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2024 Veiled Total Solar Eclipse

Planning any photography trip is a gamble, but trying to be in the right place at the right time under the right conditions for a total solar eclipse is especially difficult. Sometimes you just get unlucky, and unfortunately for the 2024 eclipse my photographic luck ran out. It wasn’t a total loss, but countless hours of planning and preparation were largely nullified by bad weather. I did what I could with the conditions I was given, but instead of feeling fulfilled by this rare local eclipse, I unfortunately find myself once again ruminating over the paths of future eclipses much further away from home.


Eclipse diagram


I have had a strained relationship with clouds for many years. While I am often the first to say that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad attitudes and incorrect clothing, I have to admit that even this optimistic mindset has its limitations. As many times as clouds have created an immaculate sunset or engendered a glimmering rainbow, they have also obscured astrophotography targets on rare trips to dark skies or made mountain summits I had spent months training for and traveled thousands of miles to climb all but unreachable. Unfortunately, during the 2024 eclipse, clouds would prove to be my nemesis yet again. I managed to capture a few shots amidst the onslaught of vaporous obfuscation, but nearly all of my carefully planned shots were completely nullified and I had only seconds to guess what settings and processes might pierce the undulating veil above me.


Image of the sun with few sunspots
The Sun's surface was surprisingly barren during testing the week prior to the eclipse

Given how unpredictable the weather was forecast to be in Texas, I had considered packing my gear into my car and heading further to the Northeast to try and find a random site with better chances for success. However, over time the eclipse had evolved into essentially a family reunion with two infants meeting many family members from across the country for the first time. As much as I wanted to maximize my chances for photographic success, it was hard to ignore the other once-in-a-lifetime events going on. To try and balance it all, I committed to a location farther west into the semi-arid hill country of Central Texas and just hoped that the area's reputation for limited rainfall would aid our endeavor. It seemed like a reasonable gamble, but the weather would soon prove otherwise.


Wispy clouds illuminated by the sunset
The dichotomy of clouds. At sunset, they can make the sky a work of art.

My initial plan had been to photograph the eclipse at Enchanted Rock State Park since it has been a lifelong favorite camping and hiking location. I noticed in 2017 that the center of the totality would pass almost directly over the park, so I began planning a full 7 years before 2024. However, I was not lucky enough to get a campsite or a daypass in the lottery system that was used for the event so my commitment to ERock ended up leaving me with few options late in the game.


Fortunately, a friend of ours sent us a link to the Girl Scouts of America who were opening Camp La Jita to the public for an eclipse viewing event. The location was great with 4m 23s in totality and they had an air-conditioned cabin for the infants that were part of our crew. In the end, Camp La Jita was a great location and the organizers of the event did a great job managing the accommodations and activities. We had a fantastic time and I really loved how much our son enjoyed and learned from the outdoor activities and interactive learning opportunities the camp set up. The time with family was invaluable, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.


Moss-covered trees backlit by the Sun
Sometimes I obfuscate the Sun on purpose

One of the big perks of Camp La Jita was that it gave me an access-restricted location to set up my heavy astro equipment overnight near my car. The night prior to the eclipse was perfectly clear for many hours, so not only was I able to polar align my equatorial mounts, but I also had some time to gather roughly 30 minutes of data on an astrophotography target that had been very difficult to photograph back in Houston. I still need to work on combining multiple sessions on this target into a final composite, but this is a sneak peak of the OIII (roughly 500nm wavelength) data I pulled that night. Comment below if you know what this target is:


OIII data of a deep space object
This is a single, unprocessed, 5 minute monochrome exposure

The clouds didn’t roll in until around 3am, but since I have experienced similar white-outs the night before the two previous eclipses, I still had some hope that the clouds would burn off and we would be able to see the eclipse through a progressively clearing sky.


After a few hours of short, restless naps, the Sun rose above the ridge of the mountains to the Southeast and poked through the churning layers of moisture. The clouds were still heavy, but they weren’t impenetrable. The Sun poked through many times in the early morning hours which is generally when clouds are their worst before burning off in the midday heat. I waited patiently for short openings in the clouds to align my equipment on the Sun, and verified that my focus was sharp. Well before the beginning of the first partial phase, I had my cameras set up and I was at least feeling good about my preparation.


