August 21, 2017 - two years ago today, the USA experienced a coast to coast eclipse that came to be known as “The Great American Eclipse.” I spent over a year planning, acquiring equipment and planning where to be to see it. We were at a rest stop in between Casper and Shoshoni, Wyoming - right in the middle of the path of totality. On that day, the weather was perfect, I had people I cared about around me, and my telescope was tracking the sun. It couldn’t have been more perfect. My camera and 500mm lens were clicking away as the Moon slowly overtook the Sun. Peeping at my screen, the photos were perfect - finally, totality. Everyone shared a collective gasp…it was beautiful. Kelly, my girlfriend, was crying and we embraced.
It was at about this time, approximately 20 seconds until the end, that I realized I forgot to take the solar filter off the lens and all of my shots were going to be dark. All the planning and prep work, and a simple mistake meant zero usable photos. I pride myself on my ability to capture anything photographically and I was hurt and embarrassed that I forgot to remove the filter. The sunlight returned, people had seen the show and were ready to leave. I cracked a morning beer and decided that I had to be at the next total eclipse.
The next total eclipse would be two years later, in central Chile. I couldn’t bring the large telescope and mount that I brought with me to Wyoming, it just wasn’t feasible. The large Nikon 500mm f/4 super telephoto I had purchased for the 2017 eclipse would also be difficult for travel. I needed a relatively small set-up to take to the Southern Hemisphere - and I had almost two years to get it done. To be honest, I didn’t plan much at all. It wasn’t until the summer of 2018 that my Mom wanted to know if we were really going to do this, and if so, we needed to start planning. My mother, Kelly and my friend Addiel were going to be going, so she brought dinner over, Addiel came, laptops were all over the table and we figured out where we needed to be.
We decided on Coquimbo, a coastal town in central Chile. The larger town of La Serena (slightly further in the path of totality) was already booking up and prices for hotels were already high a year out. That night, we booked an Airbnb in Coquimbo for three nights and plane tickets from DFW to Santiago with a layover in Mexico City. Now that we were committed to going, it was time to figure out how I was going to photograph this eclipse and not mess it up like the last one. So, I started researching lens options. I shoot with Sony’s a7 series of cameras that let you mount essentially any lens to your camera via adapters. The world was my oyster when it came to lens choices.
Since coming to Sony in 2014 with their first a7 camera, I have enjoyed using older manual focus lenses. They have a certain look to them, I enjoy manually focusing over autofocus, and they are so much cheaper than modern lenses. I was open to any brand and I already knew what I needed before I started researching - I needed a reflex lens. Reflex lenses are basically miniature Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes. In the days before digital they were much more popular, and most models are older or made by companies that I don’t trust. I won’t get into too much detail on how they work but they are relatively small, lightweight and allow super telephoto reach with only a few drawbacks. Downsides include bokeh that can be strange and look like a doughnut due to the design of the lenses, and having a fixed aperture. After seeing what was out there I decided on a 500mm model and waited for good deals to pop-up on Ebay or Craigslist. After a few weeks, a guy near me in North Texas was selling some photo gear for his boss which included a Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex lens. He wanted $350 for it…I felt that was too much, so I offered him $200 and he accepted. We met up, I looked it over and became the proud owner of a really strange 500mm in a Kroger parking lot.
Fast forwarding (see how old I am) a bit, over the course of the next (less than) a year I moved with my girlfriend to Taos, New Mexico. I started a new job, got a dog, skied a whole lot, had to move 2 more times and purchased a house…NO MORE MOVES. Finally, it was time to go see this eclipse. With boxes still unpacked in our new house, we were ready to start the trek. I brought several lenses but I made sure there was room my backpack for the 500mm, a solar filter and my trusty travel tripod. The plane tickets were purchased before we planned to move away from Texas, so it just made more sense to drive. The dog got boarded and I set off on the 10 hour drive to DFW.
I had one night in Fort Worth and I spent it with Kelly, some friends and some beers. The next day I went over all of my gear, made sure I had everything and hadn’t forgotten some small item I would need to acquire before we left a place that had a camera shop and spoke English. Everything was there, and it was time to go. On June 29th, we left our car at my Grandfather’s house, met up with my mother and her friend took us all to the airport.
The flight to Mexico City and then to Santiago were uneventful. We arrived in Santiago around 9pm, got through customs and got our rental car. We headed to a hotel near the airport and went to sleep. My friend Addiel arrived on a morning flight on July 1st and met us at our hotel. Coquimbo is about 500km north of Santiago, around a 5 hour drive. We took off at 10am heading north along Ruta 5. It seemed like there weren’t too many people headed north until we got about 2 hours from Coquimbo and saw the long lines of cars waiting for fuel at the few gas stations on the way.
As we arrived and drove through Coquimbo, it was obvious that there were a lot more people than was typical. Traffic was backed up far and we had to sit through several cycles at every stoplight. Once we arrived at the Airbnb, I decided I would not be driving anymore. We rented a two bedroom beach side condo on the 14th floor with a west facing balcony. Because it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the Sun was already low on the horizon and I noticed it was almost exactly 24 hours until the eclipse entered totality. The Sun was over a building that was in front of our view to the ocean. If we wanted to, we could watch the eclipse from our private balcony.
