August 25th, 2017
You may have read numerous articles on the total solar eclipse by now. I read them too. Nevertheless, my personal experience near Madras, Oregon, brought me a few surprises. I have listed them below, along with the images that I captured during totality.
1. Total solar eclipse isn't black and white
When we visualize a total solar eclipse, a black disk with white halo comes to our mind. A total solar eclipse on the contrary is much more colorful when seen with naked eyes. The corona of the sun during total eclipse has pink hue. This sight was a pure joy. Those pink rubies in the image below are sun prominences that consist of hydrogen gas rising from the lowest layer of the sun's atmosphere into the corona of the sun.
Red rubies in the corona
Baily's beads separate out as the light shining through the valleys of the moon surface fleets
2. Sunset glow
The total solar eclipse didn't resemble the cold deep blue dark night that I had seen in eclipse images before. Instead, it had a warm red glow at the horizon all around while the sun was still high in the sky, defying conventional wisdom that only the setting sun can paint the horizon with sunset hues. This was completely out of world spectacle, a supernatural show that I had not anticipated !
Sunset glow during total eclipse
Regulus, a very bright star, pops up in the bottom left corner
3. Tears of joy
Total eclipses don't cook your retina, but they do make you cry. NASA never educated me about the latter. The moon had subdued the glare of the mighty sun, reducing the latter to a black disk with a circular ring, much smaller than the big fiery ball we are used to. The world around me was engulfed in darkness, marked by heavenly red glow bordering the horizon 360 degrees. Stars and planets popped up in the sky. The temperature dropped drastically. Awestruck fellow observers gasped. Birds anxiously chirped. The sheer size and scale of this cosmic show was overwhelming and extremely humbling experience. I realized my eyes were moist with tears of joy !
4. Total eclipse is not an "improved version" of partial eclipse
Visually the two are very different experiences. A partial solar eclipse even at 95 percent stage is too bright. That glare is absent during total eclipse and reveals the unseen to us. I have chased light for landscape photography for the past several years.The light during totality is the most magical light I have seen so far. The soft light of totality isn't the light of sunrise or sunset, moonlight or twilight.
Fred Espenak, an astrophysicist also known as Mr. Eclipse, famously said "Comparing natural phenomena on a scale of one to ten, a partial eclipse might be a three or a four. A total eclipse is a million!"
Diamond ring as the sun emerges out of total eclipse
5. To photograph or to not photograph
We are dealing with a very small window of 30 seconds to 2 minutes of totality. It is perfectly fine to let go of photography. But if you must photograph, have the set up ready to shoot totality before it begins. Focus the camera for a distant object, lock the focus by switching to manual focus, switch to manual exposure with settings for low light. The camera must be mounted on the tripod pointing to the sun. No filter is needed to shoot total eclipse. Any SLR camera or equivalent that allows manual settings for exposure is capable of capturing total eclipse.
Totality has to be enjoyed with naked eyes. This is not the time to be lost in focusing and zooming the camera. If you want a wide shot in addition to the telephoto one, have another camera setup on another tripod just for that shot. Do not attempt to setup, zoom in and zoom out your lens in that small window of totality.
The image below shows the telephoto lens I had setup before the totality began. I only photographed the transition from partial to total and kept my hands free during total eclipse.
Telephoto lens prefocused and locked, pointing to the sun all set to shoot totality. I had covered it to protect it from direct sunlight before totality
6. Traffic in Madras, Oregon was a pleasant surprise
On the day of eclipse I was expecting gridlocks, honking and bullying on the highway in totality path of Oregon. I didn't encounter any of them. Everyone was patient and made room for each other on the road. Kudos to that spirit. I am sure Silicon Valley can learn better road etiquettes from Oregon.
7. Remembering Indian scientist Prof Yash Pal
My interest in solar eclipse was ignited when I watched partial eclipse for the first time on October 24, 1995 in India. I remember late Prof Yash Pal's appearance on Doordarshan , encouraging everyone to go out and watch the eclipse. Now I am convinced why some enthusiasts chase total eclipse all their lives. They are not crazy people. They pursue it because they are passionate and rational.