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The 2017 Great American Eclipse 1.1

Updated: Mar 20

17.08.21 - A total solar eclipse is a rare and extraordinary event that every person should experience at least once in their lifetime. It provides an ephemeral window into the complex gravitational relationship between the Sun, Earth, and Moon. It is in these rare moments that we share an awareness of the movement of our solar system. Unfortunately, it isn’t something that can be described fully with words, though witnesses are compelled to try. For most of us it is as close as we will ever come to the Moon, basking in the depth of its shadow, and marveling at a brief glimpse of the true beauty of the Sun that remains hidden beyond the veil.

The sun lost in dense cloud cover while testing focus with the solar filter prior to the beginning of the Solar Eclipse.

The path of the sun during what was dubbed “The Great American Eclipse” in 2017 stretched from Oregon on the Pacific to South Carolina on the Atlantic in a long drooping arc. The shape of the Moon’s shadow morphs from an elongated oval at its far ends, to the circular silhouette of the Moon’s undulating circumference at max totality near the apex of the eclipse. It is at this apex where the speed of the Moon’s shadow traverses the Earth at its slowest rate, and thus even though the shadow is technically smaller, the viewer spends the most time under the Moon’s veil. Since maximizing totality was my focus, even though I longed to return to the mountains of Wyoming, I was drawn instead to the wooded heart of the Shawnee National Forest along the Southernmost tip of Illinois. In this secluded forest of undulating midwest heartland, the sun would be completely eclipsed by the Moon (referred to as totality) for nearly the maximum time of 2 minutes and 40 seconds.

The exact location of max totality was located an hour or so to the Southeast somewhere in rural Kentucky, but the Shawnee National Forest was the closest natural area to that location that had available camping options. Local hotels had been booked for months at rates 3-5 times higher than normal, with some hotels even canceling all of their reservations so they could increase rates and fill the rooms up again. Given this unpredictability and cost, camping seemed like the most affordable and adaptable option. Months before the event, I decided on the small, secluded location of the Lake Glendale Recreational Area. This small nature area had a dozen or so first-come, first-served campsites that I verified would be available over the phone, so we planned to arrive a few days early to grab a spot, and then explore the area to determine the best location to view the eclipse.

Beyond the wing of the plane, the sun slowly gained on the Moon as it traversed the night sky accompanied by Venus. In only three more days, it would catch up with the Moon's orbit for the Total Solar Eclipse we had been waiting for.

I had been looking forward to the eclipse for many years, but it still took months to prepare for the trip beyond just finding a location. Since we would be staying in the area for a few days, we had to determine where we could get food, camping fuel, and what alternative sites were available in case Lake Glendale was already full. I also researched the stages of totality to make a photo plan with pre-planned exposures, bracketing, timing for when to remove and replace the solar filter, etc. I had a ton of gear to haul and prepare to include renting a second camera. I planned to put my D750 on the 14mm to record the time lapse, so I rented the Nikon D500 (the newest DX camera on the market at that time) to get more reach out of my telephoto lens setup. I didn’t keep track of all the hours necessary to prepare for the trip, but it was a lot.

Sunrise at 30,000 ft.

The 2017 solar eclipse trip started, as most of these trips seem to, with an all-nighter as we tried to cram almost 200 pounds of camping, hiking, and camera gear into bags that weighed less than the 50 pound maximum allowed per bag. At one point we were going to try rock climbing in the area, but including the climbing gear was just more than we could possibly carry (and it turned out we never had time). We crammed all of the bags into the car, and made our way to the airport around 3am. Before 6am, we were on our way to St. Louis, Missouri as we waved goodbye to a still sleeping Houston.

Cool blue clouds beneath us transitioned to vibrant crimson as the Sun’s rays stretched across the landscape.

After landing at St. Louis' Lambert International Airport, we picked up our rental car and began the 3 hour drive into the green forests of Southern Illinois.

Lake Glendale is a beautiful oasis of tall pine trees and calm, secluded lakes. We nestled our tent into a nice shady area and began preparations for the eclipse. We arrived the Friday prior to the eclipse, and we were very fortunate that we decided to drive straight to the park to reserve the site. They filled up quickly, and the park personnel had to turn people away the night before the eclipse. It was particularly hot August for this area, even at night, but it was worth having a place to stay that didn’t cost us thousands of dollars.

