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Don't Cry for Me Argentina - Total Solar Eclipse 2019

"Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place." ⎯⎯ Rumi

This was my second total solar eclipse after Spray, Oregon on August 21st, 2017. Bella Vista was one of the places that forecast excellent conditions for a clear view in the path of totality for July. In that location, the umbral shadow moves at 7,833 miles per hour.

Total Eclipse Duration in Bella Vista

Source: Xavier M. Jubier

Hence, I prepared my travels for the San Juan Province in Argentina for the Total Solar Eclipse of Saros 127 on July 2nd, 2019. It turned out to be an unforgettable experience, with so many things forgotten along the way. At this point, I would like to say hello to my debit card, which I have forgotten in an ATM in San Juan at San Juan Bank the day before the eclipse and my eclipse glasses and detailed written eclipse sequence notes, which I have forgotten in my office in New York.

Colloquial travel anecdotes predict that if you head down to South America you should bring an immeasurable amount of patience, because things will not meet our high American standards and they will invariably go wrong. Life supposedly begins outside your comfort zone and isn't that what people strive for, to live?

I engaged a travel agent, who booked the Bella Vista experience with a local tour company in San Juan. It took me 2 days to get to Bella Vista, with a 3-day intermission at the breathtaking Iguazu Falls at the Argentinian-Brazilian border. In 1919, it took Cromwell and Davidson on their famous total solar eclipse expedition to prove Einstein more than 6 weeks to cover the distance between Liverpool and Sobral, Brazil, by ship.

Night Sky in Iguazu from the hotel grounds

On July 1st, the day before the eclipse, we were in a bus for a 10-hour roundtrip to and back from Parque Nacional Talampaya, and another three hours on a bus in the actual park. Very similar-looking to the area around Sedona, Arizona many of us noticed. Not surprisingly, Sedona is 35 degrees North Latitude whereas Talampaya is 29 degrees South Latitude. The night sky, however, looking outside the bus, was breath-taking.

On eclipse day, it took a mere 3-hours on the bus to get to our location in Bella Vista, where several tour companies converged on a farm with around 500 eclipsophiles from all over the World. Several AAA astronomy members were just down the road from me.

The exact location was 30º 26’ 19 “ S 69º 14’ 52” W.

Totality Duration: 2 minutes and 30 seconds

Maximum Totality at 20:40:49 UTC

Observation Site Posta Kamak

I set up my camera and tripod, put the filter on, followed Fred Espenak and Stan Honda’s guidance for settings, took a few test images to make sure I have a sharp solar disk, noted my settings and left to walk around and mingle with other photographers. I approached one friendly looking gentleman and engaged him in a small talk. He pulled out Espenak’s printout for eclipse settings and I shared my f/8.0, 1/800 sec, ISO 1000 settings and he said seems about right. I asked where he is from and he replied Brooklyn. Wow, I am from Manhattan and told him I am a member of the AAA and asked if he is a member of any astronomy clubs? He responded: “No, they are all communists.” Oh my. I was floored. I travel thousands of miles to meet someone from my hometown who hurls a defamation? We surely are idealists, and passionate ones, but not ideologists. Ok, off I go and meet a guy from England on his 9th eclipse shooting and filming. He shared his 2015 Faroe Island experience where he paid a thousand quid (that’s Pound Sterling) to have clouds obscure the view. The clouds went dark and then bright and he did not see a thing. Eclipse chasing is all about putting yourself in a position to observe. We, luckily, don’t have control over the weather just yet. There is not one cloud in the sky today.

Crowd at Posta Kamak Observation Site

The eclipse begins and the Moon slowly takes larger and larger bites out of the Sun. It is a breathtaking process. The bright orange of the Sun’s diminishing disk is just like the tasty scrambled eggs I was served at the hotel in Buenos Aires or the orange juice, my flight neighbor spilled over me an hour before landing back in New York. Partiality continues, and it is moving unstoppably to totality. People are cheering and getting excited. I had step-by-step instruction on shooting the sequence and practiced a few times in New York. I felt pretty good.

With minutes to go, the light gets ghostly strange, opaque, like a fine veil enveloping the whole area. We have a gentleman calling out time references: “One minute to go.” The umbral shadow races towards us. Shadow bands are appearing. It looks like an approaching thunderstorm, except on a cloudless day. And then, diamond ring, and totality. The corona looks breathtaking, a fine silvery-white spray emanating from the covered solar disk to the 2 PM and 8 PM positions for millions of miles into space. My mind feels as if totally separated from my body. It feels like it is levitating. Everything stopped and I was captivated in time and space. I do not notice the hundreds of people around me. I am entranced. I take a few pictures with my point and shoot.

