If this is your first total solar eclipse, make sure you soak in the whole thing. Many people who are witnessing their first eclipse focus too much on trying to capture the event with a camera. Getting really good photos of eclipses is really a highly specialized field of photography. Because of the changing lighting conditions throughout the eclipse, proper preparation and practice is necessary to get good results, and most beginners simply don’t have enough knowledge or experience to get good results. And if you consider the fact that all eclipses only last a few minutes, you might be surprised how fast that time passes. Before you know it, it is over.
With the above considerations, my recommendation is to just observe. A short video of people’s reactions is probably ok but there is just so much to see, I wouldn’t waste much time on taking any photos or videos for your first eclipse.
The first thing you should do is start planning months in advance. Many hotels and motels will be much more expensive in the days around the eclipse. Because the shadow of the moon paints a relatively narrow stripe across the Earth, those places in the path will attract a lot of tourists’s attention. Try to pick a location that is near the centerline in order to get the longest eclipse. If you can book a year in advance, you might be able to beat the extreme price increases that inevitably happen. Make sure you check the historic weather patterns and prospects for locations along the path. Although past history doesn’t guarantee clear or partly cloudy skies on any given day in the future, you can get an idea of the probability of good conditions.
Make sure you have a backup plan in case of cloudy weather. Start checking the weather forecast a few days in advance and see if you have any mobility to relocate the day before the eclipse. Don’t stress too much to do this if it is not possible to move, but clear or partly cloudy skies are ideal. If you do get clouded out, the sky will still get dark, which is still awesome in the middle of the day, but not nearly the same if you can actually see the sun and moon. If you travel a long way to get to your location (people from around the world came to see the 2017 Unites States eclipse and will come for the 2024 eclipse as well), do your best to have a plan to be mobile if the weather looks bad.
Bring the proper safety gear. It is not safe to directly view or photograph the sun without a proper filter. Make sure you research the safety glasses you are buying to make sure they meet the minimum standards. If you are purchasing any thin film filter, make sure it is high quality and has absolutely no tears or holes. The ONLY time you can view the event without visual protection is during totality. There is a lot to see when the sun is totally covered, and you can only see it without filters.
What should I look for?
The first thing you might notice is the change in lighting. It happens gradually, but bright daytime (if you’re lucky enough for clear or partly cloudy skies) slowly dims to a lighting similar to an overcast day. The dimming happens so slowly that you barely notice it. In fact, even 30 seconds before totality, the sky is still pretty bright. But in that last 30 seconds, there is a rapid darkening up to the point of totality. Contrary to what you might think, the sky is not exactly like midnight. Rather it is more like late dusk or early dawn. What is different is that the entire horizon has that similar glow, instead of in just one direction. The reason is that the shadow of the moon is only 50 to 100 miles wide and the distant horizon in all directions will not be fully in the shadow.
You might notice that animals start to act strangely. Visual cues make many animals think that nighttime is approaching. Shadows start to look a little “crisper” than normal because the light source is becoming less broad and closer to a point source. As the shadow of the moon approaches, many people witness shadow bands approaching. These are caused by the narrow sun shining through atmospheric turbulence.
In the last seconds before totality, you will see what is called “the diamond ring effect” which is caused by the last point of unblocked sunlight appearing like a diamond on the edge of a ring. And just before totality, the unevenness of the moon’s surface reveals the uneven last vestiges of sunlight poking through the valleys on the moon. These are known as Bailey’s Beads.
What should I look for during totality?
And finally, totality arrives. Now (and only during this phase) it is safe to remove any filters and enjoy the show. If you look at the covered sun, the corona is revealed. This is the sun’s outer atmosphere. The corona is dynamic and appears different during each eclipse. Previous eclipses can be identified in photographs based on the appearance of the corona, much like a fingerprint. Farther from the sun, multiple planets usually come into view because of the dark sky. Venus and Mercury usually appear, and sometimes farther out planets can be seen also. The brighter stars come into view, and sometimes less common objects like comets might be visible (this is possible in 2024). In my opinion, it is OK to take snapshots during this time, but don’t spend too much time doing this. As the moon completes its passage across the sun, the process is reversed. Now is the time to replace any filters you were using before. Bailey’s Beads will appear on the opposite side of the sun, followed by the diamond ring effect, and finally totality is over, and the moon continues its motion across the sun until it moves completely past it.
There is a lot to see leading up to and during a total solar eclipse. With a little planning, you can maximize this truly amazing experience. Who knows? You may join the many eclipse chasers who have witnessed this event and are addicted to the point of planning future vacations to coincide with solar eclipses somewhere on the planet.