astrophotograpy: With great risk comes great reward — maybe?

A look a my three most popular photos of the cosmos

The so called “diamond ring effect” as the moon begins to cover the sun just before a total eclipse as seen from Madras, Oregon in 2017.

I am not an astrophotographer. So, it is ironic that some of my most popular photographs over the years have been of the cosmos.

I have always had a fascination with astronomy, but I have an aversion to staying up late. A requirement for the job of shooting the cosmos for sure.

The first eclipse photo I ever made is a good example of my love hate relationship with celestial events. I was a junior at the University of Idaho in 1979 the year a total eclipse passed over Moscow, Idaho. On the big day, clouds covered the Palouse. I watched the event on television in the student union with dozens of fellow students huddled around a small TV screen. I made a photo of that scene that ended up on the front page of the Idahoanian newspaper that afternoon.

Fast forward to 2017. That year Oregon was in the path of another total eclipse. This time I decided I needed a plan. Eight photographers and four reporters from The Register-Guard deployed across the state to cover the event. I chose Madras, Oregon because the location is famous for clear skies in August. I did not account for wildfire smoke.

Photographers make images of the 2017 total eclipse over Madras, Ore. in this four hour time-lapse composite image.

With large crowds anticipated, a merry band of fellow eclipse chasers including Dan and Deb Morrison, Alisha Dodds and some University of Oregon students, camped out at the Madras airport for four days. We spent the time documenting the scene and running tests of our equipment, while keeping an eye on a cloud of smoke that blew in and out of the area.

I had an ambitious plan. I set up two video and two still cameras with various focal length lenses mounted. My most ambitious plan was to shoot a time-lapse. The idea was to make a frame every 10 minutes for four hours as the sun swept across the sky. While setting up, I accidentally ripped apart a critical piece, the cable that attached the camera to my intervalometer. I had a moment of existential despair, railed against my own clumsiness and then set about rewiring the piece with a pocket knife, spare parts and Duct tape. Sweat poured down my face as I worked. Happily, I was able to get everything running again, but I was behind schedule.

The rest of the plan went as hoped. It was an electric feeling to witness a total eclipse with thousands of hooting fans.

My souvenir T-shirt came in handy as I try to reduce screen glare while working on photographs of the eclipse with a laptop inside my tent in Madras, Oregon.

I don’t recommend editing photos, especially complicated composites in a dusty tent in 100 degree heat, but I was stunned at how well the finished product looked. I wrapped up the tweak, captioned the image and shipped it to the office via an Internet connection at the airport.

Later that day I began to receive messages via my sketch phone connection from far and wide congratulating me on the picture. I learned that it ran on the AP wire and was picked up worldwide. It was surreal. All I could do was reflect on how close to disaster I had come as I sipped a beer and watched traffic trickle out of Madras.

Comet Neowise appears over Mount Washington in the night sky as seen from Dee Wright Observatory on McKenzie Pass east of Springfield, Oregon, on Tuesday July 14, 2020.

The next big adventure was a visit from Comet Neowise in 2020.

The first night I ventured out, I made the mistake of staying close to town. The view from Fern Ridge Reservoir did not work out. The faintness of the comet combined with the haze created by nearby agricultural work kept me from making a decent photo. The next day I made the decision to head for the mountains and drove up to the Dee Wright Observatory east of Eugene in the Oregon Cascades.

In hindsight I arrived way too early. I spent hours chatting with fellow comet chasers including a young boy who wanted to look through my lens every five minutes and encouraged me to put my pictures on YouTube. I regretted not bringing a bottle of Scotch whisky along for the vigil.

As the sun set, I was disappointed. The comet was nowhere to be seen. I started having doubts that I was even looking in the right direction. As the hours wore on I began to wonder if I was hallucinating, but a very faint smudge began to appear to the northwest. Slowly, but surly, the comet began to brighten as it moved across the sky toward Mt. Washington.

I had too much time to second guess myself. Adrenaline started cursing through my veins. I decided that I needed to use a 70-200mm f 2.8 lens on a tripod, but was amazed at how hard it was to lock focus on the faint comet. Auto focus was useless. My eyes had trouble narrowing the focus through the viewfinder. I began to curse myself for not bringing a magnifying glass. Finally, with a combination of bracket focusing, magnifying the image on my LCD and raw paranoia, I made a few frames that looked sharp as the comet passed over the peak.

As I drove down the mountain after midnight, I had a lot of time to question my choices. I was not sure that I had nailed the shot.

The anxiety I felt as I uploaded my digital files to my computer reminded me of the old film days — the anticipation of unrolling freshly developed film from a reel and holding it up to a light for a quick edit. I can not over state the relief I felt as I saw a sharp frame pop up in the take of images. Brushing a bead of sweat off my forehead, I filed a select and went to bed.

