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The 2017 Great American Eclipse 1.2

Updated: Mar 20

17.08.21 - Eclipse Phases: Even when viewed from a location where the total solar eclipse will last the longest, a total solar eclipse can only be experienced by stationary viewer for a few ephemeral minutes. There is so much going on simultaneously, and the effects of the eclipse are so engulfing, that time seems to accelerate under the Moon's shadow. If you are trying to both experience and record the event, it can feel downright overwhelming. However, the best way to counter this issue is to prepare, and I have a few recommendations based on my experiences.

Total Solar Eclipse Phase Diagram
C1 partial phases on the left, Totality in the middle, and C3 on the right

The exact details of the Total Solar Eclipse will vary depending on your viewing location's proximity to the path of totality (the path of the shadow across the Earth's surface). Choosing a viewing location closer to the center of the shadow's path will provide the most complete eclipse and the longest duration for that point in the shadow's path. Additionally, the closer you are to the point where the shadow most closely aligns with the Earth's center (when it moves across the surface at the slowest rate due to reduced relative curvature), the best chance you have to experience Greatest Duration (the longest totality duration possible, the upper limit of which is just under 7.5 minutes).

Many factors effect the timing and path of an eclipse, from the distances between the Sun, Earth, and Moon to the path of the Moon as it crosses the ecliptic. For all these reasons (and more), it is necessary to research the schedule for your exact location in order to avoid missing a phase. Many different groups provide detailed information on the many types of eclipses (total, annular, lunar, etc), so a quick internet search for "solar eclipse)" or "path of totality" will bring up information on the most current solar eclipse and the multitude of websites dedicated to it. However, to simplify your search, some of my favorite websites that consistently provide good information are:

Within the path of totality, the total solar eclipse can be broken down into five key phases shown below (links jump to the respective section in this post) in the format:

"Common Name (abbreviation) - Phase Description (approximate duration)"

  1. First Contact (C1) - Start of the partial eclipse (over an hour)

  2. Second Contact (C2) - Start of the total eclipse (seconds)

  3. Totality (MAX) - Maximum eclipse (minutes)

  4. Third Contact (C3) - End of the total eclipse (seconds)

  5. Fourth Contact (C4) - End of the partial eclipse (over an hour)

There are nuances between and during these phases, but those will be discussed in detail below with references to times and durations that were specific to the 2017 eclipse and my location near max totality in Southern Illinois.

Panorama of my shooting location at Lake Glendale.


Preparation is key during a solar eclipse, especially if you hope to photograph it, so knowing when each phase begins for the specific eclipse you are viewing and where the sun will be in the sky is paramount. Additionally, I found it important to break down each shot I intended to take in detail so I had a plan to execute in the fleeting moments around max totality when excitement and adrenaline are also at their maximum. Moreover, it is important to set up early so everything is prepared and you can trouble shoot most of the problems before the stress of the main event.

For months prior to the eclipse, I gathered information on the phases of the eclipse and the process required to get the photos that I wanted. I had a table of times for each phase and milestone, an app on my phone to help me prepare for each milestone, and a series of pre-planed processes and exposures for each key shot. Not only did this reduce stress in the moment, but it gave me time to just look around and soak up the incredible event. While I love photographing amazing experiences, I still think it is important to be present beyond the eyepiece of the camera.

I recommend pre-setting your focus on your lenses prior to the beginning of the partial phases. Lenses with focus memory are the most efficient, but you can also set the lens to manual focus only, and tape the focus ring with painters or gaffers tape to preserve your preferred settings. Some people recommend focusing on the Moon a few nights prior (since there won't be a Moon to focus on the night prior to the eclipse), but I wasn't happy with my test images on the day of the eclipse. It may have been due to the plane travel, or the difference in lens temperature (since night shots are cool, and the 105F heat index baked the lens for hours on the day of the eclipse), but regardless of the reason, it just wasn't giving me the sharpness I wanted. To rectify this, I ended up focusing manually on the Sun using Nikon's Live View to estimate the focus and multiple test images to fine tune. The solar filter is very dark so this process was difficult and took longer, but in the end I was able to get crisp focus on the Sun using the contrast provided by the sun spots as a reference.

First Contact (C1): 11:53 CDT - Start of the Partial Eclipse Phase (1 hr and 28 minutes)

First contact as the Moon begins to eclipse the Sun starting from the top right of the image.

At 11:53:45, the partial eclipse unceremoniously began as the edge of the Moon crested the boundary of the Sun's glowing disc. Two sections of the Sun had visible sun spots, with the longest line of spots nearly facing the Earth directly. This moment is not observable to the naked eye, but it can be seen through a lens, telescope, or binoculars with proper solar filters, or using a magnified pin-hole setup.

