The North American Solar Eclipse has been on my calendar for about two years, so now that it's past I am incredibly relieved everything went smoothly. The long build up allowed me to be as ready as I could be, however nothing could have prepared me for actually experiencing it first hand. I had mapped out where we were going to be, even made my own solar filter months ago, I was ready.
I planned to have my 5DMkIII setup with a 600-1000mm lens on my Celestron CGEM mount. At 1000mm the sun almost fills the frame so I would back it down to 600mm giving me room to capture the flares, which if that was all that I got, I would call a success.
A secondary 6D would sit on a standard tripod with my 16-35mm wide open. I realized about a month out that the path of the eclipse wasn't so much of an arc, but more of a gentle horizontal curve. With the sun at 60° up it was going to be very hard to get both the horizon and eclipse path in frame without doing some sort of composite shot. That was going to be a tough one to crack.
The one thing I couldn't control was of course the weather. Things were looking good about 5 days out, but Saturday afternoon all of that changed. Multiple sites were reporting thunderstorms and clouds on Monday afternoon. A lot of people in my astronomy club threw in the towel and said they would stay home, but a few others were still committed. I was on the fence so I spent most of Sunday afternoon checking forecasts and planning alternate spots for my best chance.
I decided to head down to Fulton, Missouri as planned to meet up with everyone since the next eclipse won't be happening until 2024 I figured why waste the opportunity. To avoid any traffic I left late Sunday night, camping overnight a few miles away, arriving early Monday morning. At first light things were looking pretty good with minimal cloud coverage at 7am, and those were clearing out pretty fast.
We specifically chose Fulton since it was relatively small compared to Columbia to the West and St. Louis to the East - we wanted to be off the beaten path. I was the first to arrive at Little Dixie Conservation Area and was the only observer there for a while. Once people started coming in after 8:30 or so we started getting our gear setup.
My main concern was getting a good sharp focus on the sun since the 600-1000mm lens was 100% manual. Pointing at something that bright makes it very uncomfortable looking through the eyepiece so I took some test shots to get everything set long before the partial phases started. On my first test shot I realized that I could see a small number of sun spots on the surface so I was in focus and ready to go. I taped down the focus ring to avoid bumping it out of place when removing the filter for totality.
After getting both cameras set I went to get my CGEM mount tracking the sun so I wouldn't have to mess with it during the eclipse, only to run into problems getting it tracking properly. I ran through the motions a number of times but just couldn't get it going, Since it was so hot and I was frustrated I scrapped that idea and would just manually guide the camera through the eclipse.
Once everything was setup and ready we walked around a bit to meet and chat with everyone who came down to view the eclipse, letting some curious people look through our scopes, and just generally soaking in the experience. We talked to a couple of young PHD students from MIT and UW Madison who were studying particle physics, one gentleman came all the way down from Ontario, another group was from Aurora and worked with my old boss oddly enough, and there were a large number of people from all over the country.
The partial phase started at about 11:36am but totality wasn't until 1:15, so we were in for a long morning of observation. The later it got more and more clouds rolled in, but thankfully we were getting windows of clear sky to shoot through.
As the eclipse progressed it didn't get noticeably darker, however the temperatures went from almost unbearably hot to comfortable in the hour leading up to totality. More and more cars were coming in but it was never anywhere near busy. Everyone was getting very excited. Our group was probably the most experienced so we were shouting out the countdown as it happened to let everyone know, as well as answering all kinds of questions from the curious people walking around.
Just before totality I ran over to the 6D and switched it from one minute intervals to shoot every 10 seconds instead. What I didn't notice is that one of the kids running around must have kicked or accidentally moved the tripod so it skewed the camera, throwing off my planned final wide shot. It wasn't a huge deal as the camera had a hard time adjusting the exposure settings in Aperture Priority mode. At the very least it did get a few frames during totality of us looking up during the moment.
Totality was an amazing experience, and I can't properly articulate it at this point. It got extremely dark and the birds stopped chirping, everyone started cheering and clapping, and fireworks were going off in the distance. I had to stop taking photos to just stand up and take in the eclipse with my own eyes - what an amazing sight. Of course with a two minute window I didn't have a ton of time. I was bracketing my exposures a full stop on either side to capture as much as I could.
The cheering continued until totality had commenced when we shouted "GLASSES BACK ON!" as we didn't want anyone burning their eyes out. There was another round of cheers and excitement due to it being the first eclipse for a lot of people there. I was surprised that afterwards a lot of people piled into their cars and left. I continued to shoot the second partial phase between the clouds, and breathed a big sigh of relief knowing that at the very least I got the shot I wanted.
Once everything was said and done we packed up and headed out, thankfully avoiding the massive traffic delays that everyone was afraid of. I am glad I got to travel down and shoot the eclipse in its entirety and am already planning a large family trip out east for the 2024 eclipse. I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable eclipse, save those glasses!