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How I outran clouds to get the perfect eclipse photo

Chasing the Sun

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Photo by Loren Grush / The Verge

I was sitting on the grassy floor of a wooded park in Nashville, Tennessee, surrounded by dozens of strangers, and we were all looking up at the sky in a panic. It was 1:21PM Central Time. We were just six minutes away from the event we’d all come to see: the total solar eclipse. And there was a giant, gray cloud lingering perilously close to the Sun’s edge.

In the next couple of minutes, the cloud inched closer to the Sun, and a lump caught in my throat. “What do we want to do?” I asked my friend Miriam, wide-eyed. The two of us had been in the park since 10AM, and our DSLR cameras had been set up on tripods pointed directly at the Sun for hours. We came to snap an image of totality, the point when the Moon completely covers up the disc of the Sun on its orbit around the Earth. Suddenly, it occurred to me that we may actually miss this, all thanks to a cloud.

it suddenly occurred to me that we may actually miss this

I refused to accept this. Solar eclipses don’t come around very often, and this one is the first total solar eclipse in 99 years to cross the United States from coast to coast. I’ve planned all year to be here; I booked my flight to Nashville months ago, and I wanted to take good pictures. I had really only dabbled in DSLR photography before this, but I thought it might be a fun challenge to photograph the eclipse. Totality in Nashville only lasts two minutes — not a whole lot of time to make sure you get the perfect shot.

The partially eclipsed Sun.
The partially eclipsed Sun.
Photo by Loren Grush / The Verge

Up until the cloud’s appearance, the day had proceeded so smoothly. Miriam and I had arrived early at the park with our families to a flawless, blue sky. We found a nice spot to set up our cameras in a tiny patch of grass between a crop of trees and a small lake. We both brought DSLR cameras with zoom lenses, equipped with solar filters that block out 99 percent of the light from the Sun. It’s the only way to photograph the moments before and after the total eclipse without frying the camera’s imaging sensor. After setting up the equipment, it was really only a matter of waiting — and keeping cool. The temperature had hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the morning, and we shielded our cameras with umbrellas while we waited in the shade of the nearby trees.

up until the cloud’s appearance, the day had proceeded so smoothly

Just before noon, we headed back to our cameras to get started. Miriam had brought a timer that announced big milestones of the eclipse to help us keep track of what was happening. “Start of eclipse,” it sounded off. We both looked up through our solar filter glasses, and in the next couple of minutes, we noticed a tiny dent in the Sun: the Moon’s arrival. Both of us started snapping away. Over the next hour, we periodically walked back and forth from our cameras to the shade of the trees to adjust our shots, snap pictures, and then seek shelter from the heat.

Photo by Joyce Grush for The Verge

Around 30 minutes before totality was when the cloud showed up. It completely covered up the eclipsed Sun, making it impossible to see with both my camera and solar filter glasses. I wasn’t too nervous at first, because I figured the cloud would move in time. It did, but it didn’t go very far: it kept hugging the edge of the Sun for the next 20 minutes. “I think you’re in the clear,” said my dad optimistically, and I immediately reprimanded him for jinxing us. Sure enough, the cloud stayed close, and I watched in horror as it moved slightly closer to my solar target.

It was 1:22PM, and I was about to start hyperventilating

It was 1:22PM, and I was about to start hyperventilating. “Five minutes to start of totality,” spouted the timer. The temperature dropped at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit by this point, and it felt like the park was only lit with dim lamplight. We realized we needed to make a game-time decision.

“Do we move?” I asked Miriam.

We both ran through the opportunity costs in our heads. If we stayed, the cloud could move at the last second and we’d be in the best position to get the shot; or the cloud could stay, and we would miss our one chance in years to see this amazing event. If we moved, we may get to a better spot with no cloud, but we may not have enough time to set up our shot. Finding the Sun through the lens, especially once it’s mostly covered by the Moon, would be extra difficult.

“Three minutes to start of totality,” the timer proclaimed. “Observe difference in animal behavior.” I was on the verge of tears. Then, Miriam’s dad came running toward us. He pointed to a sunny patch of ground 50 yards away. “There’s no cloud cover over there,” he shouted. I looked at Miriam: “Let’s go!”

1/6

We picked up our cameras and tripods, and sprinted to the illuminated patch of dirt, followed by dozens of onlookers who decided to follow us. We reached the spot and jammed our tripods into the ground as quickly as possible. Miriam’s timer warned us: “Two minutes to start of totality.” I had to find the Sun — quickly. Frantically, I scanned the sky with the camera’s long, bulky lens, but I couldn’t seem to locate it. The screen of my camera was completely dark. I started screaming, “Where is it? I can’t find it!”

“One minute to start of totality.”

All around us people were gasping and cheering

“I’m going to miss it!” I cried, as the last bits of light faded away. Then, I swung the lens upward and caught a tiny sliver of sunlight in my frame. There it was. I locked down the camera and watched as the last little beads of light glimmered and disappeared as the Moon moved in front of the Sun. Suddenly, the world plunged into night, and the mood of the scene went through a dramatic shift. All around us people were gasping and cheering, as they took their eclipse glasses off and stared at the eclipsed Sun. But it wasn’t just sounds of delight that I heard. Yards away, people were clearly screaming in terror at the darkened scene.

Photo by Gary Nielsen

Meanwhile, I was clicking away on my camera, ensuring that I got the shot I came for. After about a minute, I decided it was time to reward myself. I threw out my arms and fell into the grass, just staring up at the eerie sky. I turned my head to look behind me and my mouth dropped when I saw what appeared to be sunset: a dark blue sky mixed with red and orange hues. So this was what people meant when they told me there’s just nothing like it. For a few brief moments, I really felt like I was on an alien world.

“Thirty seconds to end of totality,” the timer proclaimed.

I turned back to my camera, to make sure I did all I could. As the Moon started to move away, I snapped a picture of the diamond ring effect — when one bead of sunlight shines bright at the edge of the Moon. It’s my favorite picture that I took.

My photos are so incredibly special to me, like little heirlooms that I’ll treasure forever

Now that it’s all over, I scroll through my photos with pure joy. A few people had suggested that I shouldn’t take pictures of the eclipse — that I should just experience it and leave it to the professionals. And sure, my photos aren’t the best out there. But they are so incredibly special to me, like little heirlooms that I’ll treasure forever. Plus, the pictures are a tad sweeter since I literally had to chase them down.

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