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  • Writer's pictureJustin Key

Maximum Totality

Updated: Apr 11, 2020

College was where my passion for photography exploded, fueled by the stars. It became a nightly routine to drive the 20 minutes out of town to the dark shores of Lake Superior to photograph a sea of stars I've yet to beat. This would lead to my experimentation with light painting, steel wool burning, glowing orbs by inserting flashlights into balloons, and eventually lighting my hands on fire. The stars became the subject of my make or break personal art review series for which I photographed specific constellations for an hour and extracted just the star trails of that group (an example can still be found in my logo of the constellation Leo). This was some of my last work with astronomy until the eclipse.

Solar eclipse in maximum totality

I'll get the travel complaints out of the way now, it was a nightmare but by no means reduced the experience. On Sunday morning I woke up in Ripon, WI after celebrating my sister's wedding day. I drove an hour and a half to the Milwaukee airport to catch a flight to Dallas for a connection to Denver. From Denver I drove four hours to Casper, WY arriving around 1am Monday morning. Monday afternoon, following the eclipse, I departed Casper at 12:15pm and arrived home in Denver thirteen hours later at 1:15am Tuesday. I chalk it up to a combination of unfortunate decision making and poor GPS signal. I lost 6 hours to a 10 mile stretch of frontage road. But I was able to witness the maximum totality of the solar eclipse which is why I'm finding it hard to complain.

Solar eclipse in maximum totality

I wound up in Casper through my friend Griffin who grew up there. His childhood home was my lodging Sunday night where his family was hosting an eclipse party. After an incredible spread for breakfast we drove over to a ranch in the grass covered hills just outside of town that fell in the path of totality. Carol, the owner of the property, and her adorable hoard of corgis were fantastic hosts, giving us complete access and providing us with iced tea to beat the sweltering heat. Carol had two other friends over for the show and the five of us were the only ones as far as we could see.

With the place to ourselves I had endless possibilities to set up every sensor I owned. I used rubber bands to secure a welding filter to the front of my 70-200mm, I set up my second body with a wide angle for a time lapse and brought my GoPro along for the same purpose. I also had my eclipse glasses because you can't just live through the lens.

Solar eclipse in maximum totality

Griffin and I set up our tripods in the middle of the property and alternated between shooting and gazing at the sky through our paper glasses. As the moon began to block the sun we could notice the temperature decrease. The landscape developed a yellow hue and as more sunlight was blocked by the moon the shadows dimmed, giving the landscape a flat look. With totality just minutes away it felt like someone was slowly turning the brightness down on a computer screen with a heavy compensation of yellow in the display.

The world fell silent as the sun passed into totality. Then erupted as the crowd off a nearby road cheered. Frantically I stripped the welding filter off my lens and started adjusting my settings to capture the spectacle. I could hear Carol and her friends calling out planets in the twilight sky as I rushed from eye piece to review screen and adjusting my exposure. The horizon line glowed orange before fading to deep blue where the white ring of the sun hung. It could have just been chills but the temperature dropped significantly in that quick 2 minute 40 second span.

The diamond ring of a solar eclipse

For as long as it took for the Earth to darken, as soon as the sun peaked around the moon it was like when the theater lights come on after a movie. In classic spray and pray fashion I tried to get a shot of the diamond ring. I'd find the sun in the camera, close my eyes and snap away. Totality was the only safe time to view the eclipse without eye protection and as soon as it ended you might as well have been staring at the complete sun. The lights came back on in Casper, Wyoming after a wild two minutes vanished in the blink of an eye.

The diamond ring of a solar eclipse

I was disappointed in the travel home as I arrived too exhausted to load my images on the computer. I had to crawl out of bed and rush to get into work, albeit an hour late. That day was filled with stories of everyone's experience and a longing for that 5 o'clock punch out to get home to edit. Overall I was happy with my results. The welding filter will be replaced before the next eclipse as those images were too blurry to use. The shots of totality blew me away, for a lens at 200mm I was thrilled with what it produced. It required a lot of cropping but the images are incredible still. Maybe the next time I'll have more zoom but for what I had available and all that went into seeing totality I'm just thankful to have been a part of the show.

It had been a while since I'd shot anything astronomy related. It's not hard to get away from city lights in Colorado or Wyoming or really anywhere around here. After photographing the eclipse, that fire has definitely been lit. And I know that if I want to travel back into Wyoming for a celestial show, it likely won't take me 13 hours to get home.

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