Moment of Totality

I then start shooting my bracketing sequence as programmed. My screen is black. I am thinking, ok I have to dial down the shutter speed and shoot again. Black. Hundreds of times have I adjusted the settings during dark nights to get an image of the night sky. I adjust the ISO. And, nothing. All black. The seconds just keep ticking. I have no idea what is going.

Then, I am struck by lightning. THE SOLAR FILTER IS STILL ON! I fumble, screw it off, and hit the button. It is the moment of third contact when the Moon uncovers the Sun and the diamond ring appears. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. I missed it. 2 minutes and 30 seconds and I missed it. I felt like dying. Not actually dying like King Henry I of England dying in 1133 during a 4 minute and 38 second eclipse. No, just disappearing. I was looking forward to this moment for over a year and half. I observed the eclipse, but a lot of my time was spent fumbling the settings of my camera. I did not practice often enough. I totally forgot to look at my instructions. It all went so fast. My brain had stopped working properly when I was hypnotized by totality. I felt so low and lonely in that moment, compared to the emotional high and togetherness, a mere two minutes ago. I felt dejected. I felt like crying. I cannot go back. I got to wait for another year and a half and then a lot of things have to go perfect for me to observe a total solar eclipse.

Oh well, I plug in my timer cable, and start shooting the rest. Maybe I have something. About 10 minutes into shooting I realize my settings are totally off! All the partial phases are overexposed. I sink deeper into the ground. I change the settings to pre-eclipse and continue. Then our tour guide comes and says we are leaving, and I should pack up! But the eclipse isn’t done! “Oh, we are just here for totality.” Everybody from our group is in the bus. I cannot believe what is continuing to unfold. We aren’t even watching to the end? The sunset across the Andes? I felt even lower. I couldn’t muster up the New Yorker brazenness to tell him no and “go where the sun don’t shine” but of course, it didn’t shine 20 minutes ago where we were We were already there. I am guest in this amazing country. Who am I to oppose the group’s decision? I pack up and sit in the van. Then our guide comes and says I should come out again and take pictures because there was another person in our group who didn’t want to leave. How am I going to replicate the setup and proper frame again? Plus, I missed 10 minutes. What had happened over the last 40 minutes? A cosmic comedy. I just stand outside and watch how the Sun sets behind the Andes range with an ever-diminishing partiality. What an amazingly wonderful and strange spectacle just unfolded.

In the end, this is what a “botched” eclipse sequence looks like:

Eclipse Sequence 2019 Argentina

Camera: Sony A7R II; lens: Sony FE 4/24-70

Partial eclipse pre-totality Start 19:25 UTC: ISO 1000 | 42mm | f/8.0 | 1/800 sec

Totality (close to third contact): ISO 800 | 42mm | f/8.0 | 1/13 sec

Partial eclipse post-totality (first two): ISO 800 | 42mm | f/8.0 | 1/13 sec

Partial eclipse post-totality End 21:07 UTC (last three): ISO 1000 | 42mm | f/8.0 | 1/800 sec

The first half is good and then, with the third contact and diamond ring, you do not see the moon disc. Then the next two partial phases are overexposed and the last three are at the same settings as the first half. Due to more atmosphere and the Rayleigh scattering the setting Sun looks reddish. The last partials are missing. That’s when I was in the van already.

My friend Scott Robert, CEO of Explore Scientific, wrote me this after seeing the picture:

The sequence is beautiful. Sometimes we have so many preconceived notions about things… This eclipse sequence offers a departure from the expected total eclipse shot, which has been done many times over. The composition moves your eye through the image, and you are lead to a moment where the sunlight has broken free, triumphant over the obscuring Moon.

Touching words.

What do you do if you want to get better at something? You get back to practicing. The next day in Buenos Aires, I went back at it as you can see in the following composition of various objects eclipsing the Sun at various coverage ratios and a roughly 1 Astronomical Unit distance.

Eclipses in Buenos Aires

I made A LOT of mistakes. Shooting eclipses is hard and this process has instilled me with utmost respect for any photographer who composes a beautiful sequence capturing all the phases. I am grateful for all the tips AAA member Stan Honda has given me and also for the many members who patiently answer all my questions during any observing sessions. We are not communists after all, although we are a community. I was pushed far out of my comfort zone on this journey, and I am happy it happened.

Thank you, Argentina for your hospitality. There is no need to cry for me.

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