Thursday, August 24, 2017

Eclipse Report

Not my picture
Unless you live under a rock you know that 8-21-17 was the "Great American Eclipse." This is my story of the eclipse. It started back in 2007 when I first began planning to see the eclipse. I wasn't sure where it would be visible at that point, but given my age and circumstances, I determined I wanted to see at least one total solar eclipse, and this would be it.

The Best Laid Plans...

Our first plans, once we knew from where totality would be visible, was to go to Jackson, WY. We had been to Grand Teton several years back, and started and ended the trip in Jackson. As you can see, it is comfortably in the zone of totality (between the red lines).

It's also a beautiful place to bee, as is Grand Teton National Park. If you haven't been, highly recommended.

But you can't book a vacation seven years in advance, and so I waited... too long. About a year in advance I went to book a place in/near Jackson, only to find out that you could not rent an outhouse - everything was booked! Perhaps it was for the best, as I'm sure it would have been more crowded than where we ended up.

Where did we end up? I chose two places, Nashville TN, and Salem, OR, and quickly booked hotels in both places. Then booked a third in Albany, OR, thinking it's just as close to totality as Salem, but a shorter drive up from the Bay area, where we could visit my wife's aunt. Also, we could not find a flight into/out of Portland on the days we wanted to travel.

We decided on OR instead of TN based on a web site that had the probability of cloud cover for any day of the year for a given area. Albany, OR had a 25% chance of cloud cover, vs. a 40% chance for TN.

Over the next couple of months we booked the rest of our hotels, flights etc. We spent time in the Bay area, then drove up the coast through redwoods to Albany, OR, then after the eclipse went down through Lassen Volcanic Park and back to catch the flight home. When I canceled our TN reservation, rooms (which were going for $200) were now going for over $1000!


This is what I used to observe the eclipse. I am not saying it was the best, but it served my needs well.

For my eyeballs

I got a 10 pack of eclipse glasses on Amazon. I made sure they were "certified" ISO compliant glasses. No sense in messing with your eyes. Although only four of us were going I wanted 10 in case we lost/damaged some, or to share with other eclipse viewers who didn't have a pair.

As it turned out, the hotel we were staying at, the Comfort Inn and Suites in Albany OR, had a welcome packet with eclipse glasses for their guests. Nice place, and nice people. I would stay there again.


As you may know I am an amateur telescope maker, and so I had grandiose plans of building a small scope for this eclipse, or maybe converting my 6" scope into a collapsible model but of course time and tide... to view the sun you don't need a lot of aperture, and I decided to purchase a Celestron 70mm travelscope. I used camelcamelcamel and waited until it was on sale for about $50.

The scope comes with its own backpack, tripod, finder scope, image erector prism, and 20mm and 10mm eyepieces.

The scope itself is decent. Very good image, with surprisingly little color aberration. Everything is plastic, but decently made. With a 13mm Nagler (I have an older one, and it is HEAVY) you could see the flex in the OTA, but even so the image was good. I like this scope! The backpack was nice, for carrying the scope on the air plane (I would not trust checking it).

The image erector is so-so, but you need it, or an extension tube, to reach focus on the eyepieces I was using. Also, because the sun was at 40 degrees elevation at the tie of the eclipse, it was nice having the prism so the eyepiece was facing up (a 90 degree prism would have been even better).

Speaking of which, the eyepieces were OK, but I decided to use one of my better quality telescope eyepieces. I opted for a no-name 20mm plossl I've had for years, and my 13mm Nagler. Images through the Nagler are as awesome as can be, but there is very little eye relief for people with glasses.

The tripod that comes with the scope is garbage. I opted to use a camera tripod I picked up at Costco for $50 a few years ago, during a photo emergency. That tripod is flimsy as well, but is way more sturdy than the one that came with the scope.

