The Great American Total Solar Eclipse of 2017

Months of planning with only minutes to capture a once in a lifetime event
After months of preparation, the final HDR composite of totality shot with a 400mm lens, of the Great American Total Solar Eclipse of 2017.

During the summer of 2017 I was baking in the sun in Madras, Ore. and loving it. Why you ask?

I was chasing the Great American Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 of course — from the middle of a dusty field with thousands of other eclipse watchers, setting up four cameras and preparing to photograph a unique celestial event right in my home state.

I admit I was having a lot of self doubt about my plans, but there was no time to change. It was go time!

The promise of a total solar eclipse and his love of the area inspired Bruce Ward to create a sign promoting the community of John Day, Ore. and surrounding Grant County as the place to be for Eclipse 2017.
The sun sets on a van full of eclipse watchers as they camp in Madras, Ore. for the eclipse in 2017.
Mount Jefferson is just visible above a line of smoke from nearby wildfires as campers wake Sunday near the Madras Municipal Airport on the eve of the total eclipse in 2017.

We had already overcome some major setbacks. In the days leading up to the event a pilot died in a plane crash within sight of our camp. The group of reporters and photographers I was with switched into spot news mod to cover the unfortunate event, but the tragedy brought a shadow of sadness and anxiety to the otherwise festive trip.

How hard can it be? A DIY wiring job in camp before the eclipse.
My beaten up intervalometer and camera shutter release after the wiring fix.

While taking down a camera after a test, I accidentally pulled apart the wiring on my intervalometer. The component was key to my most ambitious photograph, a four hour time-lapse of the stages of totality. Thanks to some parts scavenged from my fellow photographers in camp and my trusty utility knife I was able to wire the pieces back together.

Adding to the stress, smoke blowing in from nearby forest fire threatened to obscure the skies and diminish our view the morning of the big event.

The crew. Cheyenne Thorpe, left, Deb Morrison, Dan Morrison, Rhianna Gelhart, yours truly and Alisha Dodds after four days living in a field in Eastern Oregon.

There were a bunch of positives though. I had been planning and testing camera techniques for months. I was joined by a great group of friends and colleagues. The kind of people you want to go on a long road trip with, including Alisha Dodds, Deb Morrison, Dan Morrison, Cheyenne Thorpe, and Rhianna Gelhart. I knew The Register-Guard also had two outstanding team of reporters and photographers spread across the state west of us.

While stressful and hectic, the morning of the total eclipse was one of the most memorable of my life.

As the moment of totality neared, a shadow moved across the horizon toward us, the air grew noticeably cooler and the world grew quiet. As the moon moved across the face of the sun, bright rays of sunlight flashed out in what is called the diamond ring effect and then formed Baily’s beads as the moon began to cover the sun completely. And then, in an instant, the moment of totality! The skies grew ominously dark — all but a ring in the sky — as the moon blocked all but the corona of the sun. Faint light waves rippled out in all directions in a brilliant display of nature’s majesty as people all around us began to hoot, howl and cheer.

I am happy with the photographs I was able to capture, but I admit there is no substitute for witnessing this spectacular event with your own eyes.

The next total solar eclipse in the US will be April 8, 2024. Just enough time to work out a plan!

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

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

Follow Chris Pietsch on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.