Idaho Solar Eclipse


Idaho Solar Eclipse

For the results of my 12 cameras and 180kg (400 pound) eclipse expedition, start with:

  1. The Moon in Motion: Great American Eclipse from Idaho and the Tetons
  2. Eclipse over the Tetons: The view from Table Mountain
Takahashi FS-102 with 1.6x extender (1300mm, f13), Canon 5D Mark IV (1/2000 sec, ISO100)
Tracking on an AZ-EQ6 mount, automated camera control via Eclipse Maestro

Together with Brad LeBrocque (who hooked me into this gig), Glenn Tamblingson (Landscape Photographer) and Dean Martin's UDesign Tour Group, I observed the 'Great American Eclipse' from South Menan Butte in Idaho. Here's the rundown on the week of adventure.

Sunday 13th August 2017

Eclipse preparations began in Salt Lake City, with the purchase of your typical eclipse essentials: mobile phone SIM cards, camping chairs, new hiking boots and bear spray.

Monday 14th August

We drove to Jackson, Wyoming (the centre of the eclipse universe in this case) and then onto Teton Peaks Lodge and RV, our hastily arranged accommodation for the night which was an hour to the west of the Tetons. We had expected to be staying at Jackson Lake Lodge on the east side of the Tetons and an hour to the north. However, that fell through as did Plan B.

So we will be forever grateful to Josh and Misty at Teton Peaks who having had other groups cancel were very supportive and found ways to accommodate us all and helped through the whole week. The location was a little challenging for the tour group as most of their landscape photography plans were on the east side of the Teton ranges in Wyoming (1-2 hours each way) but Idaho worked out great for me.

Tuesday 15th - Thursday 17th

These three days were a blur of preparation and location scouting, and trying to sleep while recovering from jet lag. On Tuesday I unpacked about a dozen boxes of gear I had freighted, purchased or rented for the eclipse (and all of which I had to pick up from Jackson Lake Lodge two hours away the night before). Among others.. an 18kg AZ-EQ6 equatorial mount from home, a smaller purchased AZ-EQ5 equatorial mount, and four Canon 5D Mark IV DSLRs from Lens Rentals - the boxes included a specific warning notice about damage from the sun during the eclipse NOT being covered by their insurance. I wasn't worried.. I'd done this before :-).

Along the way I managed to lose my Spot Satellite tracking device which caused some issues for the other more remote hiking plans I had..

Friday 18th - Table Mountain Hike for the First Time

A full day hike to the summit of Table Mountain to explore locations to setup an automated camera, three days before the eclipse, with a view over the Teton's Range. Read the full story: Eclipse over the Tetons: The view from Table Mountain

Saturday 19th

With the whole group, we did a rehearsal of our eclipse photography in the grounds of the Teton Peak Lodge and RV. Of course everybody was surprised by how quickly two minutes goes but the practise helped make sure we were a little more prepared for eclipse day! In the afternoon I went and established three more remote cameras - two at North Menan Butte (a steep but short hike) for a composite image of the eclipse, and one at the south end of the Beaverhead Range, with a wide view of the eclipse from the north side of the eclipse path looking over Snake River Plain.

Sunday 20th (Eclipse Eve)

In the morning, we had another rehearsal with all our gear. Then I started packing the Subaru with all my gear for the final push to the eclipse. On behalf of the group I settlled on South Menan Butte as our eclipse observing location, at an event organised by Crater Adventures. This kept us away from the Tetons, which while photogenic, had a higher risk of creating their own clouds at short notice and also significantly disrupted the clear horizons which allows full experience of the arriving and departing shadow of the Moon and the twilight colours during totality. Although we could not access the rim of the butte until early hours of eclipse day, I decided to camp out at the event to avoid any risk of travel issues on the day. I met up with veteran Australian eclipse chaser Terry Cuttle and we both pored over the latest weather model forecasts and convinced ourselves we were in the best spot we could be. 