To view this phase of the solar eclipse, you must have some form of eye protection. If you are viewing the sun directly, you must have a pair of certified solar eclipse glasses. In 2017 there were a lot of issues with counterfeit glasses that did not provide sufficient protection. I purchased mine early and directly from trusted manufacturers/distributers that I recommend: Rainbow Symphony and EarthSky. If you plan to view the eclipse, get your glasses as soon as possible and put them in a safe place where they can't be damaged. The rush that occurs near the eclipse always causes vendors to sell out.

However, if you are viewing the eclipse through a lens of any type (camera lens, binoculars, telescope, etc), the solar film must be on the front of the lens to reduce the chance of damage to your camera and/or your eyes. It is not safe to look through a lens at the sun using solar glasses as the lens can concentrate the sun's light into a condensed point that can burn through the protection of the glasses. The solar filter I purchased for my lens was from Kendrick Astro Instruments and I highly recommend their Kendrick Visual Solar Filter to anyone serious about photographing the event and protecting their equipment.

The Coronal Color Quandary - Yet again, the question of the actual color of a photographed object is at play during a solar eclipse. When I took the photos of the partial phases using a solar filter, the final image was actually a slightly bluish grayscale image as shown in the eclipse phase diagram at the beginning of this post. While this seems strange at first, it is actually much closer to the brilliant white light the Sun actually emits. However, due to the nature of Earth's atmosphere, many wavelengths of the sun's light (mostly shorter blue/violet wavelengths) are scattered in the atmosphere and the majority of the light that makes it through has a yellow to red hue depending on the Sun's location in the sky and how much of the atmosphere the light is passing through. This is part of why the Sun is generally not as bright and turns darker red as it rises or sets and the light must pass through the most atmosphere to reach our eyes (see examples of filterless shots in this post). For that reason, I tinted some of my images yellow to fit our terrestrial expectations of the Sun.

Partial phase, image 3 of 10, minute 18 of 88 - about 1/4 of the Sun is blocked by the Moon
C1 Partial Phase - Image 3 of 10 (minute 18 of 88)

As the Moon cut deeper across the face of the Sun, it became more noticeable that the intensity of the Sun's heat and light was receding. Additionally, when light passed through a pinhole, it was no longer a circle, but instead it matched the shape of the portion of the sun not eclipsed by the Moon.

A fun (and unapologetically nerdy) way to conceptualize a total solar eclipse (imagining that the outline of the Moon is visible at the same time) would be to see the partial phases of the eclipse as a real-time Venn Diagram with the Sun on one side, the Moon on the other, and the convergence of the observed location of both the Sun and Moon in the middle.

The partial phase lasted for roughly 1 hour and 28 minutes. I wanted at least 10 images in both partial eclipse phases, so I tried to take a photo of the sun every 8.8 minutes. However, the cloudy sky made this very difficult and sometimes my images were slightly before or after the optimal time as I tried to catch clear moments between the clouds. Even when the Sun wasn't completely obscured, the undulating distortion of water vapor could dramatically affect the clarity of an image.

C1 Partial Phase, image 6 of 10, minute 53 of 88, with roughly half of the Sun blocked by the Moon.
C1 Partial Phase - Image 6 of 10 (minute 53 of 88) - Atmospheric Distortion

In order to maximize sharpness, I used a cable release and allowed the rig 10 seconds to settle down each time I moved the Sun into frame as it traversed the sky (which also meant that I needed to lead the Sun slightly to compensate). At 900mm, camera shake is a huge concern. Even a light breeze can cause the image to blur. Additionally, the Sun moves away from the center of the frame in well under a minute, so it required constant adjustments. At the time of this event I did not own a star tracker, so I used a 3-axis geared head to manually track the Sun as it traversed the sky. I will go into more detail about gear and shooting methods in my forthcoming Solar Eclipse Photography Guide.

C1 Partial Phase, image 9 of 10, minute 79 of 88, with the majority of the Sun blocked by the Moon
C1 Partial Phase - Image 9 of 10 (minute 79 of 88)

In the final seconds before the end of the Partial Eclipse Phase (C1), I loosened the screws on my solar filter, and prepared the camera for Second Contact (C2). After hours of waiting in the hot Sun, the temperature finally begun to drop and the environment shifted to a strange, muted golden color. Shadows faded, and the contrast between objects ebbed until the environment was unrecognizable.

