In my last post, I described how we scouted for a location in the Elqui Valley of Chile to photograph the eclipse of July 2, 2019. Once we found Viña Falernia, near Vicuña, we still had decisions to make.

Down by the vineyards near the lake border? There were hills bordering the water, some sinuous channels in the sand bordering the lake, making for some possible nice foregrounds for a wide-angle scene with the eclipsed sun. We also had a more secluded option, up a dirt road accessing steeper and higher vineyards overlooking the lake. This offered the possibility of including some nice fall color in the foreground, but then again, how much foreground would be visible during totality? These were the questions with which we were wrestling, even on the morning of the eclipse.

At that point, we had scouted both high and low locations, using PhotoPills on our iPhones to predict the trajectory of the eclipsed sun. A desire to have a location to ourselves and to shoot together led us ultimately to decide to shoot from the elevated viewpoint over the vineyards. During the Jackson, WY eclipse of August 21, 2017, we ended up shooting the eclipse from completely different vantage points. Read my account here and here. We had two chairs parked at a gap in the fence and several hours to set up.

Set-up for shooting the total solar eclipse of July 2, 2019 overlooking Viña Falernia and Lake Puclaro in the Elqui Valley of Chile
Our setup for shooting the total solar eclipse of July 2, 2019 overlooking Viña Falernia and Lake Puclaro in the Elqui Valley of Chile: Two tripods at a gap in the fence, with a third in trees a 10 minute walk away through the vineyards.

And that’s when we got a little greedy. We’d initially planned to have Steve shoot the eclipsed sun with his rock-solid carbon fiber Sirui tripod, Nikon D850 and 80-400mm Nikon lens. The plan was for me to shoot a wide-angle scenic with my Fujifilm X-T2 mounted on my MeFoto carbon fiber travel tripod with an Acratech head.

This would have been a very sensible plan, indeed, not too complicated: Two photographers, two setups. I planned to use the integral intervalometer to shoot a time-lapse sequence of wide-angle images, including the eclipsed sun over the mountains on the far side of the lake, with a fringe of fall color in the foreground.

Using multiple cameras to expand our plan

And that’s when the plan began to … well, expand. The fall color I wanted to include wasn’t visible from where we were, but I could include it in the frame by walking 5-10 minutes along the slope to another location. If figured I could set up the time-lapse, then leave the camera unattended during the eclipse, walk back to our gap in the fence and shoot eclipsed sun close-ups with my Fujifilm X-T3 paired with a 100-400 mm lens.

I found a suitable site, set up the tripod with a Wimberly Arca Sidekick and the camera. Using PhotoPills, I checked the expected arc of the eclipse. What I didn’t check was the azimuth (angle of the sun in the sky). I never questioned my interpretation of the Augmented Reality feature, showing me approximately where the total eclipse should occur. I first set up an 80mm lens, then thought better of it, replacing it with a 16-55 mm lens, but made the mistake of parking it at 55mm.

PhotoPills projection of expected arc of sun during July 2, 2019 eclipse.
PhotoPills projection of the expected arc of sun during July 2, 2019 eclipse.

I programmed the time-lapse and walked back up to join Steve and set up to shoot eclipsed sun close-ups. By this time, Steve was ready to go. But he also wanted to shoot a wide-angle time-lapse and we only had three tripods and two chairs. We compromised, using one chair to set up Steve’s Nikon D500 for a wide-angle time-lapse scenic, using a 24-70mm zoom lens. I shortened my tripod and set up to shoot eclipse close-ups while sitting on the ground.

Adding a drone

At some point during these preparations, I suddenly remembered we had our drone with us, a DJI Mavic 2 Pro. We had been shooting with it in the morning in the lower vineyards.

Aerial view of Viña Falernia in the Elqui Valley of Chile
Aerial view of Viña Falernia in the Elqui Valley of Chile, at the eastern end of a body of water, Puclaro, and the location from which we decided to shoot the eclipse of July 2, 2019.

