May 20: Annular Solar Eclipse

In all honesty, I hadn’t expected to photograph yesterdays eclipse. Like most people I’d heard discussion of the celestial event in days preceding, but the eastern Iowa forecast called for scattered showers and overcast skies.  I didn’t hold  much hope for seeing the sun, let alone watching the moon pass before it. As the afternoon progressed, however, and the weather stayed nice I started to anticipate some potential; and when the clear sky held, seven o’clock found me scrambling to grab my camera and head out the door.

As usual, I didn’t have a plan. A statement of relevance to both my photography and life. I knew I wanted to position myself somewhere with an unobstructed view, and on a hilltop or ridge if possible. Instinctively I rushed up the road to my parents farm and out toward the back pasture. I’ve had some luck shooting sunsets there in the past, including these favorites from last year, so with limited time to get myself in place it seemed the best option.

March 2011 Sunset

Same night and location- one of my favorite sunset spots on the farm.

 

Heading out, I had a little over an hour to work with. The eclipse was set to begin around 7:30 pm local time and continue until the sun fell below the horizon at approximately 8:20. I knew that the real show would be in those final moments before sunset, when the moon’s disc moved further within the halo of the sun, so I didn’t hesitate to pause and capture a few shots of the late day light cast on our aging barn before continuing the quarter-mile hike through the fields.

Barn and Corn Crib.

I’m not sure why, but I kind of like the chaotic appeal of this shot. Wild mustard whipping in the heavy wind against the barn, some wire panels and an old tractor tire.

 

As you can probably tell from these images, it’s a pretty rough neighborhood we live in. After about fifteen minutes of shooting the barn from different angles, I set out across the pasture to get into position. However, as luck would have it I was quickly accosted by a large group of  local hoodlums (my uncle’s cattle.) For whatever reason, when one of the cows saw me coming from about sixty yards out, she began bawling and took off in a dead run toward the west. Kind of irrational, I thought, but even in the animal kingdom there’s a drama queen in every bunch. Unfortunately though, and also like humans, cattle are prone to blindly follow self-announced leaders. The cow continued to moo as she ran to the narrow lane that I also planned to occupy, and sure enough every cow and calf spread across the entire meadow abandoned grazing to follow suit. All I could do was shake my head as I watched the whole herd join in a mad dash to clear the pasture, only to stop and congregate in one massive group beneath the cottonwood tree I hoped to incorporate into my eclipse shots.

As someone who has been pondering bovine psychology for years I have long been perplexed by the rationale behind such behavior. After many dealings that have ended in absolute frustration, the only logical explanation I can offer is that cattle are actually a species of advanced intellect. They only masquerade as bumbling beasts so we’ll drop our guard,  and then when the time is right they spring into action; intent on the simple joy gained from messing with our heads. It might seem crazy, but anyone who has spent any time on a working stock farm can back me on this. In my mind, this latest episode only lends further proof, and I swear if cows could chuckle I would have heard it in mass as I turned and walked away.

 

“Where you going with that camera?”

 

Since the eclipse and cottonwood and forty of the county’s finest cow rumps weren’t exactly the shot I had in mind, I was forced to retreat and quickly come up with an alternate plan. By this point, though the sun was still too bright to shoot, I could see a sliver of the moon beginning to emerge so I raced back to my truck and drove a half mile down the road. Stopping near a large oak  that I have been trying  to photograph at sunset for some time (with little success) I hopped a gate and put my tripod in place. I wasn’t happy at first. The location was pretty close to the creek bottom, and though the elevation was only fifty feet lower than my first attempt, the loss was still significant. Iowa wasn’t in a position to see the full “Ring of Fire” as would be witnessed in other parts of the world. With the eclipse occurring right at sunset, we could only see as much as would develop before the sun dropped out of sight. That extra fifty feet, given this topography, would have allowed me to peek over the next ridge, and provided maybe another minute and greater percentage of moon on sun convergence.  It didn’t matter though. I didn’t have time to run around looking for an ideal location. Things were happening fast.

Once I got my exposure dialed in and found an angle I liked, I was actually pretty content with the spot. I always try to bring elements of the landscape into my photos to make them more interesting, and was pleased with the composition the silhouetted tree and distant telephone poles allowed. My brother arrived just as the moonshadow was taking shape and we watched together, enjoying the final moments of this cosmic show.

 

When all was said and done, it was really cool to see this rare occurrance and it’s always exciting to rush around during this type of limited opportunity shoot. Of course I spent a good hour or so afterwards kicking myself with thoughts of what I could have done, or where I might have gone, but after the dust settled I am pretty happy with the images I captured. As for the shoulda’s and coulda’s I’ll have them fresh in mind for the coming (and even more rare) Transit of Venus on June 6, and if that doesn’t pan out the next Annular Eclipse is in 2030… only 18 years away!

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10 thoughts on “May 20: Annular Solar Eclipse

    • Absolutely! This was actually pretty trivial compared to some of the other measures i’ve taken for a photo, but it’s always nice to be able to enhance an image by having a good story behind it. Thanks for the comment and for checking out my blog!

  1. Josh….I always enjoy your photos….but these with your story telling….are AWESOME!!! KUDOS (from Tiff’s Aunt in law Candy)

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