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

Untitled photo

Baily's beads formed by the sunlight shining through the valleys of the jagged mountains of the moon. There would be no Baily's beads effect if the surface of the moon was smooth

Baily's beads separate out as the light shining through the valleys of the moon surface fleets

Untitled photo

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

Untitled photo

Regulus, a very bright star, pops up in the bottom left corner

Untitled photo

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

Untitled photo

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

Untitled photo

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. 

  • Sugata Banerji

    on January 17, 2020

    Wonderful photos Shikha! I watched this one from Fenton, Missouri ( We planned a two-week, 5000 mile road trip such that it passed through four national parks and ended with watching the eclipse at a friend's house there. Your photos are way more beautiful, of course.

    Also, I remember the 1995 eclipse and Prof. Yash Pal (he also used to answer questions in Turning Point). That time, I was fortunate enough to live in Allahabad which was on the path of totality. So the 2017 one was the second total solar eclipse for me.

  • KP Sudhakar

    on December 22, 2017

    Great pictures & captions! Those 'pink rubies' make total solar eclipse much more colorful This sight was a pure joy. I loved your words.

  • matthewsaville

    on October 17, 2017

    Thank you for sharing this amazing story!!!

  • Ranjani Santosh

    on August 27, 2017

    Amazing captures!

  • Pranay Prateek

    on August 27, 2017

    Wow !! The most beautiful diamond ring I have ever seen.