What lengths would you go to in order to capture an amazing, unique perspective of one of the most photographed events in human history? Photographer Jon Carmichael shares with us the extraordinary story about how he captured an amazing aerial shot of 2017’s total solar eclipse.
Jon Carmichael developed a love for astronomy in 7th grade, when his geography teacher demonstrated for his class the rarity that is a total solar eclipse. His passion for astronomy grew until it became a calling. Jon says, “our ancestors for thousands of years looked up at the stars and said ‘What is this? Who are we? What are we? Why are we here?’” It is a common fascination for all humankind.
When he was 20 years old, Jon moved to Los Angeles alone, and was going through a difficult depression. He happened to stumble upon the photography section in his local bookstore, and he was immediately drawn to an image on the cover of a book. He spent the next few hours and over $100 on books that day, igniting a passion that drove him to devour tons of education about photography without having ever picked up a camera. He simply could not afford one at the time. Soon, he decided to take out a loan to finance his first camera, and it completely changed his trajectory. “The camera then became a remedy to the difficult things I was going through, and helped me become present and appreciate the beauty of the world around me,” recalls Jon.
As he honed his talent for photography, Jon realized that he could use the images he created to show people realities that they might not be able to see with the naked eye. Jon says that light pollution has diminished so much of that viewable wonder, and his mission is to capture it so that everyone can see the wonder of astronomical phenomena. So he merged the two fascinations and began to produce captivating photographs of astrological events.
In 2017, as the whole country prepared for the viewing of the first total solar eclipse in 99 years, Jon knew he was about to have the opportunity to capture something momentous, and he wanted his take on it to be unlike any other. As a powered hang glider pilot, he knew that he ultimately wanted to capture this eclipse from the air, much higher than he could fly himself, but he couldn't afford to hire private air travel, so he had no choice but to book a fare with a commercial airliner. He tried his luck in a contest for a special eclipse-viewing flight, but he didn’t win. “I worked really hard on a video (for a contest) that Alaska Airlines announced, to get on their eclipse flight, but lost. I was devastated. But now, as it turns out, I was extremely lucky to not win that contest.”
After researching flight maps and the moon’s shadow, a mere three days before the event everything just sort of clicked into place. It was almost like it was meant to be. First of all, there was one single flight available that would be following the path of totality, and there was one seat left on that flight. Jon would have to travel to get on it, because he lives in Manhattan, hundreds of miles away from totality, and the flight originated in Portland, OR. It would land in St. Louis, MO, which happens to be where his late father was born, a place he'd been wanting to visit for some time. And in Portland was Jon's nephew, with whom he was long overdue for a visit.
All of these coincidences gave Jon the feeling that this trip was somehow written in the proverbial stars. But it wasn't going to be a simple undertaking. The flight Jon found was on Southwest Airlines, an airline which does not sell assigned seat tickets. He had no guarantee that he would be in a window seat, much less in a prime window seat in front of the wingspan, with a clear view of the horizon. He tried to check in early, but he still ended up in one of the last boarding groups. So he brought along plenty of bribe money in hopes of buying himself a seat with a view, and booked his flight to destiny.
As he anxiously waited with gear in tow to board his flight, he watched with a heavy heart as the flight next to his boarded. He knew about that flight. It was the same flight from the contest he had entered and lost. He watched the winners board, complete with red carpet treatment, and the realization washed over him like a sense of dread: his own flight was already delayed by 25 minutes.
Dread soon turned to excited surprise when a voice over the PA system announced that Southwest Airlines representatives would be on board to view the eclipse, and that the flight had in fact been delayed on purpose, in an effort to give passengers, including those Southwest reps, the most advantageous view of the 100% totality zone.
Jon knew he needed to schmooze the Southwest representatives in order to get the best opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime photo, so he unpacked some of his gear in an effort to look legitimate, armed himself with some examples of his work, and introduced himself. Once they heard his story and saw that he was indeed a talented, legitimate photographer, they ended up bringing him forward and letting him on the plane ahead of everyone else.
But Jon’s prep work still wasn’t finished. He was introduced to the flight’s Captain, who was helpful enough to go out and clean Jon’s window so that he would have as clear a view as possible for his photographic endeavor. While describing his quest, Jon mentioned to the Captain that he would ultimately need to have a 180 degree view to get the best panoramic capture of the eclipse. And then he asked the Captain if he could maybe turn the plane around mid-flight. The Captain laughed and rolled his eyes a little.
But it turns out that asking is sometimes the only way to get what you want, and so, as requested, the Captain indeed got permission to alter the flight plan, and before all was said and done, the plane did not one, but five arcing 180 degree turns in an effort to give Jon all the views he needed for a tremendous panoramic shot, before they headed back on to their destination.
The shot itself was much more technically difficult than just snapping a photo out an airplane window. In many ways, Jon had been preparing for years for this moment. Although the Captain had cleaned his window, it’s still a challenge to get a clear, focused shot through three layers of scratched, dingy airplane window. Then there were the extremes of lighting changes as totality occurs, changing the lighting instantly from day to night. “I'm not sure I'll ever believe how perfectly it all came together,” says Jon.
In the end, the stunning image that Jon created was a photographic mosaic of over 1200 images taken before, during, and after the moon's shadow passed over and under the plane. Since he wanted super high resolution for the image, he used two Canon 5DS Rs, along with a 5D Mark III. The lenses he used were the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L and a Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L for the eclipse detail. “I spent almost a year and several hundred hours working on it,” says Jon.
So why did Jon go to such great lengths to photograph one event? There is much more to it than just imagery. “This was one of the most uniting moments in US history,” says Jon. “For one day, every news network covered a positive story. For one day, everything was positive. And it’s very simple why. For a brief moment in time, everyone in America became an astronomer.”
Prints of Jon’s resulting epic image, entitled "108", are currently available for purchase on his website. Be sure to check out Jon’s Instagram to see more of his amazing landscape and celestial work.
All images courtesy of Jon Carmichael.