Solar eclipse sequence, Sawtooth Mountains, ID, USA, August 21, 2017

Solar eclipse sequence, Sawtooth Mountains, ID, USA, August 21, 2017

Watching the eclipse was an amazing experience. But for Claudia and me, getting to that moment was quite a journey.

I first heard about this eclipse several years ago, and started making plans to photograph it. But I didn’t make any reservations because I wanted to stay flexible, and be able to go where the weather looked best.

Months ago I virtually scouted locations along the eclipse path using online photographs, Google Earth, and The Photographer’s Ephemeris 3D. I knew that thousands of people would capture beautiful, closeup photographs of the eclipsed sun. But I’m a landscape photographer, and wanted to incorporate the eclipsed sun into a wider scene. As I wrote in my last post, that was difficult to do with this eclipse, because the sun would be so high in the sky. You needed something tall in the foreground, or else you had to get the camera down low and look up at a foreground object.

One of the spots I found during my virtual scouting trips was a sharp peak in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains called, believe it or not, El Capitan. (And it’s not the only El Capitan outside of Yosemite; there’s one in Montana, another in Texas – probably others too.) Idaho’s El Cap was tall, it seemed to line up well with the eclipse from one particular angle, and there appeared to be a reflecting pond below it.

Claudia and I left home a week before eclipse day, and our first stop was the Sawtooth Mountains. We hiked up toward El Capitan in the morning so we could be there at 11:29 a.m. to see approximately where the sun would be at eclipse time. It was a bit of a trek: five and three-quarters miles, with a 1600-foot elevation gain. But the trail was well-graded compared to typical Sierra Nevada trails, and we cruised up.

And it looked like the eclipsed sun would line up well with El Cap. However, it would be so high that I would need to use my widest lens (16mm) to fit both the eclipsed sun and the reflection of the peak in the frame. That meant the sun would be small, but so be it. It would work.

Claudia and I then drove to Wyoming, where I wanted to scout some other locations on the northeast side of the Wind River Range. We met up with our friend Robert Eckhardt, and spent one night in the area, and did a little scouting, but by Thursday (with the eclipse on Monday), the forecasts were looking iffy for Wyoming, while the eclipse-day weather looked more promising further west. We decided to go back to Idaho before the traffic got crazy and it became impossible to find a campsite. And from Idaho we could make a last-minute dash to Oregon if the weather looked better there.

We did find a campsite next to a beautiful creek near the trailhead leading to El Capitan. We hung around camp playing Golf (a card game Robert taught us), photographing the sun for practice, and making occasional forays into the tiny town of Stanley to get supplies, ice cream, and cell service for weather forecasts. Those forecasts remained rather uncertain right up until Sunday evening. At first the National Weather Service was talking about monsoonal moisture, with a lot of clouds pushing up into Idaho and Wyoming. Then they stopped talking about monsoonal moisture, but predicted a band of clouds moving through Idaho just before the eclipse. They thought the clouds would pass beyond our area before the eclipse, but what if they were wrong? And forecasters were also talking about possible wildfire smoke drifting into our area. All this caused some anxiety, but in the end we decided to take our chances in the Sawtooths.

Our campsite was near the overflow trailhead parking for our hike, and over the preceding days we had watched backpackers fill this overflow parking with nearly 100 cars. And why not? The backcountry of the Sawtooths seemed like a great place to watch the eclipse.

But I was concerned that a lot of other people might have also have designs on photographing El Capitan, and there wasn’t much room along the shore of the little pond below it. So on the morning of the eclipse I set my alarm for 2:15 a.m., and was on the trail by 3:00. Claudia and Robert didn’t need spots along the pond, so they planned to hike up later with our dog Rider. Well, a little later – 5:00 a.m.

Hiking up the trail in the dark by the light of my headlamp was surreal, but serene. I was glad I had seen the trail before in the daytime. A couple of times I caught glimpses of headlamps ahead of me on the trail. They had to be photographers – who else would be hiking up that early? But I could never catch up to them, and I never saw where they went.

I arrived at the chosen pond just as it was starting to get light. I saw some nearby tents, and another photographer was already setting up a tripod, but there was still plenty of space. I actually set up my tripod in the water because the ground along the edge of the pond was so spongy. And then I put on every stitch of clothing I had brought, and walked up and down the trail to keep warm.

A little later, but still before the actual sunrise, I met a backpacker named Daniel. Daniel was also a photographer, and told me he lived in Boise, and that this spot was his favorite place in the world. He’d been there 12 times already this summer. So naturally that was the place he wanted to be for the eclipse.