We ate dinner at a steakhouse with a wonderful view of the ocean and watched the full streets and large groups of people. Our waiter told us that this little beach town wasn’t even this full at the peak of their summer season. On the way back we walked to a convenience store, got some snacks, drinks, beer and went back to the condo. We watched Spanish TV, and the newscasters said there were around 250,000 people making their way to the La Serena / Coquimbo region. They also said that the weather was looking perfect, which was a relief. When we purchased our flights, we knew there was a 60% chance of cloudy weather in Coquimbo in June and July. A big thank you to Addiel for translating all of the newscasts on the TV and keeping us updated.
Waking up on July 2nd, I felt like a kid waking up on Christmas morning. I looked out the window and there were perfect blue skies. They just had to stay that way until late afternoon, when the eclipse was going to happen. We spent the day eating breakfast and relaxing while I worried about my gear and if any clouds were going to come ruin the view. Totality was at 4:38pm but the eclipse was going to begin just before 3:30pm.
I wanted to view the eclipse from the beach for a couple of reasons - first, I wanted to share the experience with other people, like at the rest stop in Wyoming. Second, the Sun would be low on the horizon, making it possible to get a photo of the beach and the eclipse. My Mom decided to watch from the comfort of the condo, so we parted ways until the eclipse was over.
Kelly, Addiel and I walked the short walk to the beach. We continued to walk about a mile down away from some big, loud crowds to find an area with less people who were a bit more spread out. I got out my a7RIII, the Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex lens and the solar filter, and I gaff taped the filter on just to be sure. I got the camera attached to the tripod, focused it on the sun and we waited. Addiel joked about clouds coming in from behind us…my heart sinking, I turned around to see one little piddly cloud. Thankfully it looked like the clear skies would hold. With no fanfare, and seemingly no one around us knowing, I watched through my eclipse glasses as the Moon touched the Sun and slowly began over taking our star. I announced to my small group, “It’s starting.”
I took shots here and there as the event occured. I did not watch it the whole time. I took in where I was, the people around us and enjoyed watching the eclipse from this lovely beach.
In Wyoming, I had fun taking photos of people and groups around the rest stop, and amused myself with capturing the “social landscape” around us in Chile, too.
It was over an hour from when the partial eclipse began until totality. It feels like much longer, with the anticipation of what is going to happen. I took a photo about every 10 minutes, showing the Moon devouring the Sun. At about this time my friend Jessica Hume ,who was there in Wyoming with her boyfriend and got to witness the most embarrassing photo moment of my life, texted me “Hey! Remember to take the filter off this time. I can’t wait to see your photos :)” I assured her that I would.
The last few moments before totality were chilling…and I mean that literally. We were on the beach but it was winter in Chile, and as the sunlight diminished it got much cooler. I put on my jacket and took in the strange, almost grey, light. I can post photos but they just don’t show how strange the light is during an eclipse. It has a very flat grey feeling to it, like direct sunlight but it is filtered - you know, like a moon is blocking a huge percentage of it. It’s hard to explain, go see an eclipse and see what I am talking about. Then, it happened.
With the Moon almost covering the Sun, I ripped the solar filter off and fired off several frames, trying to get “the diamond ring effect”. I previewed it quickly in the viewfinder and saw that I got the shot. Elated, I pulled back and watched the black spot in the sky with the beautiful corona shining around it for a few moments. It truly is magical, and should be seen by everyone at least once in their lives. It is captivating and sucks you in, demanding your attention. It is so strange and alien to see a black spot in the sky where the Sun should be, and after a lifetime of knowing not to look directly at the Sun - you can. I bursted several brackets of the eclipse. I quickly took the camera off the tripod, removed the 500mm and put on a 24mm. I took several shots and sat the camera down in my bag, I grabbed my RX1 and snapped a few frames with it’s fixed 35mm lens too. I watched the eclipse for about 15 more seconds before it came to its abrupt end. I pulled the RX1’s viewfinder to my eye quickly, lowered the exposure and shot some frames of a wide angle view of the light rushing back. It was over - well, totality was over. The partial eclipse would last another hour.
People on the beach were elated, with one person leading a group chant celebrating Chile and how great it is. The moments after an eclipse are strange, too. The event itself feels like it took forever, but it also feels like it wasn’t long enough and went by in the blink of an eye. We stayed on the beach for a bit, watching the Moon move slowly away from the Sun. Then, we returned to the condo where my mom viewed the event. I was proud to show her that I got the photos this time. Part of me wished I had sat back and watched the entire eclipse…there was a bit of regret at “wasting” moments of the two minute totality looking through my camera’s viewfinder. Ultimately you can’t have it all, and I had to redeem myself from the previous event’s embarrassment.
I am happy with the results I got and I’m already ready for the next eclipse I’m able to see. There will be one in southern Chile in December 2020. I’d love to go to that one, but I’d also like to keep seeing the rest of the world, and I don’t think I want to go back to Chile using an eclipse as my sole reason to go there. I am really looking forward to the next eclipse in the USA, in April 2024.