I tell everyone that I’ve been planning this trip to see the total solar eclipse for the last 7 years. Honestly, it’s not really true. We had it in mind to see it in person on the 21st of August this year but it was only in January 2017 that we booked the flights and hotel. We wouldn’t normally fly thousands of miles to see an eclipse but we are in the USA already visiting family, so that gets us close enough to make the extra trip.
Selecting an Eclipse Viewing Location
The eclipse passes across the USA in a thin line from north west coast to south east. Our relatives are in New York state, so it makes sense to get a short flight from there to Minneapolis and drive six hours south to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Although our hotel is just within the line of totality, it will only go dark there for about a minute. if we drive 40 minutes south to the small town of Beatrice, we will get over two minutes in totality. There’s a NASA event nearby with shuttle buses. However, being in a big crowd all going “oooh” and “aaah” at the same time is really not my wish. Although it should be possible to view the eclipse in a country lane, I think maybe it won’t be fair for the local residents to have their roads blocked and people trampling around where they are not wanted.
Many other Nebraska communities have organised eclipse events. Many of these communities are really small, but have plans in place to accommodate lots of visitors. We may head to one of these small places. It depends on cloud cover. The small towns are not used to crowds and are doing their best to be good hosts, so it seems only fair to buy their food and tip their waiters, all without blocking their driveways.
Watching the Eclipse
We will be wearing our eclipse glasses to look at the sun during the partial eclipse stages. When the sun is totally eclipsed, we will take them off or we won’t be able to see anything! Eclipse glasses are available from libraries and National Park Service ticket counters for a dollar.
Also to watch the sun slowly become covered, we will use a cereal box viewer and a colander to cast little shadows of the partial eclipse. They are not high-tech and they don’t need to be.
The only app I will be using is the timer on my phone. When the sun goes into eclipse I will set the timer so that the alarm goes off about five seconds before totality ends. It will be really important to have eclipse glasses back on – and to check that the children have them on – before the beads of sunlight grow. Bailey’s Beads – the dots of light which appear just at the edge before and after totality – last for split seconds. Then the glasses need to be ON, or you must look away.
Taking Photos of the Eclipse
I really don’t need to take photos of this eclipse. This will be the most photographed total solar eclipse in the history of the universe. I know from experience that photos don’t do it justice, although this time we may see some much better results. There are going to be thousands of photos on social media and all over the news and internet. I will take a few shots, but above all I will BE THERE and I refuse to simply hide behind a camera.
One of my strongest memories of the 1999 eclipse in France is the look on my friends’ faces, but I didn’t have my camera ready to snap them! I badly want to get these shots this time and will probably use a back-up camera to do that.
Eclipse Photography Tips – or
“How to Photograph a Solar Eclipse Like Someone Who Will Only See One Total Eclipse Ever But Who Plans to Enjoy It and isn’t Pratting About with Too Much Crap.”
1. Safe Eclipse Photography
Don’t look through the lens until the sun is completely covered. I do not plan to take ANY shots of the sun before totality begins as it is too bright for the sensor and it will look rubbish anyway. Life is too short to buy a solar filter – honestly, it’s folly. Before totality I will look for dappled light through trees (or my colander) to take shots of the semi-circles of light on the ground.
Lastly be very careful about the end of totality. You must look away in time or you’ll burn your eyes. I am not even slightly exaggerating! Get someone you trust to warn you or set your cellphone on a timer with an alarm.
2. Telephoto Zoom
300mm zoom is plenty to get a reasonable shot. Sadly with just days to go my 300mm zoom has gone on the blink so I’ll be shooting with just 100mm. However, with low ISO and (with luck) a good exposure, I should be able to crop it afterwards. Actually the 100mm is a much better quality lens. The shot will still look great on most devices and I don’t want to print an enlargement. I will have to make do!
3. Camera Settings for Totality
I’m going to use my lowest ISO. If my 300mm zoom was working then my shutter speed would be 1/400th. On my 100mm zoom I will use around 1/160th. In both cases that’s for hand-held shots. A fast shutter speed will freeze any shake from my hands. I’ll set the focus to manual – this is critical – and turn it to near infinity. I’m not sure what aperture setting to use so this will be my variable. I will try to under-expose quite a bit because I want a relatively dark picture. If it’s not dark enough then I won’t see any stars in the shot.
I don’t understand people who say you should use a wide aperture. It doesn’t make sense to me. The sun is so far distant that the light has a long way to travel and ends up looking like a splodge on a wide angle. To get definition in the corona you will need a smaller aperture. This might mean I’ll need to use a tripod to slow my shutter speed but it would be quicker to just raise my ISO.
4. For those with more photography skills
Auto exposure bracketing is a really good idea. Find the settings in your camera menu and practice beforehand by shooting the moon at night. If you’re using a tripod then you can try lots of different settings – but you’ll only have two minutes.
5. If you want to shoot the Eclipse on a phone
You will get little more that a dot in the sky but take a picture anyway and try to include the surroundings. Take pictures of the people around you. Get their faces then move behind them to get a shot of them watching with the eclipse in the sky. Your phone won’t like how dark it is and you’ll need to know how to adjust exposure settings. Above all turn off the flash. Practice beforehand on the moon at night. NASA has a tip sheet called Photographing the Eclipse with your Smartphone which you may find helpful, but it’s ridiculously high tech in places.
6. Savour the moment
Don’t spend too much effort taking pictures. Give yourself a chance to look around you and see the world in the shadow of this spectacle. Breathe. Wonder. Consider your place in the universe!
Additional photo credit Ian Dooley on Unsplash