As the sky lightened, I could see that there were no clouds. There was a bit of smoke in the atmosphere, but not enough to interfere with the eclipse. Things were looking good. We might actually see this eclipse!

Sometime later another photographer named Dave began to set up his tripod by the shore of the pond. Dave was from Sacramento, and had wanted to see a solar eclipse since he was a kid. Like me, he had picked this location after doing extensive online research, and he had then planned a backpacking trip around the eclipse.

A little while later Claudia, Robert, and Rider arrived. And just before totality another backpacker named Brent joined us. It turned out that Daniel, Dave, and Brent had all met and became friends while camping near this pond, waiting for the eclipse.

So the six of us experienced the eclipse together – me, Claudia, Robert, Daniel, Dave, and Brent. Our new friends were all super nice guys, and after experiencing totality together I feel as if we’re all bonded together for life.

At the beginning of the partial eclipse we could see, with our solar glasses, a little dimple missing from the sun. The dimple grew into larger and larger bites, and the world got noticeably darker. And darker still. It was eerie. And it got cold. By the time the partial eclipse started I had shed all my layers, and was down to a T-shirt. We were at 8,700 feet, but it was warm. But by the time the moon had covered half the sun I had put my long-sleeved pullover back on, and by totality even that wasn’t enough.

I’ll never forget the moment when the moon finally, completely obscured the sun. We saw the famous diamond ring, then, suddenly, everything became very, very dark. And then the glowing corona of the sun appeared. I’d seen many photographs of the eclipsed sun, and read numerous descriptions of the event, but none of that prepared me for that sight. The corona extended much further out from the sun than most photographs showed, and was more beautiful than any of those images could convey. And the whole scene was surreal and spectacular: dark and dusky, with Venus and a few stars piercing the sky, and that otherworldly corona floating above El Capitan.

And then, suddenly, the diamond ring appeared again, and the world became flooded with light. That was two minutes? It seemed like 30 seconds. It was way too short. We wanted more! When is the next total solar eclipse?

My one regret is that, despite the best of intentions, I ended up trying to do too many things during totality, and spent too much time fiddling with the camera. But it was still incredible.

My photograph shows almost the entire eclipse sequence over El Capitan, with part of that sequence reflected in the pond. I captured images of the sun at ten-minute intervals as it rose through the sky and went through the eclipse stages. All the images of the full or partially-eclipse sun were made with a 16-stop neutral-density filter. (I put the lens cap on between exposures to avoid any potential sensor damage with my mirrorless camera.) I kept the aperture at f/8, the ISO at 100, and bracketed a lot. The best exposures of the full and partially-eclipsed sun ranged from 1/60th to 1/125th of a second.

Just before totality I took the neutral-density filter off, and once the sun was totally eclipsed I bracketed five frames, two stops apart, ranging from 1/125th of a second to 2 seconds. That worked to get detail throughout the sun’s corona, but the landscape was too dark, so I pushed the ISO up to 800, kept the other settings the same, and did the bracketed sequence again. (I could have used longer exposures rather than pushing up the ISO, but wanted to keep exposure times short in the limited amount of time I had.)

I used Lightroom’s HDR Merge to blend the bracketed exposures taken during totality, and that merged image became the base layer in Photoshop. Then I added images of the full and partially-eclipsed sun to that base layer, and changed the blending mode for all the layers except the bottom one to Lighten to create the composite photograph.

I like the final image, but it doesn’t even begin to convey what the experience was like. The experience was so much more than the sight of the corona, as beautiful as that was. It was, for me, the six-mile hike in the dark by headlamp, trying to stay warm until the sun reached me, meeting Daniel by the pond in the dusky light of dawn, greeting Claudia, Robin, and Rider as they arrived, watching the first little bite getting taken out of the sun with our solar glasses, seeing everything get gradually darker, feeling the temperature drop, counting down the final minutes (holy shit, we’re about to see a total friggin’ eclipse!), then the sudden plunge into darkness, and the appearance of the magically-beautiful corona. And after it was over, saying goodbye to our new friends, who we had shared this unforgettable experience with. And then the long, hot hike back down.

I can’t wait until the solar eclipse in the U.S. and Mexico in 2024. Or maybe we’ll go to Chile or Argentina in 2019. Two minutes wasn’t enough!

— Michael Frye

Rider waiting for the eclipse, August 21, 2017, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Rider waiting for the eclipse, August 21, 2017, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Michael capturing eclipse sequence, Augusut 21, 2017, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho,

Michael capturing eclipse sequence, Augusut 21, 2017, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.