Sunrise through thick clouds
My last view of the sunrise before the Sun was lost in the clouds

However, as we neared the first partial phase, waves of ominous dark clouds overtook the wispier morning clouds until the Sun was rarely visible through at least three layers of crisscrossing strata. With the Sun only surfacing intermittently, I abandoned any hope of photographing using intervals as they would almost certainly miss the rare glimpses of the Sun. I sat and stared at the sky until the Sun came through enough for me to redirect my attention to my dark camera screen that would only light up once the Sun was bright enough to pierce the dark solar film. I never had a clear moment, so even my clearest images are still heavily distorted by many layers of clouds.


The full Sun through cloud cover
The clearest shot of the Sun prior to the First Partial Phase (C1)

First Partial Phase (C1) - Click on the images above for a more detailed view

With the heavy cloud cover and an already prevalent breeze, it became quite cool and windy as totality neared. The heavy clouds seemed to only worsen with the passing of time, and I soon became convinced that we would likely miss totality entirely. However, without warning, the fully eclipsed Sun broke through the veil for only a few fleeting seconds once near the beginning of the eclipse, and a second time near the end. For all the effort we made to reach over 4 minutes of totality, we only had fewer than 15 seconds to observe the eclipsed Sun and never had a view of the rest of the sky at all.


For the first clearing, I decided in the moment to drop my brackets from 9 frames down to 3 and to focus on exposing the prominences of the eclipse as I felt that they were the strongest structures that might be visible even with the distortion of the clouds. I am convinced this was the right decision as virtually no part of the corona is distinguishable from the clouds in any image, while the prominences are at least disparate from the noise.


The eclipsed Sun through the clouds

I hesitantly tried 5 frame brackets for the second clearing to try and collect a wider dynamic range, but that only proved that my concerns were valid that increasing the range of exposures would make matching the exposure to the rapidly varying light would become more difficult. I had fewer good frames during the second clearing even though I technically took more images. However, I was fortunate that there was a massive prominence visible in the later half of totality that rendered surprisingly well through the distortion of the clouds.


Eclipsed sun with large prominence through the clouds

I had planned to have a detailed stack of the corona and prominences at 1000mm, a full stacked image of the corona from the 420mm rig, and a wide angle composite from the 14mm rig taking a timelapse, but in the end all I have are just a few blurry, cloudy images. It’s a little depressing to be honest. However, I have to remind myself that it could have been worse, since within minutes of moving into the Second Partial Phase (C3), the Sun completely disappeared and the clouds unleashed a torrent of rain for the next few hours. We tossed all of my rapidly soaked gear (that had taken hours to set up) into the back of my Subaru in a matter of seconds. I then spent almost two hours in the rain, only partially covered by the rear hatch of my car, slowly drying off every piece of gear and repacking them for the drive back to San Antonio. I finally got the last piece of equipment packed in the car, soaked from head to toe, and just stared at the sky in a state of shock and disbelief…was this really the conclusion of hundreds of hours of research, preparation, and anticipation?


The surrounding area under the eclipsed sun
Totality under an overcast sky

Most of the people reading this post know that I put an immense amount of effort into developing an eclipse photography guide. While preparing for this eclipse, I both learned from and helped many people from all across the United States. Even though the results of my own efforts were less than satisfactory, the great images I saw from others at least makes me feel that the effort to develop the eclipse photography guide was still worthwhile.


US Air Force C-121A Constellation of the Lewis Air Legends Foundation that flew over post-eclipse
US Air Force C-121A Constellation of the Lewis Air Legends Foundation that flew over post-eclipse

Due to its unpredictable and uncontrollable nature, failure is just part of trying to capture the rare and incredible moments of the natural world. The universe doesn’t care about my feelings or my carefully laid plans. Fortunately, in the moment my frustration with the situation was tempered by the happiness I felt for sharing the experience with family, and especially the smiling, excited face of my son who was unfazed by my ultimately inconsequential tribulations. There were tiny victories interlaced with this photographic defeat…and I think I can be content with that.


However, to add insult to injury, the skies were mostly clear on April 9th, so I got to drive over 4 hours back to Houston still internally cursing the weather for being 24-hours out of synch.


Blue skies post-eclipse on the drive home
Even a stop at Buc-ee's couldn't assuage this meteorological slap in the face

I don’t know if this is my last eclipse, or if I will have the opportunity to try again for the next one in 2026, or the distant 2044 eclipse that will finally return to the United States. Only time will tell, but until then, I'll keep shooting and writing about the amazing experiences that I am fortunate enough to experience on this rare planet Earth and in the infinite universe beyond.



Previous Eclipses:




© 2017-2024 Shaun C Tarpley

 
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