A Total dekeClipse of the Sun: Alliance, Nebraska

Note from Monday morning: As I post this, Texas is being inundated by flooding from Hurricane Harvey. I can't think about the awesome natural phenomenon of the total solar eclipse without thinking about the destructive power of nature as well. Our thoughts and admiration are with the brave people of Texas and those who are there helping them.

As you may know, there was an eclipse here in the States last week. This is one of the amazing photos Deke shot during the moment where the moon completely covered the sun and we all stood in amazement.

Eclipse corona Alliance, Nebraska

We had such an epic adventure trying (and I think, succeeding) to experience (and photograph) the "Great American Solar Eclipse," that I thought I would recount the tale here in all its technology-learning, friendship-forging, heart-pounding,  mind-transforming phases:


Phase 1. Standard Operating Procedure: Hatch Half-Cocked Travel Plans in Our Local Brewpub
So, Deke and I have a history of hatching vacation schemes right after putting away our second beer.  Since our favorite dive and travel shop is in the same complex as our favorite brewpub, this usually results in an un-previously scheduled dive excursion to some heretofore unknown locale.

But this time, it was just me casually mentioning, "Hey, we're one of those millions of people within a day's drive of the solar eclipse totality, we should go see it somewhere." We immediately started calling our much-more-organized friends and found out that a) they had all had reservations in X-ville, Oregon or Y-town, Wyoming, and b) they had made these reservations up to a year ago.

Well hey, I thought, studying the map of totality, "Carhenge would be suitably absurd, and it was a mere four-hour-drive away in Alliance, Nebraska."  I found a cool-looking "Bunkhouse" on AirBnB a few miles away from the 'Henge, and we snapped it up. (More on this later, but best AirBnB hosts ever.)


Phase 2. Seek Technical Guidance from Serious Folk: a.k.a. Paging Seán Duggan
Seán is generous, kind, funny, and seriously knowledgeable colleague from author-hood (as well as previous lives in the book publishing industry). Sean has that (aforementioned) combination of attributes that makes someone a great teacher, even for lazy, last-minute students like us.

Seán sent Deke a personal email guide for gear and other considerations, and it was so generous that I asked him to write it up as a full-length article for (Oh, and here's Sean's time-lapse of the totality from John Day Fossil Beds, Oregon. Yeah, we know where to go for our insider info.)

Total Solar Eclipse, 8/21/2017 from Seán Duggan on Vimeo.

Phase 3. Get the Gear: It's Not Just Unchecked Shopping. There's Research Involved
We had our Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 70D cameras to work with, but the longest lens in our arsenal was a 300mm zoom that hadn't been cleaned since our Sri Lankan elephant safari. The shopping list went as follows:

  •  A fixed Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L lens was about half the cost and a fraction of the weight of a zoom version and since Deke wanted to frame the Sun "as close as possible," the zoom seemed superfluous anyway.
  • A Canon 2X Extender gave the above what amounts to an 800mm lens, for 16x magnification.
  • I got two sheets of 4x4 solar paper from Thousand Oaks Optical to affix to the lens for pre- and post-totality shots. For affixing it to the lens in a temporary way that could be removed at totality, we packed a roll of masking tape and some rubbery hairbands that I once had to have Deke cut out of my hair they were so stupidly grippy. (Ended up just using the grippy hairbands; the few wrinkles didn't matter much when all that gets through is the partially eclipsed sun.)

    Total aside: One of my favorite shots of the day was when Deke quickly tried to get the filter back on at the end of totality:

End of totality, filter back on during solar eclispe

  • Tripod-wise, I went with the Sirui T2005X TX Series tripod and Sirui G-20X ball head. As DPReview had pointed out, the cost of the two pieces together were comparable to other portable tripods that came with the head included. It's very lightweight and compact, yet in the end it stood up fine to the Nebraska winds. (This is the piece I coveted most from Deke's new setup.)
  • With regard to eclipse viewing glasses, I was one of those people who ordered some cool-looking plastic eclipse glasses from Amazon that  claimed to meet safety specs. After they arrived, I was put on alert by the badly designed packaging and sketchy labeling (designers take note of this when you're making forgery eclipse glasses). I tossed them out and went back and bought NASA-approved paper versions. I wrote off the cost of the originals to my own lack of proper research, but a few days later Amazon spontaneously refunded my money on the first set and instructed me to throw them away. (Done! Thanks, Amazon.)
  • The PhotoPills app that Sean had suggested helped with location scouting, which didn't matter so much with Deke's sun-only shots, but without it, I wouldn't have known where to frame my windmill.
  • A bottle of Leopold Bros Navy Strength Gin not only makes easy martinis, but at 114 Proof it could easily provide makeshift antiseptic/lighter fluid in the event of an eclipse-car gridlock-apocalypse. Sure, we had water and snacks as well. Our host, Tom, who we bonded with immediately over G&Ts called drinking it "going navy style." (We really liked our hosts.)


