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The Great American Eclipse was witnessed by millions of people across the country.  This was the first I had seen, so I was excited.  This is my story.

The Location

I knew I wanted to do something with our photography group for the eclipse.  One friend in particular is quite good at seeking out the lesser-known locations to avoid crowds.  However, despite attempting to plan and having everything else in place, it still wound up being a last-minute scramble to select our location.  We settled on a spot about two hours outside of town on the other side of Estacada, Oregon.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Surprisingly, traffic was non-existent, and we were well in place by Friday afternoon.  We also didn’t have much in the way of neighbors, but we had deliberately avoided official campgrounds.  We then entered eclipse countdown, killing the days with some local hikes and lots of camp games.

We popped into the nearby Ollalie Lake, simply out of curiosity, and the place was a madhouse.  Sure, it would likely provide some good views of the eclipse, but only while bumping shoulders with your neighbor.  Seriously, folks crammed their cars in at trailheads, pitching their tent at their bumper because there weren’t any other options for space.  That doesn’t sound like a pleasant camping experience.

The Sky

We kept a constant eye skyward.  We have a lot of forest fires (which also meant we couldn’t have a campfire), and the daily haze seemed to be getting worse.  After all this time, the last thing I wanted was for cloud cover to get in my way of seeing this extraordinary event.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

We were honestly quite worried, but we were committed to this spot (we couldn’t get anywhere else even if we wanted to).  We’d make the most out of whatever we got.

That night, as we prepared our camera gear for the big show the following day, darkness descended, and a glance upwards revealed a tapestry of stars.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

I was beside myself.

The haze had evaporated, and the sky was clear!  Now, if only this held up for another 14 hours…

It was difficult to determine early the next morning; the nondescript solid color of the sky could have been dawn or haze.  I at least wanted to see the eclipse.  Of course I wanted to photograph it as well, but I wanted to at least see it.

The Hike

With limited traffic having passed our campsite all weekend, we had high hopes of having little competition at our final eclipse viewing spot on top of a nearby mountain.  However, as we pulled up to the trailhead, we were met by a parking lot simply packed with cars – most looked to have been there for some time.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Too late to change our plans, we continued onward… and upward.

Sadly, Aaron had caught some camping bug, and he wasn’t feeling well. Barely into the hike, he let the side of the trail know just how poorly he was feeling – and he terrified our hikingmates with the sounds in the process.  I hung back with him while the others proceeded, and we were in for a long haul.

The trail just kept going up.  And up.  And up.  And it didn’t take a direct route; it seemed to veer way out in the wrong direction before doubling back to ascend the ridge line.  Almost 2.5 miles up almost 1400 feet.

And I wasn’t going to be caught needing a lens I failed to bring with me, so I had it all – at least 35 pounds of gear plus a tripod and a liter and a half of water.  It was a slog.  And yes, I know I’m crazy.

And Aaron was feeling the weakest he had felt in some time.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

The forest was beautiful in the early morning light (and the sky was clear!), but we complained at the elevation and cursed the other hikers passing us. We passed a few makeshift campsites of folks who parked it just off the trail (probably the smarter way to do it).  Just when I saw more blue sky cutting through the trees and could swear we were almost there, another mound of mountain would loom up, laughing at our pitiful hope.  When we got about 3/4 of the way to the top, we finally caught back up to the other two of our party.

The “shortcut”

The leader of our gang had spotted a steep field and thought it a good spot to park our tripods, away from the inevitable crowd at the top.  Like a fool, I followed him, even though I felt immediately it was a bad idea.  I don’t get along well with steep hillsides, and I swear I’ve learned better by now.

But he said he saw a rock outcropping with a couple of people, and the farther up you went, the better the magic (surprise surprise).  All the while, I was fretting how we’d get back down this thing.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Eventually, he called down to me (as I was literally crawling up this rocky and grassy hillside) that the hill met up with the trail anyway.  So I called down to Aaron and our other fellow adventurer to just stay on the trail (Aaron would have hated this “shortcut”).

I was already committed, and it would be more difficult to get back down than to just continue upwards.  I finally made it to the top to find Aaron had passed me (even at his slower pace), and a fellow hiker remarked that it was easier to just stay on the trail (yes, I know! blame our fearless leader…).

Yet, even after all that, we still weren’t at the top.  Did this trail ever end?

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

A few switchbacks more, and the dirt finally gave way to rock.  We popped out on top to find a modest collection of 40-50 people in addition to a tent of someone who had obviously slept on top of the mountain.

The Eclipse

Now the real work began.

