-grouse even after 10 years out here. Sometimes it is just a matter of luck, as in having a particularly wet spring and seeing Cottontail lek disappear under the rising waters of the reservoir at the far end of the valley.

Sometimes the surprise comes from a change in our perspective– in the tools we use to observe the birds and the questions we are asking. For example, we just watch birds on the lek in the morning. We know the birds typically arrive just as the eastern sky is starting to brighten, and hang out on the lek for some length of time depending on weather, number of females, etc. Then they go foraging. Our assumption was that very occasionally the birds come in at dusk, and we know that typically around the full moon males will congregate on the lek at night and potentially be displaying for much of the night (they often leave earlier in the morning at that time as if they’ve been working hard under the light of the moon). That pretty much sums up our somewhat naive understanding of the timing of sage-grouse lekking activity.

Trailcams allow monitoring around the clock in all kinds of weather

Thanks to five trailcams on loan from Tim Vosburgh, a biologist with the BLM office in Lander, we are now getting a much more systematic view of when males are present on the lek. We will need some time to go through all the thousands of photos we are getting, but we’ve found a few surprising things already:

Two males at Monument Lek already in a territorial dispute at 6PM

1)   Evening lek attendance can begin a lot earlier than we thought. We thought based on a couple of encounters with birds at dusk that males would not come in until well after the sun went down. Not so! We’ve had some really cloudy afternoons and have had males on before 6PM.

Almost all leks had displaying males after 8PM

2)   Evening lek attendance is very common. I just looked through a sample from about a week of activity from three leks, and I think males were present in the PM pretty much every day on each lek.

3)   (Pending more data) Evening lek activity seems pretty synchronized across leks. My suspicion before was that it might be driven by random attendance of a few males that would then spur more males to join. I was expecting to find patterns where one lek would be active and another would be empty. Based on my quick scan through the photos, I think males on leks may be pretty consistent in how they respond to environmental cues such as precipitation, wind, and cloud cover.

This is a very limited sample of leks right now, and mostly around the full moon. Hopefully next year we can start monitoring more leks and start at the beginning of the season.

And for fun, a couple of other lek visitors: