TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE - APRIL 8, 2024  (in Dallas)

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

As many of you know, I like to chase total solar eclipses. I was in Nashville for the last one in 2017 and chose to go to Dallas for this one.


A big factor in choosing where to view an eclipse – assuming you have to travel to get there – is cloud cover. There’s nothing worse than having clouds block your view of this spectacular and relatively rare celestial event. I can personally attest to that having flown to Shanghai, China, in 2009 only to get rained out.


So it’s also important to understand how much of a factor luck of the draw plays in to some of this. Did you not only happen to choose the right place, but did you have to be standing in the right place within the zone of totality at the right moment? The ideal situation is totally clear, absolutely cloud-free skies. For Dallas in 2024, as you’ll soon read, we got lucky and had a fairly clear view. But there were others also in Dallas whose view was obstructed by low-lying clouds.


So when I was doing my initial research as to where to go, I first looked at the entire path of the eclipse. The cool thing about this one was that it was going to pass over a number of major U.S. cities, making it potentially the most-viewed eclipse ever. Mazatlan in Mexico was first landfall, but once in the U.S., the eclipse path took it over Austin and Dallas in Texas, Little Rock in Arkansas, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Buffalo (and Niagara falls), and then into Maine.


Totality actually started in the Pacific Ocean near Socorro Island. I briefly considered chartering one of the Nautilus boats so we could sit on the centerline in the water – we did this with Mike Ball’s Spoilsport for the 2012 Australia eclipse – but eventually decided to stay land-based.


Over the United States, the eclipse path started is southern Texas and then went on a north-easterly path. It was fairly easy to dig up historical cloud cover data along the eclipse path and the general pattern was that even though Texas historically wasn’t cloud-free – it came in around 40% cloud cover on average which is certainly manageable – as you moved further NE along the path of totality, the chances of cloud cover increased.


The other thing I wanted to factor in was how easy was it to get somewhere. Niagara Falls definitely had appeal but it was a couple of plane rides from LAX and then the cloud factor made it less appealing. But Dallas is easy to get to – especially on American Airlines which flies there almost hourly from LAX – plus it seemed to offer the best chance of least clouds. So Dallas it was.


The other thing that worked out to my advantage is that I planned this nine months ago. Hotel rooms were easy to come by and rental cars could be had at a reasonable price. I was able to book two nights at a Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites for a little over $100/night (in an Executive Suite no less – which was really nice as it had a large work area with a couch in addition to a sleeping area), and I got a car for three days for a little over $200. As you got closer to the eclipse and those things became scarce, rooms were going for anywhere from $300-600 per night, and car rentals were $600-800 if you could find availability at all.


So with eclipses, it pays – literally – to plan ahead.


But the wild card is always going to be the weather. As my good friend and KABC-TV weather mentor Dr. George Fishbeck used to say, “No man can predict the future.” And with weather prognostication, the further out a forecast is, or the wider a geographic area it covers, the less likely it is to be accurate for specifically where you are.


The ironic thing about this eclipse is that a few days ahead of April 8, the weather forecasts all along the path of totality were exactly the opposite of the historical data. The places that should be cloud-free were going to be varying degrees of cloudy. The places that should be cloudy appeared to be setting up to be clear. Go figure.


So it was with some trepidation that we boarded our LAX-DFW flight on Sunday, April 7, because the April 8 weather forecast for Dallas was for clouds during eclipse time followed by severe thunderstorms with possibilities of lightning and hail. Yikes!!! But the tickets were purchased, the time was set aside, and we decided to roll the dice. It was a good choice.


On eclipse morning, we knew the key times were 12:23PM and 1:14PM. 12:23 was when first contact would occur which is the moment when the moon starts to take a “bite” out of the sun. 1:41 was second contact or when the moon totally covers the sun and totality begins. In the specific area where we were going to be, just slightly west of the centerline of totality, that was projected to be just under four minutes.


We woke up to fairly cloudy skies on Monday, April 8. But looking at a couple of forecasts, they all predicted that a front moving in would actually start clearing out clouds around Noon. So we felt we had a shot. And sure enough, come Noon we actually started to see some blue sky between the clouds.


I brought four cameras with me: a Nikon D610, a Nikon D750, a GoPro9, and a Seestar S50. The plan was to handhold the Nikons and shoot the partial phase with the D610 (I had a special solar filter attached to that one) and shoot totality with the D750. No filter is required during totality because the light from the sun is – duh – totally blocked by the moon. I planned to lock down the GoPro on a wide shot that included the sky and just let it run the entire time. The wild card in all of this was the Seestar S50, which I had received only a week before the eclipse. I cannot sing its praises too loudly.


