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  • Writer's pictureSteven Penn

Behind the Lens: Capturing the Eclipse

Updated: Apr 13

On Monday, like most of the world, we took a moment out of our busy lives to appreciate a truly once-in-a-lifetime, cosmic event as the total solar eclipse darkened skies and dazzled viewers.  

And luckily for us, because the Westfield Outdoors® headquarters is in Indianapolis, Indiana, we happened to be in a prime eclipse viewing spot, smack dab in the path of totality.

Knowing the potential for awe-inspiring visuals and the sheer luck of being in the path of totality, our photo and video team set out on a mission to capture the shot of a lifetime.  

This is that story.

Product Photographers Turned Cosmic Photographers

As an outdoor company, our extremely talented photography/videography team spends typical workdays shooting products we make, like chairs, tents, wagons, cots, and much more. As one might imagine, sometimes that work is done in the studio and sometimes it’s done in the field to shoot products in nature where they would actually be used. While other times, they capture images of breathtaking scenery without products to be used as banner images for websites, vibe-posts for social media, and more.

Now, you don’t have to be an expert in photography to surmise there will be some stark differences between shooting something like a camp chair and a massive cosmic event like a total solar eclipse. But Westfield Outdoors® photographer Jason Weller was up to the challenge.

Step 1: Gear Up and Secure a Spot

Jason hopped on a scooter and headed to the heart of Indianapolis with the goal of setting up shop near Monument Circle. He arrived around 12 p.m. to be there during the start of the eclipse, just before 2 p.m. EST. That would give him enough time to get all the gear ready to capture the main event, the totality, which started around 3:06 p.m. here.

As for what he needed to shoot an astronomical event of this magnitude, Jason said he packed about 46 pounds of gear. The gear included two camera bodies, multiple lenses of varying lengths, a teleconverter, filtration, two tripods, and tons of backups for cords, cards, tools and much more.

Gear for capturing an eclipse.

The filtration, Jason said, was essential for shooting the eclipse.

“You have to bring filtration because if you just shoot as you normally would then the sun will be magnified through the lens and will create enough heat that it will actually burn the sensor and smoke will literally start coming out,” Jason said. “So, we have to have very, very strong filtration. I had a 16.6 stop ND filter which to dodge the technical jargon, it’s essentially very strong sunglasses for your camera.”

Having backup items were also key.

“This is really a once in a lifetime opportunity, there’s zero room for error,” Jason said. “So, you have to bring backups for everything like batteries, cables, tools, batteries, SD cards, the works. Then, I tossed everything into a backpack and headed out.”

Jason had also mapped out a specific spot that he hoped would help add a little more context to something so incredible. The spot that he picked out would allow the photos of the eclipse to also incorporate the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which would provide foreground context to the shots.

Jason scouting shooting locations in the days leading up to the eclipse.

“The reason why we kind of wanted to shoot at that specific spot was we knew there would be a lot of shots that people had of just the eclipse by itself,” Jason said “But I think the challenge is, most of the time, pictures don’t really do something like this justice. But in an attempt to do it justice, we wanted a foreground element (the monument) to give some context to the event and show off Indianapolis in the shot.”

Step 2: Ready for Action

As the moon slowly made its way over the sun, darkness set in. Street lights turned on. Eclipse glasses came off. For our team, this was go-time. A just over 3-minute rush began to get the shots of the totality.

But, when you’re shooting something as unique as a total eclipse, preparing and knowing exactly what you needed to do in the moment proved difficult. Typically, Jason said, when you’re shooting something you’re not familiar with or you’re not used to doing, what do you do?

“You practice,” Jason said. “But there’s nothing really similar to this, right? The level, the sort of power and magnitude of the forces that you’re shooting, just don’t really exist in any other context. So, the preparation is theoretical in nature, which is always more difficult than actual empirical practice. So, that alone you’re starting off kind of hard because it’s all conceptual and a bit abstract.”

