Well, perhaps a better title for this article would be “when the Sun, the Moon, and some clouds align” as I will be sharing my experience photographing the 2023 Annular Solar Eclipse! It’s a story of luck and coincidence, but also a story of being ready for anything as a photographer.
Some photos require months of planning, years of experience mastering the camera, learning the ins and outs of the subject, and the quick thinking under pressure. If you’ve taken a photo like this, it may sting to hear a well-meaning viewer compliment it by saying, “wow, what a lucky shot!”
Other times, photography is very luck-based indeed. When this happens, we can thank the universe for that little stroke of luck that led to capturing a great shot. Maybe that luck comes in the form of a rare wild animal, the perfect sunset, a shooting star, or in my case recently, the perfect cloud density during the recent annular solar eclipse.
Photographing the Annular Solar Eclipse
As a full time student, I don’t get to do as much photography as I would like to, but I try my best to get out of the country as much as possible. The weekend of the solar eclipse aligned with my college’s fall break, which gave me two days off. That was just enough time for a quick trip from Florida to Panama with my partner to visit a friend and get in some jungle time.
I booked flights for Panama before the solar eclipse crossed my mind at all. It wasn’t until about a week later that I realized the trip didn’t just coincide with the timing of the solar eclipse, but I would happen to be in a country where complete annularity would occur! This was the first stroke of luck.
Once in Panama, we decided to drive to El Valle de Antón to view the eclipse. The community of El Valle is as vibrant as the nature that surrounds it. It is a bustling town situated at the bottom of a large crater of an active volcano and surrounded by Jurassic-looking peaks and ridges. It also happened to be very close to the center of the eclipse’s path.
The shot I had in mind was a landscape photograph taken from the mountains of El Valle, overlooking the rainforest with the ring of fire visible up in the sky. Unfortunately, on the drive to El Valle, it became clear this was not going to happen. The clouds grew thicker as the day progressed, and I grew nervous that we would miss the eclipse entirely.
The closer we got to El Valle, the denser the cloud layer became. We could even see rain falling on the crater ahead of us. Perhaps viewing a solar eclipse from a cloud forest wasn’t the best plan!
At this point, it was mere minutes before the peak of the eclipse, and we were still in the car. I changed strategies to simply capturing the eclipse at all. I started pointing my OM-1 with the Lumix 100-300mm f/4-5.6 towards the sun through the sunroof.
It didn’t help that I had no equipment meant for photographing the sun whatsoever. All I could do was use the fastest shutter speed and lowest ISO and hope for the best. As the clouds shifted, it alternated between being too bright and overexposing everything, to covering the sun completely.
After making a U-turn to head down the mountain and escape the dense clouds, we made another U-turn to go back up it! Timing and luck were everything, and we could only cross our fingers hoping it would work out with the clouds.
Just minutes before 2nd contact, the clouds shifted to be just right both for viewing and for photography.
For a glorious five minutes, the eclipse flickered in and out through the clouds. The cloud density was perfect for photographing the eclipse with my telephoto, and I couldn’t believe my eyes simply to witness the incredible sight of the moon sliding in front of the sun.
Tragedy struck when I tried to take another shot and the camera read back “memory card full.”
A once in a lifetime celestial event was mere seconds from occurring, and my memory card was full. It was almost funny. Of all times for my card to fill up, it had to be seconds before the ring of fire would start. You wouldn’t believe how much I was kicking myself.
With my extra card in the car and only seconds to react, I began deleting a bunch of photos I knew I had already downloaded. With enough photos deleted, I looked up just in time to see Baily’s Beads as the ring of fire came into fruition. I was able to fire off a couple shots capturing this moment before the fleeting moment was over.
The ring of fire hovered above us through the clouds in a surreal moment. It was an incredibly unnatural feeling to look up and see a floating halo in the clouds. Despite my stress levels being through the roof, I started to get giddy with excitement for witnessing such a bizarre phenomenon in the sky.
In a frenzy, my eyes jumped between my viewfinder and the sky as I tried to both capture the shot and enjoy the moment. I ended up in a cycle: take a few shots, fill the card, look at the eclipse while my muscle memory let me hit “delete,” “OK,” “delete,” “OK” over and over. Then I’d go back to shooting, then delete and enjoy the moment, then shoot again, and back and forth.
Because the clouds were constantly moving and dynamic, I found I had to keep changing my settings to get the optimal exposure. Settings that were perfect one moment would be overexposed the next. I was constantly changing my aperture and ISO as the eclipse continued.
We must have been very close to the center of the path of annularity, because there was a moment where the sun looked like a near-perfect ring in the sky. We were all oohing and ahing. And just as quickly as it began, third contact occurred, breaking the ring of fire.
Moments later, once the sun had returned to the shape of a crescent, a large cloud blocked out the sun entirely and never went away.
A sense of relief and gratitude washed over me as I realized just how lucky we had gotten. If we had stopped anywhere else along the road, there could have been either too much or too little cloud layer to have witnessed and photographed the eclipse. Even the spot we chose by chance only had the right conditions for the few short minutes surrounding annularity.
Despite my terrible planning and full memory card, I got a better shot of the ring of fire than I could have asked for. We continued our drive to El Valle as heavy rain began to pelt the car. Luck was on our side that day for sure.
The Role of Luck in Photography
I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of luck went into this experience, and very little planning. It’s not the usual recipe for success in photography, but when it works, it’s a wonderful thing.
Most of the time, however, I think the best photos are created when planning and skill combine with a little luck. If good photography was completely skill-based, then the best photographers would be cranking out 10/10s like a machine, but we all know it doesn’t work like that. Even the most skilled photographers go through periods where things don’t line up and those 10/10 shots are scarce.
That’s because a little luck is necessary. The perfect sky, the observation of a rare animal or behavior, a special moment, and so on… that’s what makes the greatest photos.
It requires skill to capture these moments effectively, with emotional and artistic resonance. But first it helps to have a little gift from the universe – some luck to take things to the next level.