Phase 4. Hitting the Road: Arrive Late Despite Lack of Expected Traffic
In the week leading up to the eclipse, The Denver Post had written up Alliance as "The Place to Go," Harrison Ford (or was it Johnny Depp, Duane Johnson, Snoop Dogg, all of the above?) had allegedly booked the lone Alliance B&B. The Alliance regional airport had declared its incoming flights "full," and the Governor of Nebraska was now announcing that's where he was headed. In the end, traffic getting up to Alliance wasn't bad, but it did take the McClelland sons almost twice as long to get home on Monday. (Deke and I relaxed and worked on photos in the Bunkhouse until Tuesday.)


Phase 5. Meet Tom and Stephanie: Would You Like a Gin and Tonic?
We seriously would not have had such an amazing experience without Tom and Steph, our AirBnB hosts. They not only plied us with our favorite cocktail (and conversation, until 4:00 a.m., notoriously) the first night, but provided ranch tours, had us as their guests to their Eclipse Eve BBQ, regaled us with veterinary surgery stories, organized gin/tequila/whiskey tastings, cooked us a real Nebraska steak dinner our last night, and gave us all the support and encouragement we needed. We consider them friends now and were sad to say goodbye on Tuesday.


Stephanie and Tom with Deke in front of their Bunkhouse



Phase 6. Practice Run: You Wouldn't Think a Giant Gasball Would Be So Hard to Find.
Sunday, we got all the gear put together and Deke started to take aim at finding the sun. Unfortunately, the eclipse was due to appear almost directly overhead (totality was at 11:50AM in Nebraska). We practiced the dance of trying to frame the sun: eclipse glasses on, filter on, eclipse glasses off, reading glasses on, repeat. Deke ended up switching from the 5D to the 70D thanks to its flip-around LCD screen which made for much better photo-taking posture.

Deke's taking the 70D left me with the 5D or the GoPro for my planned time-lapse. Since the 5D needs an intervalometer (which we didn't have) and I've used the GoPro at depth with sharks about, I decided to go with the camera I knew. Lesson: use the right tool for the job, which in the case of cameras is the one you know how to use when the pivotal moment comes.


Phase 7. On Location: When the Sun's Here, the Windmill Will Be...   
We checked out Carhenge, which was surrounded by campers on Eclipse Eve, and even spoke to a photographer who was set up in the press area. The scene wasn't as crazy as we thought, but in the end we decided to shoot the eclipse from a watering hole in a secluded pasture on the Furman's ranch. (That didn't stop Deke from making a composite with Carhenge and his actual eclipse photos later on.) This photo is a 100% fake composite with 100% real images of the solar eclipse phases:

Carhenge eclipse composite

Our host drove us around the pasture looking for the right spot. Since Deke was just shooting the sun, the foreground scenery wasn't as much of an issue as having freedom of angle and no one kicking his tripod. For me, the windmill (and its reaction to the eclipse wind just before totality) gave me a unique outcome (as you'll see).

Furman's pasture, Alliance, NE


Phase 8. Setting Up: Who needs a tripod when there's a fortuitous hole in the back of the utility vehicle?
Being out in the pasture gave us room to move, and gave the McSons room to run around while we waited. I used a random hole in the cargo area of the Ranger Utility vehicle Tom left for us to wedge in the collapsed tripod part of my GoPro stick. (Given the wind, the stick's silly little fold-out tripod would have been useless, but collapsed it made a nice cone-shape that fit fortuitously in a random hole in our borrowed vehicle.)


Phase 9. Where Did Those Clouds Come From: Ack! How Many Minutes to Totality?
Can't imagine the McClelland sons being cooped up at Carhenge for an hour or more waiting for a naturally occurring astronomical phenomenon. Instead, they roamed the pasture, climbed the sandhills, and looked for food, which is pretty close to how they spend any outing. When we first parked out in the pasture, there was nary a cloud in the sky. But as totality approached, we held our breath and watched the sky...