The Seestar S50 is essentially a sophisticated telescope that you run with a smartphone. For $499, you get the main unit, a pretty good tripod, a solar filter, a carrying case for everything, AND the app for your phone. Once you get everything set up, you run the unit from your phone. With the solar filter in place you tap “FIND THE SUN” and the unit starts tilting up and then panning left and right to locate the sun. And because it has a built-in GPS and compass, it doesn’t take long to lock on to the bright glowing orb in the sky. Then it asks you “Is the sun in the center of the picture?” You click, “Yes” as well as click the tracking icon and you’re set.


I started the unit just before first contact and let it run through totality and then for another 45 minutes or so. At no time did it ever lose the sun, which stayed perfectly framed throughout. I had to manually adjust exposures as we got closer and closer to totality because there was so much of the moon – which was dark – in the picture.


But the cool thing about this, besides the clarity of the shots, is that you can manually take photos or set it up to do some time-lapse stuff. I’m still learning how to manipulate the various options but during the partial phase I fired off a shot every now and then when it looked good but for totality – and I needed to remove the solar filter for that – I set it up on time-lapse, shooting one frame/second. It stitched it together as a video but I can pull out each frame individually for a still. In most of the shots you’ll see in the SmugMug slide show, certainly the ones that are good and detailed, came from the Seestar. Well worth the investment, plus you there’s a lunar program, a planet program, and a deep space mode so you’re not limited to just using it to shoot the sun.


For those photographically inclined, it’s a focal length of 250mm and the sensor seems to have a 4X crop factor making the lens effectively around 1000mm. And that’s why the sun is so big in the Seestar shots. For the Nikons, I used a 70-300mm autofocus lenses as well as a 400-800mm fixed aperture manual lens. Those were harder to get crisp shots from because of camera shake. I chose not to use a tripod because the sun was so high in the sky during all of this, almost directly overhead (and I can’t do any right-angle view of the cam screens), it was easier to hand-hold.


I set everything up, along with a couple of other eclipse photogs (they had actual telescopes), in the back parking lot of our hotel as that gave us a pretty unobstructed view of the sky. The hotel let us bring some tables out to set things on, and we grabbed all of the pool chairs as well so we all had a nice place to sit. Plus I moved my car around, suctioned the GoPro to the trunk, and used that as a GoPro tripod.


With all of the equipment in place and working, we waited. 12:23 came and, as you can see from one of the early shots, there were still plenty of clouds in the sky. But, as time wore on and the countdown to 1:41 began in earnest, we got more and more clear views. We noticed the changing light as fewer and fewer of the sun’s rays reached us, and we saw some of the weird crescent-shaped shadows that accompany the partial phase of an eclipse. Around 1:35, we could see the almost-fully-eclipsed sun through the thin clouds and a big patch of blue behind the clouds. We thought we had it made.


But at 1:40, the cloud movement shifted. I thought we were screwed. We could see totality start through thin clouds, with the blackest black you’ve ever seen (that’s the moon), and an ethereal mist around the sun, with a few solar prominences – solar flares stretching out from the sun if you will – visible. For about the first minute of totality, we had to deal with these thins clouds. But they were moving which was good. And we could see the eclipsed sun through the clouds which was also good.


And then we got a nice clear patch of sky. If you look at the GoPro video, which is real-time, you can clearly (no pun intended) see what I’m talking about. Totality where we were lasted just under four minutes so we have about three minutes of a good view. I also had a stopwatch going – you can hear me calling out times on the GoPro video – so we had a idea of how much longer we had.


And then . . . it was over. What’s really amazing, and again this is something clearly visible on the GoPro video, is how quickly after totality ends that there’s enough light that everything seems normal. And this is all despite that fact that it will be another 80 minutes or so until the moon fully clears the sun.


A total solar eclipse is an amazing spectacle and I would highly encourage you to see one if you can. Although there will be small window of opportunity in 2044 (only in Montana and North Dakota), the next big one in the United States will be August 12, 2045, staring in northern California and curving across the U.S., exiting in Florida, with totality lasting around six minutes.


If you don’t want to wait that long, the next total eclipse anywhere on earth will happen on be on August 12, 2026, starting around Iceland, skirting around Great Britain, and then crossing to Spain. Totality is less than two minutes.


The next one I’m looking at will happen on August 2, 2027, on a path through northern Africa that goes through portions of Egypt including Luxor. Totality will be whopping 6 minutes 22 seconds. Seeing totality in Luxor followed by a week diving the Red Sea sounds awfully tempting.


But IMHO any total solar eclipse is worth the effort to go see it and hopefully one day, if the eclipse bug bites you, you’ll have that experience first-hand.


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