Likewise, the finder scope is garbage. I removed the optics, and put a piece of plastic cut from a Chinese food takeout container (with a dot in the center) in place of the objective, and a sheet of paper with a small circle drawn on it in place of the eyepiece. I adjusted it so that when the scope was pointed at the sun, the dot of light from the objective fell on the paper in the circle. Crude but effective.

Note to Celestron - I would have been willing to pay more for a sturdier scope without the tripod, and with a cheap red dot finder scope in place of the crappy one you provided.

I purchased a commercial solar filter for the scope, since I didn't want to be bothered building my own filter. However, when I tried it out the sun was painfully bright. I stopped the filter down from 70mm to about 25mm, which was better, but I wasn't sure I trusted it.

The filter claimed to be made from Baader planetarium filter material, even had the Baader paperwork in the box. I wondered if they had used the photographic-only version of the film, or if it was counterfeit. Sure enough, about a week before we were to leave, I get an email from Amazon saying that they were unable to verify that the filter was safe, and that they would refund my money.

Fortunately I have made many solar filters over the years, and I had what was left of a roll of Baader filter material. I merely had to make the filter.


I have a Canon T2i camera, with a 55-250mm lens. While I can get good photos of the sun, it's kind of small. At 250mm the sun is roughly 250/120 = 2.1mm on the camera's sensor. The T2i has an APS-C sized sensor, which is 22.2x14.8mm, so the sun fills only 1/7th of the frame. Ideally I'd like the image to be at least 1/3 of the sensor size, or 5mm, which would require a 600mm lens. 600mm lenses, are expensive.

I could mount the camera on the telescope with a T-ring adapter, but that would leave me with no visual scope, and my primary purpose was to SEE the eclipse, not to photograph it.

I though about renting a lens. I know people who did, with great success, but I was leery of having to lug the rented lens all over. I would also have to make a solar filter for a lens that wouldn't be useful afterwards. Additionally, since I would be gone over a week, and I would need to get the lens a week or two early to practice, I would be paying $225, for a one-time use thing.

Instead I picked up a 2x tele-xtender for $99 that makes the 250mm lens into a 500m lens - at the cost of doubling the focal ratio (which I didn't care about) and losing the ability to auto-focus (which I cared about, but not enough to want to shell out $1000 for a dedicated lens). I had good success with it in the backyard, although focusing on the sun was difficult. How I long for the days of split image focusers on cameras!

For the camera, I had to make my own filter. Commercial ones were not only expensive, but impossible to come by. Attaching a homemade filter to the lens was a bit tricky. In the end I bought  a cheap screw on rubber lens hood and made the filter to fit that.

The two solar filters fit in a Chinese food takeout container, which fit in the telescope's backpack, along with the scope, finder, eclipse glasses and tripod. The rest of the optics went in my camera bag.

Needless to say, with a long focal length lens you need a good tripod. Luckily I have an old Slik tripod from my Dad that is very stable. Speaking of which, the tripod was actually broken, and so old I couldn't find any information on it. I took a picture of the damage and model number, which I emailed to Slik, asking how I could get it repaired. In about an hour or two they sent me an email saying I could order the parts from them (the email had a parts list and diagram of the tripod) and a video on how to repair it. The parts cost only $7, and arrived in a few days, and I was up and running! Very good customer service!

The Experience!

Driving up, the weather report looked good but we had heard of wild fires with thick smoke. We heard one place not too far away had to be evacuated! As we went up, at times the sun was barely visible through the smoke! Fortunately, the area where we were going was in between fires.

I had read about what an eclipse is like. I had seen photos. NONE of that prepared me for the real thing. We arrived at the hotel the evening before. One man was standing in the triangle of grass by the road setting up a camera. Turned out he spoke very little English, and didn't know where the eclipse would be in the sky.

Fortunately I had gotten this great app, TPE (The Photographer's Ephemeris) for my phone. It shows all sorts of data bout sun, moon, light and shadow. According to it, First contact would occur at about 105 degrees azimuth and 20 degrees elevation, and totality would be at 120/30. Using the app and the compass and level apps on my phone I was able to walk the property and find the best place to set up the next morning. I was in a spot where everything would be visible, but I could sit in the shade of a tree.

