Total solar eclipses will do that. They’re weird.
They’re also, well, amazing: beautiful cosmic light shows that throughout history have spawned fear and awe in observers. While the fear thing has (mostly) waned, the feeling of awe one experiences standing during the daytime in the shadow of the moon never gets old. Next month, millions from the United States and around the world will gather along the shadow’s path from the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast, to see for themselves. As someone who’s seen two total eclipses (2012 in Australia and 2015 in the Faroe Islands) and many more partial and lunar eclipses, I can tell you with absolute certainty that you should go, too, even if you don’t think it’s your thing. Here’s why — along with everything else you need to know:
What exactly is going to happen?
A total solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between Earth and the sun, completely covering the sun’s disk. As a result, the Moon casts a shadow — literally a big black spot — on the earth, and- moves across the planet’s surface at between 1,000 and 3,000 mph. People standing on the shadow’s path experience anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes of “totality,” the period of time when the sun is completely blocked. Since total eclipses happen during the day, you must be as close to the centerline of the shadow’s path as you can get in order to maximize your experience. In the case of the August 21 eclipse, the path will average about 70 miles wide. (Find detailed maps at greatamericaneclipse.com.)
Why is everyone making such a fuss about this?
For starters, because it’s right in our backyard. Total solar eclipses happen about every 18 months, but usually over water or in remote areas. This will be the first total eclipse — not a more common partial or annular eclipses (which are far less awesome) — to occur in the United States in 30 years, and it will span the entire nation, from the Northwest to the Southeast. Secondly, eclipse chasers — yes, that’s a thing — usually have to travel all over the world to see an eclipse, and this one is right here. That means many summer vacations are being wrapped around it. (Get eclipse travel advice through whenisthenexteclipse.com.) That’s all to say: It will be the FOMO moment of the decade and an epic photo-op.
So the sky just… gets dark?
Very simply put, yes. But that darkness will result from the sun and the moon merging to create a black disk with a shimmering, expansive glow around it. That’s the Sun’s outer atmosphere — the corona. It will be a fleeting, fantastic, otherworldly sight. Stars and planets, suddenly visible, will emerge from the sky. The environment changes, too: birds may stop chirping in reaction to the sudden darkness, the air will chill, the color of the landscape will change to resemble something like twilight, yet sort of like daylight. It’s spooky. Through binoculars, you can see amazing details during the eclipse: light leaking out past the mountains and valleys of the Moon, known as Bailey’s Bead; gauzy streaks in the corona; even solar prominences, the arcing flares emanating from the surface of the sun. The photo above, captured in 2015 on the Faroe Islands, doesn’t do it justice. You have to experience it first-hand. In person, it’s riveting.
It’s rare, sure, but is really all that special?
It is. A total solar eclipse is a rare exhibition of random perfection. The Sun is precisely 400 times farther away from the earth than the Moon; it is also precisely 400 times larger, on average. So the Moon and Sun have identical apparent sizes in the sky during a total eclipse because of our relative position to both. It’s an astonishing occurrence — a perfect geometrical alignment that is a result of pure coincidence. Other planets have eclipses, but not total eclipses because they require our perfect alignment — a completely spontaneous gift from the cosmos.
How do I observe it?
The first hour, approximately, will be a gradually increasing partial eclipse, as the moon slides over the sun. To prevent injury to your eyes, during this first phase you must wear specialized eclipse glasses (see the buying guide below) and observe the two minutes with the naked eye. You can take them off a few seconds before totality, but the Sun stays extraordinarily bright even when it’s 99 percent blocked. (It’s also possible to use binoculars or look through your camera during totality.) When totality is over, the partial phase returns and continues for another hour.
So can I photograph it?
Yes. And if you do it right, you won’t miss the eclipse while you fuss with a camera. To do this, use the best camera you can get your hands on, mounted on a tripod. A zoom lens or a tight telephoto lens is necessary; setting the camera to “auto” mode should do just fine.
If you have more experience, try manual mode. Proper settings will vary based on your lens selection but in general target an ISO of 600 to 1000, an aperture of f/4 to f/5, and a shutter speed of 1/15 to 1/50 of a second. Focus manually on the sun/moon and then leave it alone. (Autofocus can become confused while hunting for something to lock onto.) Experiment beforehand on the sun right before sunset, when it’s dim enough to shoot without a filter. Write down successful settings and use them as your eclipse photography starting point. The most critical element is the tripod — hand-hold the camera, and even the slightest tremors in your hands will blur finer details. The more detail, the easier to edit later.