There’s also unique issues situated around the filtration needed to capture something as powerful as an eclipse.

“When you put a 16.6 ND stop filter on a camera, a lot of things change,” Jason said. “You need a lot more light to get the exposure that you need. Now, you are exposing directly for the sun, so you don’t need quite as much light on that end, but everything else, except for the sun is completely dark.”

For Jason, this was the key to knowing that he would have to make a composite image after the fact to truly capture the eclipse.

“You’re going to have to make a composite with multiple images and you’re going to have to expose the foreground element differently, along with the sun itself,” Jason said. “What makes it even harder is the sun itself is changing brightness as it’s happening. So, as you’re taking exposures, the sun, or the light that is emitted from it is getting dimmer and dimmer because more and more of it is getting covered.”

As the eclipse began to creep closer to the full totality, everything was going off without a hitch. But, at 3:06 p.m., when full totality began, something he wasn’t expecting occurred.

Step 3: Problem Solving

As the totality set in, Jason realized his camera went dark. He said that started a quick moment of panic, heightened by the fact that this was a once in a lifetime shot. There are no mulligans when it comes to an eclipse. Did the camera battery die? Was it some cosmic force preventing the capture of this event? Aliens perhaps? In the seconds that felt like hours several thoughts raced through his head.

“Having no real time to prepare and with no experience with this, there were a lot of photographers, myself included, that had a moment of panic when the actual totality occurred,” Jason said. “Although I obviously knew it would be less bright than right before the totality, I didn’t realize it would be thousands of times dimmer. So, there was about a couple seconds where me and some other people’s cameras, basically went black.”

As the panic and pressure of the moment set in, Jason said it occurred to him.

“We finally figured it out — take off the filters,” Jason said. “Even with the filter and changing your settings to expose to the maximum, it still doesn’t cut it because there’s that much of a light difference. So, we ripped off our filters and we were good to go, and we got the shot.”

Step 4: Time to Edit

After problem solving in the moment and getting plenty of shots, the next step was heading to the lab to build out his photos. Jason said, in practice, making the composite photos for the main shot wasn’t inherently difficult. One interesting aspect was, in addition to the light/filtration issues was that when you’re shooting something like this, you have to also account for the movement of the eclipse, as well as the earth.

“Because you’re shooting so long, your field of vision is so narrow and the objects are moving through space at such speed that you actually have to move your camera while you’re taking photos,” Jason said. “And because as the earth is rotating, it makes the eclipse move through the sky as well. So not only do you have to account for the light change, you also have to account for this movement because you’re shooting long.”

So, once you account for that when creating the composite, it’s a matter of matching everything up.

“You have to reorient along the path, because like I said you have these shots that are kind of moving, so you have to reconstruct the path a little bit," Jason said. "But other than that, it’s not hard. The hard part is that you have one shot and no one’s ever shot anything like this really and there are massive forces at play that no one has any experience with. So, you kind of have to use all of your problem-solving skills in the moment, try as best as you can to prepare conceptually and then just, in the heat of the moment, rock and roll with it.”

Behind the scenes look at Jason editing his photos.

When it was all said and done, Jason said he was happy with how everything went and the shots that he got.

“Luckily, I think we did a good job,” Jason said. “It’s kind of fun. Kind of stressful. And we all said afterwards that we’d love to shoot it again, because each time you learn something. For one it would be awesome to shoot it again just because it would be fun, and you could shoot from different locations. But, it’s a onetime thing. We’re lucky we got the shots, and it was a really positive experience.”

Step 5: The Final Shots

We hope you enjoyed this unique look into a truly astronomical event. Here at Westfield Outdoors®, we can sometimes forget how lucky we are to work with such truly talented professionals. And for an event like this, who better to contextualize it and provide a different point of view than a photographer.

So, after burying the Lede a little bit, here are some of Jason's main shots from a crazy, fun, stressful day, no one will forget.

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