The next morning the hotel was full of people. There were three general categories. A group from France, of mostly older people, Asian tourists, and "crunchy geeks". This last category drove up from California in their Priuses, wore birkenstocks, floppy hats and Tee shirts with slogans like "Surely not EVERYBODY was Kung Fu Fighting" and "It's not rocket science - oh wait, it is!" and other geeky things.

Oddly enough all of those people sat by the road in the hot sun, while a small group of us sat in the back parking lot where it was not crowded at all. The small group consisted of American families, mostly from northern California. There was a young couple who sat with their glasses on and held hands the whole time; parents with their two small children, who played with a "robot dog" the whole time; an older couple who just had sheets of dark plastic they held over their faces... You get the picture. I was the only person who had a scope you could look through, and at times there was a line to look through my scope. I was glad I brought it. Here was my setup.

First contact was cool through the scope but you couldn't tell anything was going on. It wasn't until the sun was about 80% covered that things began to get weird. First off, every little speck of light through the trees turned into an upside down image of the eclipse.

Next, the light began to be...odd. It seemed to me that everything had a greenish tint. I think it's because everything is getting dark, and my brain wants it to be reddish sunset, but in fact the light is daylight colored. It's very hard to explain, and a picture doesn't show anything wrong.

I spoke to some people who viewed the eclipse from a valley and they said they could see the shadow approaching them over the mountains. That must have been cool. A few seconds before totality, there are ripples of light on the ground. My son said he saw them, but I forgot to look - I was too busy watching the sun go dark.

I was able to see "Bailey's Beads" and "The Diamond Ring" for a fraction of a second. Then I was entranced by the sight of a black spot where the sun should be, surrounded by a glowing corona. I unscrewed the filter on the camera and hastily focused, but the results were kind of lackluster...

The sky was dark - not as black as at night, but you could see brighter stars and planets. It was about two minutes long, but it seemed like seconds before it all happened rapidly in reverse and I had to screw the solar filters back on.


After the eclipse we were told there would be horrendous traffic, so we were prepared to stay until the next day. However, that would have meant driving eleven hours to the airport the next day, so we decided, after seeing that Route 5 was moving pretty well, to chance it. It would only be four and a half hours to Redding, and we would get to see Lassen Volcanic National Park, which I really wanted to do.

So we got in the car, and... I will tell you traffic moved pretty well... until there was construction and a lane was gone... and then an accident... and then rubbernecking for another accident... and then...

We got creative with ways to get off the highway and find it again. However, roads were closed or detoured for construction that Google Maps really wanted us to use. Suffice it to say that 9 hours later we rolled into our hotel.


I learned a few lessons from the experience:
  • If you have a chance, go see a total eclipse! I don't think I would go cross country just to see the eclipse, but as part of a vacation it was nice.
  • Book early, and often! Although some of the people we were with had booked the hotel the night before, it is less stressful to book ahead. Do your research on weather and traffic!
  • Ditch the camera! Honestly the pictures I got were not very good, and every second I spent staring through a camera was one I did not spend enjoying the eclipse.
  • Bring a telescope. The travelscope was just the right size,  and the 20mm eyepiece pretty much ideal. I suppose I could have gotten by with the tripod it came with, but the simple modifications I made were useful.
  • Practice. Work out any equipment bugs by viewing the sun at home ahead of time. I had worked out all the settings on my camera, but even for visual observing it is useful to practice. For instance, my wife discovered the glass didn't work well with her prescription glasses - it was easier for her to hold the eclipse glasses in her had an inch in front of her glasses.
  • Stay! In retrospect we should have stayed put until the next day when (hopefully) the traffic was less. In our case, our schedule didn't allow us to add a day to the vacation, but if I could I would have done it differently.