Second Contact (C2): 13:21 CDT - Final Rays of Sunlight (1.6 seconds)

I honestly don't recall every detail of what happened in the transition between C1 and C2, but I do recall that I didn't unscrew the filter enough so the rubber feet got stuck on the rim of the lens hood and caused the camera to shake so much that I ended up missing the mere second of this transitional phase. While there is some risk to the camera if the filter is removed too soon, this experience lead me to the opinion that it would be better to set up the camera for the bright transitional shots and remove the filter about 30 seconds prior to C2, but still keep the filter held between the sun and the lens but far enough away that they do not touch. Using this method, I can remove the filter well before C2 and the rig will be settled and undisturbed so the shots should be sharp.

Thankfully, C2 and C3 provide similar opportunities, so even though I missed C2 due to a failure in process (the kind of mistake you make doing something for the first time), I still had another opportunity on the backside of the total eclipse phase. Undeterred by this setback, I quickly transitioned to my total eclipse procedures and kept moving forward. Since I don't have images to reference for this phase, I will describe the transitional phase in more detail in the C3 section.

Totality (MAX): 13:22 CDT - Maximum Eclipse (2 minutes and 40 seconds)

Max totality, black and white image of the solar corona around the Sun

For a mere 2 minutes and 40 seconds (almost the Greatest Duration of 2 minutes and 40.2 seconds experienced just to the Southeast of us) the Moon fully eclipsed the sun and we were bathed in the Moon's shadow that stretched over 225,000 miles across the emptiness of space. With the incredible power of the Sun blocked from view, the long flowing lines of the Solar Corona were suddenly visible stretching for what must have been millions of miles around the Sun.

The dynamic range (ability to capture both light and dark regions) of digital cameras has expanded greatly over the years, but it is still largely impossible to overcome the vast difference in intensity across the full extent of the Solar Corona in a single image. However, the issues presented by the Inverse-square Law of Light can be overcome by bracketing numerous images at different exposures and combining them into a single image. I used a 9 level bracket with one stop of exposure between the images resulting in the Exposure Values [-4, -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4].

At -4 EV, hidden in the brightest inner ring of these patterned lines were immense solar prominences bursting forth from the surface of the Sun with unimaginable power. These jets of molten coronal plasma, especially the largest arc on the right of the image, were many times larger than the entirety of planet Earth. It is interesting that we must block the overpowering brilliance of the Sun to truly enjoy the splendor and complexity of its explosive existence.

Totality view with reduced exposure to show the three regions of solar prominences.
This eclipse had three distinct regions of solar prominences

During Totality, the majority of the sky darkened to a deep twilight blue transitioning to a light ,warm ring that hovered just above the horizon in every direction. Pale stars glimmered around the zenith of what felt like a liminal dome between day and night. The temperature cooled dramatically and it was hard to see the environment around us as shadows, and the contrast they provide, had all but disappeared under the diffuse light of totality.

Totality above Lake Glendale, Shawnee National Forest, Illinois
Totality above Lake Glendale, Shawnee National Forest, Illinois

We could have spent all day in totality, but before we knew it my alarm went off indicating that I needed to prepare for the next phase. It's incredible how much work goes into experiencing such an ephemeral moment, and how incredibly worth the effort it feels even years after the event. Those fleeting moments in the Moon's shadow are what drive eclipse hunters to traverse the entire planet for the experience, and to some degree I now understand that powerful obsession.

Third Contact (C3): 13:24 CDT - End of Totality (1.3 seconds)

Third Contact C3, Rainbow Diamond Ring

The transitions between the partial phases and totality lasted less than two seconds. During C3, the first rays of light to break through the valleys of the Moon's undulating surface can appear as isolated beams of photons that manifest as glimmering orbs along the trailing edge of the eclipse. This somewhat rare phenomenon is known as Bailey's Beads. As the light grows into a bloom of resurgent brilliance, the fading corona is still briefly visible enough around the Moon which creates the appearance of a diamond ring. These events happen in reverse order on the leading edge of the eclipse during the aforementioned C2 phase.

Having learned from the issues I experienced only minutes earlier in C2, I prepared for the transition to C3 ahead of time and held the solar filter for re-application. Since I didn't need to touch the rig for this transition until after it passed, camera shake wasn't an issue and I was ready to shoot. However, during totality I had dropped down to just the 300mm f2.8 lens to capture more of the solar corona around the Sun and help resolve some focusing issues that suddenly manifested with the 2x teleconverter. I had planned on using the 900mm rig throughout totality when preparing my schedule, so I absentmindedly set my exposure based on the relative aperture of the 900mm setup which was f5.6. Unfortunately, I forgot to compensate for this on-the-fly lens change, so at f2.8 my setup had a full 2 stops of additional exposure. With the addition of a thin layer icy clouds that passed in front of the waning eclipse, I found myself with a very different image than what I had planned for.