It will be a fleeting, fantastic, otherworldly sight. Stars and planets, suddenly visible, will emerge from the sky. Birds may stop chirping, the air will chill, the color of the landscape will resemble something like twilight, yet sort of like daylight. It’s spooky.
When the show starts, begin shooting about five seconds before totality begins and then continue for 20 seconds after, making sure to observe and appreciate the event through your camera as it happens. After those 20 seconds, stop shooting and take the next full minute to just sit back and enjoy the spectacle. Look at the environment around you, your friends and family jumping up and down, and, of course, the eclipse itself. Take it all in. Then, take a quick peek at your results — if it doesn’t look great, dial the shutter speed or ISO up or down as necessary (or flip to full-auto) and try again a few more shots. Try zooming in tight or going wider-angle, to capture the landscape or your friends in the view, too. Each of these steps should only take a few seconds.
When using a photo editor to tweak images, make modest adjustments to contrast, brightness, ambiance, shadows, and clarity. Don’t tinker too much with saturation and warmth, which can produce unnatural-looking images.
What if I’m totally unimpressed by this whole thing?
Some people are reduced to puddles of jelly in the presence of solar eclipses; others are completely unaffected by it. (Though I’ve yet to meet anyone in the latter category.) What’s important is to be cognizant of what you’re seeing: a surreal, absolutely perfect blotting out of the sun by the moon, and a demonstration of the clockwork precision of the universe. If you don’t dig it, take satisfaction in the fact that you saw something special and rare. If that still doesn’t work, and you grow furious that you spent thousands of dollars and drove hundreds of miles to see it… well, sorry.
Eclipse Photography Buying Guide
What You’ll Need for Optimal Shots
Glasses certified to international standards (ISO 12312-2) use special film to block out 100 percent of ultraviolet and infrared light and 99.999 percent of intense visible light. So, during the partial phases of the eclipse, you’ll see an orange or pale-white solar disk being gradually eclipsed by the Moon. Buy a bunch so you can hand them out to anyone who doesn’t have any.
Celestron Skymaster DX 9X63 Binocular
During totality, catch details in the corona and Bailey’s Beads peeking around lunar mountains and valleys. Ultra-compact binoculars won’t generate a satisfying image because their small-diameter front lenses offer a limited resolution. Go for a minimum of 7 x 35 binoculars, and ideally 7 x 50 or 8 x 50. (The first number is the magnification; the second is the aperture of the front lenses.) Avoid binoculars above 10x unless you mount them on a tripod because they can be difficult to hold steady. Celestron’s binoculars are well suited to astronomy, such as their SkyMaster DX 9 x 63 model, though any good birding binocular will be perfect. Note: Many binocular manufacturers are touting dedicated solar binoculars for the eclipse that have solar filters built in, but those are only usable during the partial phases of the eclipse. During totality — by far the most interesting phase — they won’t show anything at all. You really want conventional, unfiltered binoculars for totality.
If you don’t want to miss a single microscopic detail, invest in a good apochromatic telescope, which will generate crisp, high-contrast images with no distortions. Sky-Watcher USA’s ProED 80mm Doublet Apochromatic Refractor comes with two eyepieces for different magnifications and a two-speed focuser to help you dial the image in with precision. The high-quality glass used in its lens is coated to ensure no reflections — so, no details bouncing back into outer space. Bonus: It will give you years of enjoyment observing the night sky, as well.
Eclipse-Ready Cameras and Lenses
You want a good camera with a versatile, high-quality lens. The Pentax K-1, a DSLR with a Pentax-D FA150mm to 450mm f/4.5 lens, boasts a 36.4MP full-frame sensor that’s exceptional in low-light situations — great for extracting minute details from the eclipse. Or, grab the Nikon D500 DSLR with a 200mm to 500mm f/5.6 AF-S Nikkor zoom lens; its 10 fps fire rate will let you grab many high-quality shots during those precious seconds of totality, and its onboard wi-fi will get them onto your smartphone fast.
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