Click on thumbnails for larger images.

Since I had never been to this area, I had to drive around to ascertain the viewing angles so the dense tree cover wouldn’t block the eclipse. Garden of the Gods (a popular name for rocky outcroppings; not to be confused with its more popular cousin in Colorado) was one of the most interesting locations in the area. It was a short drive north into the undulating mountainscape, so we headed up to the park to scope out potential spots. This area had originally been my prime location, but onsite lodging had already been booked, and local authorities were saying that the entire top of the mountain might be closed off to the public to make it a rally point for first responders. I don’t know if they actually closed off the park, but the risk of getting stuck on the narrow road leading up to the park and missing the eclipse was too risky, so we abandoned my preferred location and deferred back to Lake Glendale.

We retuned to our campsite and spent the evening hiking around Lake Glendale looking for the best location. We found a good spot with trees that flanked a small boat launch and decided that this would be our spot. I took a photo of the area around sunset as a reference for totality. The light is definitely more concentrated around the sun during a sunset compared to the 360 degree consistent gradient of totality, but the exposure level was similar enough. I tested a few exposures so I could be prepared for the sunset-like environment of totality. It ended up not being quite the same, but it was close enough for reference.

The threat of clouds had been my biggest fear for the weeks prior to the trip. The morning started cloud free, but soon a considerable number of upper cirrus and low cumulus clouds swooped in to make things complicated. I had estimated the height of the sun when I initially set up the wide-angle camera, but once the sun breached the tree on the left around 11:30, I was forced to tilt the camera and 14mm lens higher to make sure that the whole eclipse stayed in frame. Unfortunately this modification removed a lot of the water from the shot, but it would have been considerably worse if I had missed a portion of the eclipse, so it was a reasonable tradeoff.

The weather wasn't perfect, but as totality neared, most of the clouds dissipated.

In the end, it wasn’t as easy to get our preferred spot as we hoped it would be. It turns out that the boat launch was attached to semi-private property in an agreement with one of the caretakers that stays on the grounds all year long. We initially asked if we could take photos in this restricted area with one of the employees of the park, but it turns out that we didn’t ask the right person, and the morning of the eclipse we were kicked off our spot and had to pack up and move elsewhere. However, the owners of the campsite found us a few hours later and told us that they had talked to the caretaker and they were okay if we went back. The caretaker was a very nice military vet with a funny little dog that was afraid of everyone. We had a great time talking and viewing the event together. In the end, it worked out great and we appreciate all the help we received to shoot in the optimal location.

There was a lot to do during the eclipse. I had the Nikon D500 DX on the 300mm f2.8 with 2x teleconverter for a relative focal length of 900mm for the close up shots of the partial phases and totality. The Nikon D750 FX was on the low tripod with a 14mm f2.8 aspherical lens for the time lapse photos. I wrapped the focus ring with tape after locking in focus so I wouldn't accidentally bump it while modifying the exposure as the eclipse proceed. The Nikon D600 had the 20mm f2.8 prime on it, and was supposed to take video of the event. However, I got so busy working on the other cameras that I failed to get everything set up on the third. I had to change the shutter speed of the time lapse camera every few minutes to compensate for the considerable variation in exposure, and I had a full schedule of images and filter timing to go through once the eclipse began, so in hindsight a third camera wasn't feasible for one person. I offered for my wife to take photos with it, but she preferred to use her phone as she was still unfamiliar with my SLRs.

The heat index was 105F on the day of the eclipse, so we had to do our best to keep the gear and ourselves cool. When not making modifications, I draped a light towel over each camera and lens to try and reduce the heat. We similarly hid in the shade and underneath an umbrella as best we could for hours as the Sun pounded the Earth with relentless solar radiation.

The Moon began to eclipse the Sun at the top right of this image roughly in line with a string of sun spots. The texture of the Sun is not just noise, but the pattern of the churning corona.

After years of anticipation, months of preparation, and hours of waiting in the hot sun, it was finally time for one of the greatest natural events on Earth.

Detailed images from each phase: The 2017 Great American Eclipse 1.2 

Eclipse composites and timelapse videos: 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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