My plans to photograph the Great American Eclipse started pretty late. I hadn’t even really considered photographing it and a month beforehand I got a text from an old friend asking if I was. At that time the answer was still no. But that text got the wheels spinning and I began looking at options. I was on the east coast but looked at the path of totality and nothing was off the table. I knew people gathering in Oregon and that was something that I seriously considered, also Jackson Hole, Wyoming sounded very appealing (if not expensive). But I wanted to get a good foreground, mountains or something and since my friend had already planned his trip to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee which was in driving distance, this seemed like my best bet. So a couple weeks before the big event we made our road trip plans and were still able to secure hotels in both Asheville and Pigeon Forge. This was something I didn’t think was gonna be possible, but things were looking up!
Next came trying to figure out exactly what I would need and how best to photograph this once in a lifetime event. I mean I certainly didn’t want to screw it up and only had two minutes to get it right in camera during totality. There was no going back to reshoot this thing! I scoured the internet for any articles I could find on settings, gear, etc and the only thing that was a common theme was that I needed a solar filter. But first I needed to figure out which lenses I was going to use to affix said solar filter. Given my experience with super long lenses was limited to shooting wildlife in Africa, which is completely different than photographing the moon let alone an eclipse, I was pretty much at a loss for which “big gun” I needed to rent. Finally I came across this article from B&H Photo that had info on both focal length and camera settings. Boom now I was in business! I decided to rent a Nikon 500mm f/4 and a 1.4 teleconverter giving me up to 700mm in focal length if I needed it. Somehow I was able to rent those plus another camera body just two weeks before. I also placed an order for a couple solar filters from Mr. Star Guy and now had all my gear now covered. Luck was still on my side!
As the trip approached, we decided to spend a couple days first in Asheville, a town that my wife and I really enjoy. We made the nine hour drive down on Thursday, stopped into the Wicket Weed brewery for a couple drinks and enjoyed the rest of our evening wandering the streets. Friday we were able to meet up with a friend of mine from high school for lunch and found out that she was going to see the Dark Star Orchestra that night. These guys are a big time Grateful Dead cover band that’s been touring for 20 years, and with a name fitting name like that for the eclipse weekend, we took that to be another good omen and decided to join her and jam the night away!
Saturday was the day we chose to get into Smoky Mountains National Park and do some scouting. There were two potential places that I wanted to be for the eclipse: Cades Cove or the Foothills Parkway just outside the park. Clingman’s Dome would have been ideal, but tickets for that sold out long ago. After driving the loop in Cades Cove and checking where the sun would be positioned I was less than optimistic. Add in that it’s a one lane, one way road with very slow cars on a normal day, and I envisioned pure chaos getting in and out of there on Monday. So onto scout plan B: the Foothills Parkway.
The Foothills Parkway is a scenic drive runs parallel to the Smoky Mountains and has numerous pullouts and parking lots to take in the view. We nearly stopped at every lot before getting all the way up to the top lot of Look Rock where we got out to check out the scene. There was a small lookout platform with a perfect view, however no more than ten people could stand there and that would be a huge problem! We saw something about a lookout tower and decided to check that out too, making the half mile hike. When we got to the tower I was really hopeful this would be a great location. With it’s 360 degree views, all I had to do was get there early enough to claim a spot. Once we climbed the ramp to the top of the tower, the views were stunning alright. Except for one spot where a big ol tree was blocking the view of the mountain range exactly below where the sun and moon would be during the eclipse! I mean this tree was practically pressed up against the platform and there was no getting around it. A little bummed, we hiked back down and kept driving along the parkway. And wouldn’t you know it, we found the perfect spot another mile up the road with a great view of the mountain range and about a dozen parking spots. Just enough to make us get up really early to come a grab one.
With our location picked, we spent Sunday relaxing and boating on Lake Holston on the Virginia-Tennessee border with my friend that suggested the Smokies in the first place. What an awesome surprise this place was! Beautiful clear green water, with barely any houses on this lake, there was even a little cliff diving spot out in the middle that we took a few turns on. It was the perfect place to swim, catch some sun and enjoy the afternoon. With an early morning coming on Monday, it was exactly what we needed.
The big day started with a 4:15am wakeup. Sunrise will be at 7am and the idea was to get there by 6am to stake our spot and hopefully shoot sunrise. We stayed in Pigeon Forge and had about an hour plus drive to get to the lot on the parkway. When we arrived and passed up the first large Parking Lot #16 near the entrance, there were already a bunch of cars double parked and getting ready. Hopefully we wouldn’t have to come back down and deal with that. Our lot was ten miles further up the road and fortunately we were the third car there! Somehow we got there by 5:30am and now it was time to catch up on sleep.
Before I knew it the alarm went off at 6:30am and I looked out the windshield to what appeared to be a valley of haze. We were in the Smoky Mountains after all. Getting out of my car revealed some color in the sky to the east and obscured by trees but not much going on at all in the sky in front of me. But at this point I was awake and more cars were filling in the lot including a family that pulled in next to us also from Philadelphia! We spent the next several hours testing out my setup and chatting with people, including a local man who confirmed that this lot had the best view anywhere around.
Around mid morning, some big clouds began forming in the sky. Would this wipe out the event? I had no cell service and no way to check the weather in the lot we were at. So I decided to kill some time and walked back to the Look Rock parking lot to see what was happening. The only place I had service a couple days before was at the tippy top of the lookout tower so it was worth a shot to see what was going on in the world. As I suspected, when I got to the lot, the little platform was packed with even less people than I thought because they all had lawn chairs and were as spread out as could be. The lot itself was over flowing with cars and all those people could do was look up in the sky during the eclipse. After making a call from the lot to check on my friends I began walking back. And wouldn't you know it, on the way I found not one, but two four leaf clovers! That was it, there was no doubt now, I knew luck was on our side for sure!
As the sun got higher in the sky I was able to experiment and take plenty of test shots. To my surprise I could clearly see the spots on the sun. While the teleconverter sure did get me close, I opted not to use it because I wanted to be sure I could capture the entirety of the sun's corona at totality, I could always crop it if I wanted to. At this point I had my exposure as well as 9 bracketed exposures set and was pretty confident I'd get something decent. I just needed to keep tracking the sun with the long lens and wait. Soon my friends and their family arrived and it wasn't long after that before we could see the first notch out of the sun. The skies were clear and we were off!
What had been a wonderful morning of meeting new people, gathering for a single purpose, a spectacular event, was just now in full swing as the moon began crossing over the sun. There would be an hour and a half before totality and looking up every so often to see the progress was such a cool phenomena. As the light very slowly dimmed with totality approaching, the moment of truth was nearly upon us. I was quite surprised at how bright the daylight still was with only a sliver of the sun visible. Then all of a sudden, boom! Darkness! Taking off my glasses and seeing totality with my own eyes was something I'll never forget. With the ring around the sun and it's corona plainly visible, this was more beautiful than I could have envisioned. Fortunately all I had to do was press my remote shutters a few times and let the cameras do the rest. There was no point in trying to adjust camera settings allowing me to look up and enjoy this natural wonder as much as possible. Although I'm pretty sure the photographer in me took over at some point and I checked the LCD screen a view times to see what I was getting. And then, with the sounds of people cheering and all the oohs an ahhs, a clear diamond ring and a few moments later it was over.
There was supposed to be two and a half minutes of totality and if that was accurate it was the fastest two minutes of my life! While I'm quite pleased with the images, what I will remember most is taking off my solar glasses for the first time and looking up during totality. The camera caught things I couldn't necessarily see and preserved the memory wonderfully. But it is the sights and sounds with my own eyes and ears that will remain with me forever.