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.


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.

Trait Variability review now available online early

Some papers bloom quickly from concept to publication, while others resemble periodic cicadas, spending years growing in the shadows before finally emerging into the light of day many years later. An example of the former is the technical review that our collaborator Jen Forbey is leading. This paper is the outcome of our workshop at the International Grouse Symposium in Iceland last summer, and our revisions are nearing completion.

As an example of the latter, take the review on within-individual trait variability that is now available online early in Advances in the Study of Behavior. Gail first conceived of this paper as a postdoctoral scholar at Cornell, and the paper became a framework for some of our early grant proposals with the sage-grouse. At that point we turned our attention to empirical work with the grouse, and developing a more specific framework for interactions on the lek that became it’s own review. Now, with the help of Gail’s former graduate student (and before that, grouse intern), Conor Taff, we’ve finally finished!

2015 Field Recap part 3: Outreach

With the 7 days a week we spent catching/watching/following sage-grouse, it is amazing we had any time for anything else. We did manage a few outreach events. Here’s a quick recounting:

Gail participated in a press junket in Pinedale sponsored by Fish and Wildlife. This resulted in a lot of interviews and articles mentioning the fembot and our work, including this LiveScience piece. Another humorous bit of press: having our robot held up as Wyoming’s symbol of Earth Day in the Parade Magazine Sunday newspaper supplement. Never mind Yellowstone, Grand Teton, wolves, bison, grizzlies, or even a live sage-grouse, somehow a robot grouse made by a California lab best represents Earth Day in Wyoming! We had to laugh at that.

We also helped with a number of local events. Gail brought the robots down for a weekend Ag fair in Lander, and also a sort of project summary for the BLM biologists at the field office in Lander. I took part in a 4th grade Outdoor Education event in Sinks Canyon. This was a station dedicated to introducing bird ID and bird watching skills, sponsored by Red Desert Audubon Society.

Jazmyn McDonald points out a bird during one of the sessions at Sinks Canyon

Del displays specimens of local birds.

Practically on our way out of town back to California, I gave a popular talk sponsored by Red Desert Audubon. Even though it was Friday evening, we still got over 40 people there! It was really nice for us to finally get a chance to talk about what we’ve been doing in the Lander area for the past 10 years.  The Red Desert folks were thrilled as well– they are a smaller chapter and don’t often get to organize events like this. Hopefully not the last time we’ll be able to plan something with the local birding and conservation community.

Although it aired since we returned, we had some hand in The Sagebrush Sea outreach (as well as a little bit with the production). We helped find a venue for a local screening event, and Gail even filmed some Q&A for Wyoming Public Media. This film, which aired this week on PBS Nature, was produced by staff the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, including our collaborator (and first person ever to make a sage-grouse recording array), Marc Danztker. If you haven’t seen it yet, it is now available online from the PBS Nature website.

Another highlight of the season was getting to meet well-known photographer and conservationist Noppadol Paothong. Nop recently published the book “Save the Last Dance” on the plight and wonderment of North American prairie grouse (sage-grouse, prairie-chickens, etc). This book is a beautiful passion project and won and independent book award. Nop is now working on a new book focused entirely on sage-grouse, and wanted to check out our research. Who knows, maybe you’ll get to see one of the fembots in a book soon!?

I may think of some other highlights worth posting, but otherwise, stay tuned for summer updates. On tap for the next few months will be revisions, writing, analysis, and getting ready for a couple of presentations at the International Grouse Symposium in Iceland!

2015 Field Recap Part 2: Research

As I mentioned in the last post, things seem to be looking up for the sage-grouse. So what about our research?

Lots of sage-grouse watching again this year

A burrowing owl looks in on the sage-grouse lek

We stuck with the same two focal leks that we used last year, Chugwater and Cottontail. Basic monitoring went well, especially with the increasing number of banded birds making it a little easier to get ID’s on the lek, especially in windy weather. We came back with a great set of video and audio data. What is particularly nice is that we can now look at lekking behavior in an increasing population. We now have a lot of recordings from “bad” years in which the population was declining, so seeing how hard males work and what females do in a “good” year, a year with lots of young males on the lek and possibly better overwinter survival, could make a nice contrast when we start to examine the long-term trends in display and mate choice.

The first of our main goals was to continue with our robot experiments. This year, our goal was to try the “outside option” experiment again. We first tried this in 2013, but our additional robots “Salt” and “Pepa” were not constructed until fairly late in the season that year. We started a few trials, but the males were already winding down their display effort and were not responsive enough to warrant trying a new series. Turn to 2015, and we now have our robots ready! Credit to Anna Perry, who devised the first protocol, Ryane, who took the reins this year as experiment planner and main robot director, and of course Gail who put the robots together and has been working with robot birds for a long time.

So what was the experiment? Briefly, there’s a principal from the economic literature that while negotiations and haggling often occur in one-on-one situations, the broader market includes lots of different options and competitors for both buyers and sellers, and the presence of these “outside options” can make a big difference in the decisions that are made in the market. In particular, if a seller is engaging with one buyer who is not terribly eager to buy, the seller might benefit from switching to a new buyer, but only if the new buyer seems more profitable or eager than the original trading partner.

We wanted to test this with the sage-grouse, using two fembots as potential “buyers”, and treating the male sage-grouse as sellers. We were able to get trials on each lek where the outside option was either “interested” or “disinterested”. We also ran control trials throughout the season with only a single robot- these will help us correct for seasonal changes in how hard the males work (they seem to get tired towards the end of the season).

A successful night

Our second main goal was to gather a lot of movement and foraging data, so we can uncover the feedbacks between on-lek display behavior and off-lek foraging behavior of the males. This was moderately successful. The first step was catching males and putting on encounternet transmitters. These are small solar-powered devices that can log both where the male is and also capture data about how it is moving it’s body. We managed to get around 20 tags deployed, although we were hoping for more. The tall grass, while great for the birds in providing cover from predators, may have made it more difficult to see the eyeshine at night during our spotlighting forays. Additionally, the age ratio of the growing population meant there were more young males to be caught, and not all of those males set up territories on the lek.

Downloading encounternet data

All in all, we collected tracking data from 7 males, which when combined with the 4 males from last year, should give us a good picture of where males go off the lek and how they spend their time. For these 7 males, we used the positional GPS data to go out and find their foraging and roosting spots, and measure aspects of the habitat at these locations to learn more about how male sage-grouse use the landscape. We also took small clippings of the sagebrush to see how selective they might be in what they are eating.

One new pilot project this year, we collected some poop from the leks to check for the presence of a certain type of gut parasite called coccidia. If sage-grouse have a lot of it, it could be an important factor in explaining differences in behavior. There’s also the possibility that the toxins in the sage are strong enough to limit this type of parasite. Dr. Rich Buchholz at the University of Mississippi has agreed to look through our samples and give us an idea of what we are working with.

Many thanks to our crew this year Amber, John, Miles, McKinzie, and Kelly for their help this year! Also thanks for the help from the Boise State crew, in particular Chelsea and Marcella who stayed at Chicken Camp for several weeks helping catch birds and organize the vegetation sampling. Also thanks to Sue Oberlie (BLM) and Stan Harter (WyoG&F) for local institutional support and a number of people who stepped in once to help capture sage-grouse. We couldn’t have done it without you all!

The 2015 Crew

In the next post I’ll talk about outreach and other odds and ends of the season.