Although we’d never done it, I thought we probably could send the drone down closer to the lake to get the viewpoint we couldn’t reach from land and set it up to shoot a time-lapse sequence too.

Steve managed to figure out how to program the sequence. Now we just had to send it into the right position when the time came. We were using the solar eclipse timer app on one of our phones to alert us to the times, and the other phone was employed to drive the drone.

Solar Eclipse Timer app for Iphone
A valuable eclipse companion: Solar Eclipse Timer app for iPhone, with alerts for the start of eclipse phases, as well as somewhat comical pronouncements like “Observe animal behavior.”

The partial eclipse started at 3:23 in the afternoon, just a minimal flattening of the lower left hand corner of the sun. We decided to shoot the partial at five minute intervals. I used my Apple Watch as a timer. Gradually, the bite engulfing the sun became more and more convincing.

The drone was programmed to shoot starting five minutes before totality, which was expected at 4:38 p.m. We allowed five additional minutes to launch the drone into position and park it in the sky. (Five minutes to launch it and fly it into position, 12-13 minutes shooting, five minutes to retrieve it, well within the battery’s capability).

Adjusting our setup

As the partial eclipse progressed, we both realized that the sun seemed a LOT higher in the sky than we’d been led to expect by PhotoPills. My wide-angle setup was too far away for me to sprint over there and use a wider focal length. Steve’s was close enough at hand that he could make an adjustment, but he didn’t realize that in doing so, he stopped the time-lapse just before totality. Only our drone wide-angle time-lapse worked out as hoped.

Meanwhile, the shadows grew weirdly sharp and blue-toned as the partial eclipse progressed to a thinner and thinner sliver. Dancing shadow bands leapt around us.

We’d made the investment prior to the Jackson, Wyoming eclipse in XUME magnetic lens adapters, which made popping off the solar filters a snap when the first diamond ring appeared, signaling the transition from partial to total eclipse.

South American total solar eclipse diamond ring
Diamond ring: the magical moment of transition from a partial to total solar eclipse!

It was a truly magnificent sight! All over the valley below us, we could hear shouts and cries ring out. It was a fantastic experience, even if our photographic ambitions led us to nearly overreach our capabilities. Collectively, we consider this eclipse an overall success, even as we learned a LOT of lessons for the next time.

What we might do differently next time

  1. Shoot wider. Two of our three wide-angle setups weren’t wide enough to include the eclipsed sun. We were still able to make use of the scenes as backdrops for composite images. Shooting vertical instead of horizontal allows more margin of safety, especially for eclipses high in the sky.
  2. Shoot video. I would set this up similarly to a wide-angle scenic, using matrix metering and Aperture Priority.
  3. Consider adding a tracking device to follow the sun’s path. The sun moves surprisingly fast, moving its own diameter across the frame in two minutes. Having to reposition to follow the sun introduces more opportunities to knock the focus off and introduce micro-motion.
  4. Divide and conquer. Trying to man so many setups is a potential recipe for disaster. We were lucky to be in a vineyard, with little company. Otherwise, I never would have left a camera completely unattended.
  5. Trust but verify. We relied too heavily on PhotoPills to predict the height of the eclipsed sun in the sky, failing to cross check with the altitude data available from the app.
  6. More redundancy. I discovered while setting up that my cable release, the Fujifilm RR-90 — which works with the XT-2 — doesn’t work for the XT-3, which requires the Fujifilm RR-100. Luckily, I had an old fashioned cable release which did work.
  7. More practice. We’ve both pretty new to time-lapse and have learned the hard way how easy it is to mess up a time-lapse sequence.

The next total solar eclipse will also be in South America, on December 14, 2020. It passes through the Lake District of Chile, an appealing destination and one to which we’ve never been. Total eclipses are fleeting, rare and magical and as we’re quickly learning, enchanting and addictive!

Composite of total solar eclipse of July 2, 2019 in Elqui Valley of Chile

To listen to a podcast discussion of shooting eclipses between Kirby Flanagan of Flanagan Fotos, Photo Focus author Steve Eilenberg and me, check out this link.