As an Associate Press photographer, Jeff Robbins spent his whole life chasing light — and doing whatever it took to end up standing in the right place at the right instant.
But on Sunday, all the retired Payson photographer had to do to get a shot that has already flashed all around the world was to step outside and look up at an ominously smoky sky.
Robbins spent 35 years shooting big stories in difficult places, but he’d never shot an eclipse. But he figured he might as well take a run at it, seeing as how the Internet insisted the eclipse would unfold right overhead at just about sunset.
The May 20 annual annular eclipse started in Asia and ended in the western United States as the sun set over Albuquerque, prompting millions of people to venture out in the dimming light — and many of them to undertake long journeys to find the perfect spot.
“My wife and I figured we’d shoot the eclipse — although we didn’t know what we were doing.”
So he figured out where the sun would be as the eclipse neared its maximum extent at about 6:30 on Sunday — and framed the spot with branches on a hillside near the Pioneer Cemetery.
Photographing the eclipse required luck, preparation and imagination, since the moon passed between the sun and Earth at the near point of its squashed orbit, leaving at least 3 percent of the sun uncovered. That still left enough light to overwhelm most cameras. One of the first eclipses since social media became the global rage, the event provoked a larger than normal frenzy — and a shuttering orgy of cell phone camera experimentation. The next 1,000 years, Earthlings will enjoy almost 4,000 annular eclipses and about 3,000 total eclipses — including one visible in North America in 2017.
So Robbins borrowed a welder’s mask from a friend, thinking it would filter enough light to make the crescent of the moon visible despite the glare of the portion of the sun still uncovered. But the glass of the welder’s mask turned the light an alarming green.
But then he noticed that the sun was sinking into a layer of smoke that had been irritating Rim Country residents all day, drifting into town from the 16,000-acre Sunflower Fire just 22 miles away — and from the 15,000-acre Gladiator Fire over near Crown King.
“I have a fairly good digital camera and a 600 millimeter lens and I stopped it down three stops at ASA 200,” to deliberately under-expose the image.
“The problem is that when you’re looking through the viewfinder (stopped down), the whole thing is just black — you can’t really see what you have.”
He was shuttering away blindly, when he heard an approach firefighting helicopter — heading for the Forest Service base at the Payson Airport.
“I watched the helicopter with one eye and the other through the finder. When I saw the helicopter disappear into my viewfinder, I counted a second and snapped it. I didn’t know how good it was until I got back into the computer.”
He called a friend still working at Reuters and offered up the picture. The friend paid him the day rate, put it on the wire — and it flashed all around the world.
“The response I’ve gotten on this picture has been really terrific — it’s been all over the world already. It’s kind of nice to get excited about something that you used to do for a living. Friends said, maybe you ought to come out of retirement. I said, ‘I just did.’”