Phase 10. Wind and Darkness: A Fortuitous Break in the Clouds
You can tell things are getting serious in this time-lapse when Deke goes to put on his jacket. Check out how close we were to being thwarted by the clouds. Best of all, check out what happens to the windmill just before totality:

And in addition to the amazing Deke captured above, here's another favorite:

Diamond ring during eclipse 2017


Epilogue: There is No Partial Eclipse, There Is Only Totality.
I'd seen partial solar eclipses before, but the complete blocking of the sun (and the kindness of our hosts) is an experience I'll never forget. We'll definitely seek out "the full monty" for the next one.
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Day of the Living Night: Photographing the Solar Eclipse with Our Friend Seán Duggan

Unless you’ve been living under a moon-sized rock that blocks not only sunlight but all other incoming information, you probably know there's a total solar eclipse headed USA-way on August 21. Deke, of course, saw this as an opportunity to buy some new photo gear...I mean, learn how to photograph eclipses. I saw it as an opportunity to book an eclipse-priced cabin in Alliance, Nebraska (home of Carhenge)...I mean make sure we didn’t just settle for the 90-something-percent effect here in Boulder. Thus, we reached out to the most patient and prepared (two things we barely understand) photographer of skyward phenomena we know, Seán Duggan. As you can read from Seán’s previous ecliptical experiences, witnessing an eclipse doesn’t really have to be about expensive gear (Deke), but it does require some planning ahead (Deke, I mean, Colleen). ---Colleen

On August 21, the Sun, Moon, and Earth will move into perfect alignment over the continental United States, creating a total solar eclipse that can be seen from a ribbon that stretches from coast to coast. In that 2-or-so minutes, day will turn into night along the centerline of the path of totality.

The last total solar eclipse visible anywhere in the U.S. occurred in February 1979, and the last total eclipse that extended from coast to coast happened nearly a century ago. So, it’s no surprise the eclipse is big news (Deke aside, the mania among non-eclipse nerds seems to be peaking this week) and many people are planning to see it, photograph it, and jostle for ideal position to do both.

I was fortunate to see that North American total eclipse in 1979 (when I was an enthusiastic high school photo geek), and a 98% total eclipse in Iceland two years ago (when I was decidedly older and in possession of slightly more digital photo gear). For the dekeCommunity (and sky shooters everywhere), I want to focus of some of the things to consider for photographing this extraordinary, and possibly once-in-a-lifetime event.

Protect Your Eyes! Protect Your Camera! Protect Your Images!

Looking at the sun without proper solar viewing glasses or filters, even during an eclipse, can cause permanent damage to your eyes. The only time it's safe to view an eclipse without solar viewing glasses is during the short minute or two of totality (and this also goes for looking through a camera or binoculars; they should be filtered, as well).

When looking for solar viewing glasses, make sure they're rated safe for direct solar viewing, and that they meet the requirement for ISO 12312-2-2015. (And don’t just take the packaging’s word for it, since unscrupulous vendors are printing whatever they like on their packaging to profit from eclipse-mania.) To be sure, here’s a link to NASA’s approved vendors for eclipse-viewing glasses.

People, we aren't fooling around here. It’s hard to keep your Photoshop and photography skills up-to-date if you damage your retinas, so it’s in our interest here at that you take care of you. Your regular sunglasses will not do, no matter how cool you think you look. Besides, check out Seán modeling how to look cool and controlled wearing approved paper eclipse glasses. Photo Credit: Ragnar Th Sigurdsson---Colleen

Sean Duggan models proper use of proper eclipse glases

Just as you protect your eyes when viewing the sun, you also have to consider using a special solar filter for your camera. Any shots using a telephoto lens where you are zoomed in and focused on just the sun will need a solar filter. These are available in a format similar to standard screw-on photo filters, filter material framed in cardboard holders that fit loosely over the end of your lens, or as sheets of thin black polymer or silver mylar material that you can cut to size and attach to the front of the lens. Here, you can see my set up from Iceland 2015---using a sheet of filter material wedged in between the lens and the hood.

A sheet of solar filter material covering the lens

Whichever filter you purchase should be rated for direct solar viewing. Standard photographic ND filters are not sufficient for close-up images of the sun and using them could damage your camera’s sensor. Make sure the filter is attached to the front of the lens (the side closest to the sun) and not over the camera's viewfinder.