I was incredibly frustrated at the time because it felt as though I had managed to mess up both C2 and C3. The additional exposure and the clouds caused the first rays of light across the surface of the Moon to bloom and eradicated any chance of getting a detailed shot of Baily's Beads (if they occurred). However, after looking at the images later, I was excited to find that my mistake wasn't a complete loss. The suspended layers of crystalline ice acted as a prism and split the returning rays of light into a vibrant concentric rainbow. In effect, I had stumbled upon a Rainbow Diamond Ring, and that's a shot I had never seen before, and have yet to see again. Sometimes photography is an adventure of happy accidents.

Fourth Contact (C4): 14:48 CDT - End of Partial Eclipse (1 hour and 25 minutes)

2017 Solar Eclipse Diagram, 21 image version

I admit, I had to push myself to complete all 10 of the partial phase shots that I had planned for C4. After the adrenaline of the moment faded, and the heat index returned to 105F, it was difficult to continue suffering through the heat knowing that the event had already come and gone. However, I knew that the only way that I would have the complete composite of all the phases of the eclipse was to remain, so I carefully covered the camera between each shot to keep it from overheating and damaging the camera, and carefully manually shot the next 10 images roughly every 9 minutes as the cloud cover would allow. I could have set a intervalometer, but the constant waves of thick clouds would have guaranteed at least one missed shot which just isn't acceptable for this kind of image.

In the end, I don't think that 10 images per partial phase was really necessary. At native resolution it was 17 inches high by over 10 feet long, and there just isn't an affordable standard print size available that shows the detail in all the images. In addition, the final C4 image was partially covered by clouds, so I find the reduced 11 image diagram more practical in lieu of the 23 image version.

C4 Partial Phase, Image 10 of 10: Last moments of the eclipse partially covered by clouds.
Heavy layers of clouds moved in as the last sliver of the Moon heralded the end of the eclipse

Returning to Reality

In what seemed like no time at all, countless hours of research and preparation were over, and the day proceeded like any other. The total experience from C1 to C4 lasted approximately 2 hours and 55 minutes. We slowly packed up our campsite and wedged our large bags into the tiny rental car. We headed to the Northwest back to St. Louis and braved hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic as millions of people seemed to abandon the path of the eclipse simultaneously.

The historic atrium of the Union Station Hotel.
The historic atrium of the Union Station Hotel

We planned a few days in St. Louis, Missouri at the end of the trip to help decompress from camping in the heat of late summer. We love unique hotels, so we decided to stay a night at the phenomenal St. Louis Union Station Hotel. The building is wonderfully preserved and has a fantastic restaurant and bar. The detailed architecture and art of the building is on display throughout the extensive property and it is easy to spend hours just walking around and enjoying every little experience.

As my wife unpacked our hastily stuffed bags, I finally had time to download and process a few of the photos that evening before going to bed. However, I had countless images from the time-lapse to go through, and dozens of bracketed photos to sort through to find the best samples to create a series of composite images. These composites took a very long time to manually create, but the results were ultimately well worth the effort. Since this post is already running long, I will save those for the next post where I can discuss them in more detail.

While I have very fond memories of this trip, it is unfortunately linked to one of our most stressful memories. As we ate breakfast in the hotel the morning before our flight home, we were able to watch the news for the first time in nearly a week. We were tired, sun-burned, and ready to return home to see our dog and sleep in our own bed, but as the news unfolded, we were surprised to discover that we were returning to Houston just in time for a major hurricane. We had lived in Houston for nearly a decade by this point, so hurricanes were just a normal part of life, but we were unprepared for the shear scale of the impending storm that was now racing us home. That spiraling storm of chaos on the TV screen wasn't just any hurricane, it was the soon-to-be infamous Hurricane Harvey. From the moment we arrived in Houston, and for many weeks after, we would be engulfed in one of the largest natural disasters in recorded history. It was equally as life-changing as the event we had just witnessed, but in a more direct, physically exhausting, and mentally traumatizing way. Life has a funny way of balancing out that way sometimes.

See how the trip started: The 2017 Great American Eclipse 1.1

Total Solar Eclipse HDR, timelapse, and composite images: The 2017 Great American Eclipse 1.3

Detailed Eclipse Photography Guide: How to Photograph a Solar Eclipse

© 2017-2023 Shaun C Tarpley

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