Don’t cry for Me Argentina — Eclipse Report from Bella Vista

This was my second total solar eclipse after Spray, Oregon, on August 21, 2017. Bella Vista was one of the places that forecast excellent conditions for a clear view in the path of totality for July according

I prepared my travels for the San Juan Province in Argentina for the Total Eclipse of Saros 127 on July 2, 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 had 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 had 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. I engaged a travel agent, who booked the Bella Vista experience with a local tour company in San Juan. It took me two days to get to Bella Vista, with a three-day intermission at the breathtaking Iguazu Falls at the Argentinian-Brazilian border. In 1919, to prove Einstein (Einstein’s theory of General Relativity), it took Cromwell and Davidson on their famous expedition more than six weeks to cover the distance between Liverpool and Sobral, Brazil.

Night Sky in Iguazu from the grounds of the hotel, Photo by Matthias Schmitt

On July 1, the day before the eclipse, we were in a bus for 10 hours round-trip 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, as we looked outside the bus, was breathtaking.

On eclipsed day it took a mere three hours on the bus to get to our location in Bella Vista, a private event, where several tour companies converged on a farm with around 500 eclipsophiles from all over the world. Several AAA 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 20:42:49 UTC

Observation Site Posta Kamak, Photo by Matthias Schmitt

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; he said that 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.  I 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. Okay, off I go and meet a guy from England on his ninth eclipse shooting and filming. He shared his 2015 Faroe Islands experience where he paid a thousand quid (that’s Pound Sterling), only to have cloud cover 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, unluckily, don’t have control over the weather just yet. There is not one cloud in the sky today.

Crowd at Posta Kamak Observation Site, Photo by Matthias Schmitt

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 had 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, Photo by Matthias Schmitt

I then start shooting my bracketing sequence as programmed. My screen is black. I am thinking, okay, I have to dial down the exposure 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 on.

Then, I am struck by lightning. THE SOLAR FILTER IS STILL ON! I fumble, screw it off, and hit the button the moment of third contact, 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 had been 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. 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 cannot go back. I have to wait for another year and a half.

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. I am a 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, Photo by Matthias Schmitt

Camera: Sony A7R II

The first half is good and then, with the third contact and diamond ring, you do not see the moon disk. 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.

What do you do if you make mistakes? 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 one Astronomical Unit distance.

Eclipses in Buenos Aires, Photo by Matthias Schmitt

All in all, it was a great emotional and learning experience. I made A LOT of mistakes. Shooting eclipses is hard and this process has instilled me 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. Thank you, Argentina; there is no need to cry for me.

Photo by Matthias Schmitt