August 25, 2017 / 6:56 PM / a year ago

Much planning and a little luck: covering the Great American Eclipse

When Reuters started planning our coverage of Monday’s total eclipse of the sun, we had no “eclipse playbook” to guide us. The last time such an eclipse traversed the continental United States was 99 years ago. Back then, people learned of current events from newspapers and magazines.

A jet plane flies by the total solar eclipse in Guernsey, Wyoming U.S. August 21, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

To cover this historic event as comprehensively and reliably as possible, we assembled a team of reporters, photographers and videographers, spread out over a 70-mile-wide band stretching 3,000 miles across the United States.

Initially, the logistics of getting our journalists to the mostly obscure places in the eclipse’s path seemed daunting, but it turned out that several Reuters reporters were planning to view the event on their own time. Many more were happy to take the assignment.

In the end, we had nine reporters across the country and 19 photographers in 14 locations. One photographer snapped pictures from an airplane off the coast of Oregon. Other journalists staked out spots in out-of-the-way places including the John Day Fossil Beds National Park in Oregon and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.

We had video crews along the path, as well as reporters and photographers in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Plus, we were plugged in to a NASA live video feed. All this was for an event that, in its prime viewing spot, lasted less than three minutes.

Videographer Chris Dignam and reporter Andy Sullivan traveled to Carbondale, Illinois, a college town just a few miles from the spot where the eclipse was due to last the longest. Along with 14,000 other people, they awaited the event in a football stadium at the local university.

Twenty minutes before the total eclipse was due to begin, Sullivan recalled, a large cloud parked in front of the sun and didn’t budge. “All told, we only saw 10 seconds or so of the 2 minutes and 38 seconds we had been promised but that satisfied many of the people we interviewed,” Sullivan said.

One particular challenge was figuring out how to get our reporters in a position where they could communicate with us, especially in rural areas where mobile phone and internet coverage would be spotty. Reporter Steve Gorman set up camp in Idaho’s remote Sawtooth Range, unable to connect with any cell signal. Hours later he was able to get to a nearby town to file his reporting, which helped round out and amplify Reuters coverage.

Photographer Rick Wilking arrived in Guernsey, Wyoming, two days before the eclipse, so he could find the best spot to shoot. He also studied for weeks on end how best to photograph eclipses.

“I set up four still cameras, one on a timer and tripod for still photos of the sun, one on a timer and tripod to catch the shadow coming across the crowds on the vast plains of Wyoming, and two cameras I hand held, primarily to shoot the crowd’s reaction,” said Wilking.

Despite all his planning, Wilking’s best picture came from something he just could not plan. At the peak of the eclipse’s totality – the total coverage of the sun by the moon – a jet plane flew right by the sun. “The crowd saw it coming, people started yelling and pointing up, and I swung my handheld telephoto camera up to the sky. Immediately I could see the jet and fired away. I got only a few frames before it was gone.”

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