The April 8, 2024, Total Solar Eclipse

by | May 28, 2024 | Stories & Expeditions | 0 comments

A solar eclipse is almost a once in a lifetime experience. Maybe more like a once-in-every-ten-or-twenty-or-thirty-years experience, but because they don’t happen every day, it is certainly a unique photography opportunity! The first time I ever tried photographing a total solar eclipse was in 2017 in North Carolina. Now, seven years later, I stood on a soccer field in Texas, leading a group of photographers at the Big Sandy Family Conference in their first attempt to shoot a total solar eclipse.

I was an experienced teacher, right? Well, I had all the experience of one eclipse in my back pocket. 🙂 So I researched as much as I could ahead of time. I watched videos. I created a schedule. I assembled a cheat sheet of settings. I made homemade solar filters for all of the students. And we met the previous evening to run over exactly what would be happening the next day to make sure we were all on the same page!

But what we were not prepared for was the clouds.

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When I stepped outside early Monday morning to head to the classroom, there was only a thin haze against the blue sky. That was ok. During the practice time with our solar filters, the sun was bright and strong . . . and hot. 🙂 That was great! But the wisps of clouds eventually turned into real clouds. And by the time we were finishing up and heading inside for a session and brunch, the sun had all but disappeared.

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We weren’t going to let that discourage us, though. We kept going as if there wasn’t a cloud in the sky! We still went out on the field an hour and a half in advance and began setting up. The crowd trickled in, unfolding their camp chairs and filling the bleachers while a video crew walked around taking footage. A rooster pecked at the grass through the floor of its cage. Roosters have been said to crow as the sun comes back out after an eclipse. Julianna parked the stroller nearby and came to sit beside me. Anticipation thickened the air. I looked around at my group. We had our tripods. We had our filters. We had our shutter releases. We had our cheat sheets. We were ready! Spike Psarris, an astronomer, spoke into a microphone and told us that 1st contact was happening. I looked above us. Nothing but clouds.

240408_James Staddon_3874 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 140 mm, 1-2000 sec at f - 8.0, ISO 100

My idea of creating a composite showcasing each phase of the eclipse quickly went out the back door. I hadn’t accounted for the possibility of not seeing each phase as it happened! We felt a breeze. Could it be that the wind would blow in the right direction and clear away the clouds? We were encouraged to see patches of blue here and there. Finally, about 20 minutes after 1st contact, the clouds began to break up! There was a flurry around the cameras. The excitement level increased about 10 notches! Perhaps, just perhaps, we would see something. I looked through my viewfinder. Nothing but black.

I pulled the students together. “Folks, the clouds have just turned an advanced photography workshop into a truly technical photographic challenge. We are all entering uncharted territory together here. A high pressure event where minutes make a difference is now a photo challenge where every second counts.  We’re going to follow the traditional settings for solar photography when possible, but the clouds are messing with that. From here on out, we need to rely on our knowledge of photography and understanding of how eclipses work if we’re going to capture anything worth taking home. There’s no guarantee we’re going to walk away with anything epic, but we’re going to do our best! So, you signed the release, right? Well, it’s time to take our solar filters off!”

The clouds were acting as a natural filter!

We aimed our lenses up at the sky. There was the sun, intermittently visible though thinner portions of clouds. With it appearing and disappearing so quickly, I struggled to find it through the viewfinder, but at last I latched onto it. Now to focus. And to find an appropriate exposure. Click! Finally, my first shot of the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse!

240408_James Staddon_3891 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 140 mm, 1-8000 sec at f - 18, ISO 100

And it wouldn’t be my only one. Giant patches of blue were working their way in our direction. 30 minutes after 1st contact, we got our first clear view of partiality!

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With the natural filter of clouds gone now, we put our solar filters back on the cameras and enjoyed some traditional shots of the sun.

240408_James Staddon_3905 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 400 mm, 1-100 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 800

Even though all I had was a 200mm lens, I was able to zoom in twice as far as I did in 2017 because I now had a 2x extender. On the 7D Mark II’s crop-factor sensor, the 400mm equivalent was a whopping 640mm! I couldn’t believe how close I was able to zoom in! The above photo is cropped in some. The following photo is zoomed in all the way without any cropping at all.

240408_James Staddon_3927 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 400 mm, 1-100 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 400

Then disaster struck.

About 1 hour after 1st contact, and only 15 minutes before 2nd contact when totality would begin, the clouds started to return.

It was an agonizing 15 minutes!

When an eerie darkness crept over the landscape, plunging our group into an unnaturally greenish dusk, we knew 2nd contact had come. The clouds had won.

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I stepped away from my camera to enjoy the surreal moments with Julianna and Mordecai. It was both heart-wrenchingly sad and exhilaratingly exciting at the same time, to have missed the Diamond Ring and Bailey’s Beads and yet to be standing there, still enjoying the uniqueness of what totality is.

But then there came a gasp from the crowd.

A thin patch of clouds had encountered the exact location of totality. I rushed to my camera!

240408_James Staddon_3941 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 400 mm, 1-125 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 100

240408_James Staddon_3961 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 400 mm, 1-1250 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 400

240408_James Staddon_3954 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 400 mm, 1-100 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 400

And then the phenomenon emerged, rolling out of the clouds like a giant bowling ball.

240408_James Staddon_3986 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 400 mm, 1-20 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 400

The 2nd minute of totality was mayhem amongst the photography students.

Finding the orb, centering it in the frame, focusing, adjusting settings, taking hands off the tripod and camera, waiting for vibrations to stop, releasing the shutter for the appropriate number of frames for a bracket. There were a million things to think about all at the same time!

And before I could recommend settings to anyone else, I had to figure out what settings I could actually recommend!

I managed to capture this shot before running to help others.

240408_James Staddon_ Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 400 mm, 1-20 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 400

I like it processed with a cool hue because it looks more like what it felt in reality, but processed with a warm hue also looks interesting.

240408_James Staddon_ Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 400 mm, 1-20 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 400-2

And as quickly as it came, it was gone.

I’m not sure if this is Bailey’s Beads or not, but it’s the next shot on my camera after totality.

240408_James Staddon_4001 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 400 mm, 1-60 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 800

After that, it was just playing artistically with what was left after 3rd contact and what the clouds gave us.

240408_James Staddon_4017 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 400 mm, 1-800 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 100

240408_James Staddon_4028 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 400 mm, 1-8000 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 100

240408_James Staddon_4038 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 400 mm, 1-8000 sec at f - 45, ISO 100

Once it became bright enough, we put the solar filters back on.

The filters provided a deep rich orange tone to the sun. But with the clouds around it, it looked really neat!

I actually saw photos like this from one of the students, so that was my inspiration for photos taken with the orange clouds all around.

240408_James Staddon_4071 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 200 mm, 1-6 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 800

240408_James Staddon_4088 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 140 mm, 1-8 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 800

240408_James Staddon_4114 Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 140 mm, 0.5 sec at f - 5.6, ISO 800

We had done the best we could to prepare. We had our equipment, we had our solar filters, we had done our research and our practice. But it was God that opened up the clouds. There’s nothing we could have done to influence that! So, thank you, Lord, for allowing us to see Your incredible wonder of the total solar eclipse!

“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth His handywork.” Psalm 19:1

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