Choose Your Location and Angle

Once you know where you're going, you'll need to know where you'll be pointing. In making my own plans for the eclipse, I’ve used an app called Photo Pills along with Google Earth to get a sense of the landscapes near where I will be on August 21, as well as seeing exactly where I need to be to get the photo that I want. Photo Pills is an excellent app that's available for Android and iOS that lets you precisely plan your image based on where you will be and where you want the sun to be in relation to the landscape.

Choosing a Focal Length

If you want a view showing a close-up, zoomed-in view of the sun, then you’ll have to purchase, borrow, or rent a telephoto lens. How much telephoto do you need? For approximate size reference, the image of the full moon below was made on a full-frame sensor with a 100–400mm zoom and a 2x converter, for a focal length of 800mm.

And this shot of the 2015 Iceland eclipse was made with a full-frame sensor camera and a 400mm lens.

Your focal length mileage will vary, of course, if you’re using a camera that has a smaller image sensor. The bottom line is that more telephoto is better if you want the sun to appear as large as possible in the shot.

Stabilize the Camera

I definitely recommend a sturdy tripod for photographing an eclipse. This is especially important with a large camera and a big lens to ensure that camera motion doesn’t adversely affect the sharpness of the shots. Plus it just makes shooting the eclipse a lot more convenient, since the camera is always positioned and pointed more-or less-in the right direction (with a telephoto lens you'll have to adjust camera framing throughout the eclipse as the sun moves across the sky).

(By the way, in the image below, check out the shape of the moon eclipsing the sun caught in lens flare in the lower right.)

See the shape of the obscured sun in the lens flare on the lower right.

Consider Your Exposure

The “right” exposure will depend on the type of shot you're making. For a zoomed-in view of just the sun shot with a telephoto lens and a solar filter, the result will essentially be a bright white or orange disk with a black shadow moving across it. You’ll want to find an ISO/Aperture/Shutter Speed combination where you can clearly see the shape of the sun and the moon, but where the shutter speed is not too slow.

Consider the images below from the Iceland eclipse. I took the first shot as a test when the eclipse started, and it’s so overexposed  you can't  see the shape of the solar disc (f/5.6, 1/15). A few shots later I’d dialed in a much better exposure (f/22, 1/25). In the third shot, taken near the maximum coverage of that particular eclipse (98%), I modified the exposure to compensate for less light to f/5.6 a 1/15th. The ISO for all shots was 400. Shooting in manual mode will ensure that the exposures are consistent.

For more detailed eclipse exposure information, as well as other info regarding photographing an eclipse, check out Fred Espenak’s Mr. Eclipse web site.

Different eclipse exposures

Include the Landscape, Make a Composite, or Even Try a Time-Lapse

Or all of the above if you’re Team Deke (or Team Seán, I gather). ---Colleen

If you don’t have a long telephoto lens, consider making a shot that shows more of the landscape in the foreground. You’ll get to create a photo that's different from the standard close-up shots of a solar eclipse everyone else is taking, that frankly, sometimes start to look all alike (Sorry, Deke. I'm sure yours will be special.) The most striking time to do this, especially if you don’t have a solar filter, is just before, during, and right after totality.

Another effective way to create an interesting eclipse shot is to use Photoshop to combine many images of different eclipse phases. With an intervalometer you can configure the camera to take an image at regular intervals, such as every 5 minutes. Use a wide-angle lens with a solar filter for most of the first half of the eclipse to show the shape of the moon covering the sun. Remove the filter for the 1 or two minutes of totality (you may need to manually trigger a few shots during this time), and then replace the filter over the lens for that latter half of the eclipse. With the camera in the same position, take a shot of the landscape with a good overall exposure for the scene.

Here’s how I used this approach for a composite of a total lunar eclipse in April 2014.

The same steps can be used for a series of solar eclipse images. In fact, that’s the approach I’m planning to take this time (in addition to a time lapse).

You can check out Seán's / LinkedIn Learning course Photographing and Assembling a Lunar Eclipse Composite to see how this image was made.

Here's another landscape possibility: if possible, I would encourage you to set up a second camera and shoot a time lapse of the eclipse with the landscape. Lots of people will have close-up shots of the moon’s shadow on the sun and those all look the same. But time lapses showing the scene getting darker and then lighter again can look pretty cool, and be a nice record of the place where you experienced this event.