The next morning my inbox was full. Media from around the world were using the image. The New York Times used it for their story on how to view the comet. Other links soon followed. The NYT also posted the picture to their Instagram account where it was “liked” over 88K times. The comments are a social media cautionary tale as many of them seem to be pitches for some multilevel marketing scheme or other, so I took some of the excitement with a grain of salt.

I was even interviewed by Mike Parker and John Warren on the Oregon State Beaver Sports Radio station. I guess with no sports to cover over the summer they were looking to fill the time.

About a year ago I began seeing my image included in a meme making fun of the futility of viewing celestial events from Oregon. Ironic to say the least.

Leap to 2023 for my third solar eclipse. Hopefully you are seeing a theme in my astrophotography adventures? I seem always a degree or two away from failure.

As I mulled what to do this time around, the weather in October loomed large. I also wanted to involve the rest of the staff. I decided to send Ben Lonergan to Crater Lake and Abigail Dollins to the coast, but switched it up at the last minute because of weather forecasts on the coast and the need for her to also cover Oregon State vs. UCLA football in Corvallis.

I decided to stay in Eugene with the goal of making pictures of what I imagined would be disappointed eclipse chasers here and then make pictures of the Eugene BEAM BRiGHT Parade in the evening.

But, I could not decide where to go here in town. There were three spots I knew would have people — the Science Center near Autzen, the EWEB Reservoir on College Hill and the parking lot at the top of Skinner Butte. I checked them each out the day before, but kept having a negative vibe about the first two that I could not shake. I decided to go to the butte.

My first snag arrived immediately. As I drove to the bottom of the hill at 7 a.m. the gate was locked. An hour after the scheduled opening mind you. Figures right? After waiting around for 30 minutes and with the sun beginning to rise, I decided to walk up, with all the gear and my cup of coffee. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It took two trips. Of course the park’s guy arrived and unlocked the gate just as I made it to the summit the second time.

Despite that, it was easy to be upbeat. The sky was mostly clear. I began to get my hopes up that I might actually make a decent picture. I set up my time-lapse camera, my telephoto camera, my camp chair and settled in. A festive group soon gathered around me as the clouds rolled in. People began to ask me if we would be able to see something. I had my doubts, but kept joking that we needed to keep the energy positive. But, I was already working on plan B. I pivoted to photographing and interviewing the spectators.

And then a miracle happened!

An annular eclipse peers through the cloud cover over Skinner Butte in Eugene, Oregon, on Saturday, October 14, 2023.

As the time of annularity approached, the clouds thinned enough that the crescent started shinning through. The sun played cat and mouse with us for several minutes and then just in the nick of time, 9:18 a.m., the “ring of fire” appeared through the cloud layer. I made a split second decision to not use my solar filter and shot as fast as I could as the clouds moved across the sun. One moment it was gone, another it appeared. For the record, manual exposure, ISO 250, 1/500 at f36. In hindsight the exposure was slightly over, but RAW photo files allowed me to make a slight tweak in post for the image you see here.

I confess I was on autopilot. All I knew was that I needed to work fast. In what seemed like seconds the sun disappeared for the final time. Sensing we were done, I finally took a moment to check my screen. I stared at it in disbelief — I had a usable frame! It had all happened so fast.

As I loaded the images on my laptop, I became a celebrity at the viewing area of Skinner Butte. People crowded forward to look over my shoulder as I worked. Each viewing was greeted with a “Oh wow!” or a “So cool.” My fingers trembled a bit as I typed my caption and uploaded the image to a remote server for our live blog at The Register-Guard and Statesman Journal.

My main emotion? Relief. The paper had something to show for the effort. All the planning had paid off — by a whisker.

While still on the butte, I posted the picture to X, formally known as Twitter, and my feed lit up immediately. A request from the Associated Press, an embed of my tweet on The Guardian website, followed by congratulatory replies from all over the place. I could not keep up with it. Spectator cars still block the road out, so I sat, took a moment to breathe and savor the moment.

The proverb “Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan,” rolled through my head.

I can not thank you all enough for the support. My social media feed has been full of good wishes. That so many have reached out validates that the gamble was worth the effort. I appreciate you all very much.

I am still pretty sure I am not cut out to be an astrophotographer, but then again, when is the next big event?

A time-lapse video I put together using still images made from the top of Skinner Butte in Eugene, Oregon, Saturday, October 14, 2023.

Chris Pietsch is the director of photography for Gannett Newspapers in Oregon, The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Statesman Journal in Salem.

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