Monday 21st August - Total Solar Eclipse

A day I'd had in my calendar for about three years. A forecast large band of high cloud had kept us on high alert for several days, but we woke (at 4am after a few hours of very uncomfortable sleep) to quickly clearing skies with the cloud band dissipating and moving south-west, in close alignment with models. (Another) triumph of meteorology and weather forecasting to see cloud predictions realised with such high accuracy. Hazy skies from ongoing wildfires greatly accentuated the view of the approaching shadow, but at the height of the sun in the sky it was beautifully clear with extended corona detail visible to the eye and also in a first look at photos with a 300mm lens.

For solar minimum, and after months of quiet activity, the sun really came to the party too. A large and beautiful sunspot group had appeared a few days earlier and rotated into the middle of the Sun on eclipse day. An hour and a half after totality, when my image capture sequence of the partial phases completed, I was able to have a first look at the images I captured. My jaw dropped when I saw the image above on the back of the camera. I was thrilled to have nailed most of the factors under my control, but I had not dreamed that the Sun would provide this level of activity at this point in the solar cycle.

Borg 77 EDII with 1.08x flattener (550mm, f7) & Canon 5D Mark IV
Tracking on AZ-EQ5 mount, automated camera control via Eclipse Orchestrator

After the eclipse, I travelled to pickup my cameras from North Menan Butte and the Beaverhead Range. Got treated to some Huckleberry cordial by some locals in the car park - a refreshing drink for the steep hike to retrieve two more cameras. The day ended with a celebratory local dinner for the tour group and a chance to relax with my first beer after a crazy intense week. I think the tour group started to see a different Phil to the one who had been on-edge all week prior to the eclipse.

Photo by David Whyte of me (left) and my telescopes during eclipse

Tuesday 22nd August

After several nights of not much sleep, I really was not inclined to hike straight back up Table Mountain the day after the eclipse. But the weather forecast included storms later in the week, and a high mountain summit is no place to be in a thunderstorm. So I knuckled down and aimed for the summit the day after the eclipse. This turned out to be a great choice as I had the opportunity to meet people hiking down who had camped and enjoyed the eclipse from here the day before, so this helped keep the eclipse buzz alive. But people I met later in the day who were just returning from a day hike, while I at the most strenuous point of the climb up, had found my camera. They said it had fallen over but they did their best to reset it - I felt sick and nearly collapsed at the knees knowing immediately that the camera had more than likely fallen over early on and that even if the camera had worked it would have only a picture of the rocks in front of the camera.

I struggled physically with the rest of the climb, but consoled myself that it would still be a good story, and that the photography onsite the day before had been very successful. As I got closer to the summit, the wind picked up and I thought that perhaps it was possble that it was only today's wind that knocked the camera over? I could not believe my luck when I got to the camera and found that to be the case - it had survived three days and captured beautiful sequence of images of the eclipse and only fallen over in the last 24 hours! Read the full story and view the video of Eclipse over the Tetons. I felt like the luckiest guy alive and was on a high for several days!

Wednesday 23rd August

Still mopping up all the cameras I had left scattered over the Idaho landscape, on the Wednesday I drove a couple of hours each way to get my last remaining camera from Beaverhead Range.

Thursday 24th August

After a night of packing and repacking, now it was time to get most of my gear back in boxes and freight them back to the other side of the world, and prepare myself for a couple of weeks of hiking with my father Terry who was about to arrive, followed by three weeks of aurora photography in the Yukon. Not everybody's idea of a holiday I guess!

Eclipse with Canon 6D Mark II

One of the cameras I had for the eclipse was a new Canon 6D Mark II (on loan from Canon Australia). I was keen to see how the auto-exposing 4K timelapse feature handled the rapidly changing light levels. There is no easy way to capture eclipse timelapse so this was going to be interesting.

The video below is the result and the only processing I applied is to darken the levels during totality (using Levels effect in Premiere Pro). The camera keeps trying to render each frame as approximately similar brightness so this step is a necessary outcome of that. There are three clips - each was recorded very easily on the day in between me operating seven other cameras. I didn't spend much time either on site on the day or editing to get this quick and effective (4K!) video.