The Joy of Failure

May 22nd, 2012

The Great Annular Eclipse of 2012 came and went over the weekend. I traveled 250 miles to be on the center line of the path, to a beautiful place in the wilds of northern California, between Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta. My goal was not photography of the sun itself, because,

A.  I’m not into astrophotography, even though I have a small telescope and bought a solar filter for it.

B.  With the eclipse happening 20 degrees above the horizon, it would be too high to get a great sunset type of shot with silhouetted foreground objects.

C.  And although there were clouds around, none happened to be in front of the sun during the eclipse itself.

D.  My longest lens is only 200 mm, which is decent enough, but not great.

All that was ok, because my goal was to photograph the landscape under the effects of the diminished illumination. I’ve seen a partial eclipse, 75% coverage,  before and what I mainly remembered was the eerie quality of the light. I figured at 96%, it would be even more impressive.

We had several small telescopes to watch the actual eclipse with, and that was fun. I even grabbed a shot by pointing my iPhone at the lens during the peak of the event.

But as the light changed in the minutes leading up to full coverage, I knew that trying to capture the effect with a camera would be doomed to failure. Oh, it was easily visible, the strangeness of what I was seeing was a full immersion effect. Isolating any one portion of the experience changed it completely. The pictures I have simply look like they’re slightly underexposed. No magic, no mystery, none of the almost subconscious sense that this is not normal. Below the level of our conscious mind, we know what clear sunlight and the shadows it creates looks like at a given time of day and height of sun. Everything just looked off. Like maybe being on a planet farther from the sun than Earth.

The event, even at the four and a half minutes we enjoyed, was far too short to want to fool around squinting through a camera trying desperately to capture a mood rather than simply feel it.

I wandered away from my tripod and turned to take in the valley before me, trees casting shadows against bare patches between them, the surrounding snowy peaks with more massive Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta to the south and north. Rough basaltic rock all around, hardy sagebrush and Mountain Mahogany and a spring profusion of flowers and grasses, all casting weird, diminished shadows were topped by a gray-blue sky and drifts of hazy clouds that did not look like they had half an hour before.

And when the eclipse had diminished enough that the light seemed almost normal, we packed away the telescopes and cameras and for me, I knew this was a “you had to be there” moment.


In a long career of pointing a camera at the world, this was not the first time I’ve had that feeling. While I would have been pleased to produce a picture that imparted the what I saw/felt, I’m glad I didn’t spend anymore time looking through the restricted view of a camera at what was really an all-around and every direction experience.

Sometimes a camera is just a distraction.


3 Responses to “The Joy of Failure”

  1. Wenda

    Rob, I had to chuckle when i read your post. My husband was going absolutely crazy and wanted to be in the path when the annular eclipse happened. Unfortunately, he decided in the mid afternoon. No way he could jump in the car to North of Sactown or Reno. We consoled ourselves by going to the new Visitor’s Center at Land’s End. There were no glasses to be had. They have these thick opaque plaques that has a line of history on it. We saw the tourists pick these up and look thru them. We actually saw the sun as a red ball with the moon’s shadow in front of it. Enough for me. Hit the Cliff House for drinks and tapas.

    I’m concerned about your last sentence – my husband always feels the camera is a distraction and that I am missing the experience. Sometimes….maybe, but I feel compelled to do it.

  2. Spencer Awes

    Some moments we are given to witness, and some moments to testify. Thanks, Rob, for a great story.

  3. RobR

    See you in the morning, Spencer!

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