This is how I made the video at the top of this post. During the 2015 eclipse in Iceland I positioned my camera down low, close to the ice along the shore of a frozen lake. Though I also shot close-ups of the sun with a telephoto lens, the time lapse was by far the more interesting visual record of the experience.

For this time lapse I used a 24mm lens on a full frame DSLR. I didn't use a solar filter, since the composition was essentially just a landscape image and it's not uncommon for landscape photographers to shoot into the sun. I set the exposure for the overall scene before the eclipse and it stayed constant throughout the entire event. This allowed for the scene to darken naturally as the sun was covered by the moon, and then gradually lighten again. Make sure your batteries are fully charged and carry spares; long time lapses can drain a battery faster than average shooting. This video is made up of nearly 1,100 raw captures that were adjusted in Lightroom and assembled into a time lapse in Photoshop.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Capture Them in Your Shot (or How to Cope with the Inevitable Crowds)

Over 200 million people live within the path of totality, or within a day’s drive of the path. And everyone in California claims they’re driving to Oregon. So, large crowds are expected at many sites. Although this could be a huge hassle, especially where traffic is concerned, it also could be an interesting opportunity for people photography and documenting a truly historic event (need stock photos of a mass migration, or epic traffic jams...this is your chance!). The main show will be up in the sky, but take time to document what’s going on around you down on earth, too. A camera phone is an ideal tool for this, especially if your other cameras are pointed up into the sky. 

Have a Happy Eclipse Day!

A total solar eclipse can be a truly awe-inspiring phenomenon to experience. Although they happen with some frequency, they're often over the ocean, in remote parts of the world, or obscured by clouds. If you live in the U.S, this is a rare chance to see an eclipse reasonably close to home. And while creating good photos of an eclipse is certainly an important goal for photographers, don’t get so wrapped up in your camera gar that you forget to take time to just experience the wonder of it all.

Seán, we can’t thank you enough for sharing your sage advice and stunning art. I’ll report back on how things went in Nebraska, and if things go well, dekeIversians can expect to see eclipse photos in some training near you! ---Colleen Read more » 

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No Deke's Techniques Today, But I Have Some Ideas

Hello, my beloved dekeOlutionaries. Here in our beleaguered but beloved country it's the Fourth of July. And while it may be currently the fourth of July in many places, for us it's a celebration of our humble beginnings. And our ability to pretend like blueberries are actually blue when you use them in the service of trying to make a patriotic dessert for your holiday cookout.

Anyway, Linda/LinkedIn is taking the day (actually, the week) off, so there's no Deke's Techniques episode today. But I have a few ideas from July 4th's past to keep you entertained, should the fireworks not be enough.

Deke's Techniques Episode 562: Creating an American Flag in Photoshop
She's on glass, but she's impeccably made and exquisitely rendered.

Creating Faux Fireworks against a Synthetic Sky in Photoshop
This is a technique I borrowed from Howard Pinsky and adapted for our July 4, 2013 blog post.

There's Gonna Be Fireworks
In the early days of dekeWorld, I shared this childhood gem, the "Fireworks" episode of Schoolhouse Rock. 


And here's how I'm spending my day. Love the Salon headline: Fourth of July viewing: Before there was “Hamilton,” there was “1776.” A poetically (and sometimes hilariously clever) crafted script. And songs that will blast out any idiotic, jingoistic tune you might horrifically encounter today.


 Peace and Freedom my brothers and sisters of dekeLand.  Read more » 

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Deke's Techniques: Please Stand By

Hey, Gang.We seem to be having some technical difficulties with this week's episode. And while I don't have this week's episode of Deke's Techniques available, I do have the actual Deke telling me about how awesome this week's offering is. So stay tuned.

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Deke Flies a Photoshop Flag for Election Day

My brother and sister dekeItarians. You might have noticed that today is Election Day here in the USA. To celebrate the end of an excruciating season, Deke has created a flag for today's Deke's Techniques episode---an American flag that is meticulously crafted by Deke, legendarily designed by an American woman, and may or may not have survived a few shards of broken glass thrown its way in the past year.

An American flag projected on glass in Photoshop

I'll be back with the full run-down tomorrow. If you're an American who's already voted you can catch a the episode here before it's on If you're a dekeOpolitan outside the US, watch the video and wish us luck and a quick recovery. See you in what I hope is a new tomorrow, tomorrow. Read more » 

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