With so much anticipation, I was honestly nervous about being prepared for this event.  Unlike a sunrise, I couldn’t just try again tomorrow if I messed something up.  I decided early to focus my efforts, or I wouldn’t get anything.  My priority was to get totality itself – the black orb revealing the stunning corona and solar prominences.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

I ran two cameras, one long and one wide.  I was able to control the latter from my phone so I could keep my focus close, and I bracketed the telephoto shots to ensure proper exposure. I was really glad to have secured the long lens amidst the craze (read about that here).

It was hard to tell that anything was happening at first.  Looking through the camera and the solar glasses, we could see the tip of the moon just beginning to obscure the sun, but the landscape around us looked normal for most of the eclipse.  I happily shot away at the ever-decreasing orange smiley and chatted with some of my fellow viewers.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017
The sun was a tiny sliver by this point – still so bright!

Ever so gradually, it got darker.  And it grew colder.  Soon, I was shivering – with chill or excitement, I’m not sure (perhaps both).  I was told we might be able to see the shadow racing across the landscape, so I was sure to look down as well as up.

The lighting was simply eerie.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  It’s dark like twilight, but every object is still illuminated with a wicked glow.  It’s indescribable.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017


Then totality hit.

Like a roller coaster cresting it’s first peak, the crowd’s voices rose in a chorus of “whoa!” as the last sliver of sun disappeared behind the moon.  Everyone tore off their glasses as I frantically removed my stacked ND filters (no, I wasn’t going to spend so much on a onetime-use solar filter) to shoot totality.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017
© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

“Look up with your eyes!” Aaron implored.

I took a moment to look away from my camera to witness the event firsthand, and it was incredible.  Simply magical.  I took notice of the 360 twilight and snapped a wide shot on my secondary camera.  Returning to my big rig, I managed a couple more pictures before the sun started peeking out again.

That was the fastest two minutes of my life.

I caught the “diamond ring” and the ever-growing orb of bright sun fighting its way back from behind the moon.

Warmth returned along with the daylight; I was surprised how much of the sun could be obscured and still illuminate the earth.  The viewers actually applauded.

Still reeling from the awe of totality, I watched as others packed up their mats and backpacks to begin their descent, numbly snapping a few post-climax shots.  Eventually, I packed up my gear, and we made our own exit (thankfully sans treacherous hillside).

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

The Lessons

I missed a few things, but nothing can put a damper on this experience.  Even Aaron thoroughly enjoyed it, sick as he was.  Next time, I’ll inquire about a lens much sooner, I’ll probably go for a 600mm, and I’ll try to capture that crazy darkness, shooting back at the viewers.  I’ll look out for the natural pinhole shadows and those shadow snakes that I missed this time.  I’ll find a better way to ensure I’m shooting raw on my secondary camera (apparently the phone trigger also switches the mode to jpg – doh!).

I’ve seen some remarkable photos with brilliant silhouettes, though that would require considerable planning.  Also on my list for potentials is a time lapse and a panorama of that twilight.  But like this one, I’ll have to choose which is truly important.

Like totality.  Wow.  Just wow.  I couldn’t get over it!  I still can’t!  What a remarkable experience.  I will forever remember that day.  Yes, totality is absolutely worth it; 99% doesn’t quite cut it.  I’m glad the weather cooperated (especially since the winds changed and blew all the forest fire smoke into the valley the next day), and I couldn’t be happier with my resulting images.  Everything worked out, and I got exactly what I wanted.

Did you see the eclipse?  What was it like for you?

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  1. Great shots, good story. It is amazing how much difference there is between 99% and 100%, and it’s good you were able to take at least a few seconds to simply enjoy the spectacle without being distracted by photography considerations. Nicely done.

    1. Thank you, Dave! I agree. I certainly wanted to photograph it, but my first priority was to simply witness it. I was fortunate enough to be able to do both. And nothing quite compares to totality. It’s an event I’ll never forget 🙂

  2. […] The eclipse left me feeling awed and inspired. It put me in my place in the world and reminded me how life is fleeting and now is the time to make the most of it. Any moment could be your last breath and you shouldn’t take it for granted. There are so many amazing things to see out there, and I am ready to see them first hand. This was my first eclipse and it certainly won’t be my last. There are groups of photographers that travel the world chasing eclipses. When we travel the world, we may find ourselves in the path of totality once again. The next to hit the U.S. will be in 2024 and there is a pretty good chance we will be there to see it again. Until then, here is a short video. See more photography at Brianna’s photography blog at […]

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