Total Solar Eclipse 2017
“A Total Eclipse of the Sun”
On Monday, August 21, 2017, the US experienced its first total solar eclipse since 1979. I was just a kid 1979, but I vaguely remember the excitement surrounding the event. I think we viewed the eclipse through a pinhole in a shoebox. Cut to 2017. I am no longer a kid, we have cardboard eclipse viewing glasses, and I am a professional photographer.
A few months before the eclipse, my good friend Neeti Kumthekar, who is also a photographer (check out her Instagram page), told me she was going to shoot it. I was a bit lukewarm on the idea because I didn’t really appreciate how spectacular an eclipse could be. I also had no idea how to photograph one. But she had planted a seed so I decided to find out more. It turns out there are a lot of challenges associated with photographing an eclipse. It requires a special filter on the front of the lens to block the sun’s rays from damaging your camera and your eyes. It also requires anticipating transitions in the moon’s location during the eclipse and quickly switching between camera settings. You also had to be able to track the sun and moon for over two hours as the eclipse progresses. And finally – despite the event being over two hours long, I would only have 2 ½ minutes during the Totality to capture those amazing one-of-a-kind shots of the sun’s corona. Sound a little daunting?
Once I got the technical stuff together, we had to figure out where to be to get the shots we wanted. Once again I have to credit my friend Neeti. During an eclipse, the moon casts a shadow on the Earth. To get the best photos, you have to be in the Zone of Totality - the 70 mile wide patch where the moon’s shadow would block out the sun entirely. (For everyone outside the Zone of the Totality, the eclipse would be partial.)
On the East Coast, prime viewing was down in South Carolina. Neeti’s son goes to school in Clemson, S.C., and it just so happened Clemson was right along the path of Totality. Neeti and her husband would be moving their son into school that weekend, and that they had an extra hotel room. (This was fortuitous since hotel rooms anywhere along the path of the eclipse were booked months in advance.)
After a 12+ hour drive from New Jersey with another photographer friend, we arrived in Clemson Sunday night and planned our strategy for the next day. We ended up having a group of six photographers and it was great fun to be with friends while shooting this event.
The first part of the eclipse (before the Totality) would last about 1 hour 15 mins. At a little after 1PM, we saw the initial incursion of the moon upon the sun. It was amazing to watch as the moon took larger and larger “bites” out of the sun as the eclipse progressed. We all quickly got into a rhythm of taking shots to track the progression. But at about the 30 minute mark we had a problem: clouds. My mind immediately went to a negative place. I feared the weeks of planning and preparation would be lost because of the weather. My friends and I do a lot of full moon shooting over New York City at night and so are familiar with having a shot ruined by clouds. But at least with the full moon you get a chance to get the shot every month. With an eclipse it would be years before I’d get another chance if this one didn’t work out. (The next total eclipse in the US is in 2024.)
I tried to stay positive, but when the clouds got a little worse, I decided to take a break. It was well over 100 degrees and quite humid in South Carolina that day so I went to get some water. When I came out from under the tent and looked up, the sun was still shrouded in clouds. In an attempt to not to let the negative feelings get the better of me, I returned to my camera and starting taking photos as if there were no clouds in the sky. I am happy to say that within a few minutes the sky began to clear, and in a short time the clouds were a non-issue.
With the clouds out of the way, I turned my attention back to tracking the moon’s movement and noticed the it was now taking quite a large bite out of the sun. I also noticed it was getting darker and darker on the ground. At a certain point, we became aware of a strange clicking sound coming from across the field. As my friends and I exchanged puzzled looks, I overhead someone nearby identify the sound as crickets. Because of the loss of daylight, the crickets thought it was night and time to come out! (I have to say those Southern crickets must be a whole lot bigger than what we have up North because this was the loudest - and strangest - cricket noise I’ve ever heard!) While hearing crickets in the middle of the day was weird and cool, nothing compared to what was about to happen next…
“Totality” is the point of perfect alignment of the moon inside the sun. As I watched the crescent shape of the sun get thinner and thinner in my photos, I knew we were just a few minutes from entering Totality. Right before the moon transitioned to completely blocking the sun, we had to remove the protective filter from the front of our lenses. This was the only way to capture the “Diamond Ring” effect, which is the final burst of light from the sun before it is completely covered. This is also the point when the sun’s otherwise faint corona can finally be seen. But this was a tricky maneuver since if you went too early you could damage your camera. I also had to radically change my camera settings to compensate for the loss of the dark solar filter (think welding mask dark).
I have to admit I did fumble a bit at this crucial moment and ended up with a couple of very overexposed shots. But I managed to recover pretty quickly and get a couple of shots of the Diamond Ring before it completely disappeared.
But this was not the craziest part of entering Totality. What really surprised me is that it suddenly got much darker. Whereas up until now we had been experiencing a kind of gradual transition from day to night, now all of a sudden we “popped” into much greater darkness. Like any object placed in front of an intense light source, during an eclipse the moon casts a very well-defined shadow across the face of the Earth. I realized later that reason it got so dark all of a sudden was that the leading edge of the moon’s shadow had just crossed over our location on the ground. Woah!!! How cool is that!!
I remembered that during the Totality you can see stars in the sky. At that moment I looked up and sure enough many of the brighter stars were visible. I drank that in for a moment and then my eyes then drifted off into the distance where I noticed an orange glow just above the horizon. It looked almost like a sunset. Problem is, I was looking South (the sun normally sets in the West) and it was only 2PM (the sun normally sets around 8PM this time of year). It turns out that during Totality the edges of the Zone of Totality can take on a dusk-like orange glow. What was wild was that there appeared to be two sunsets at the same time - one to the South and another one to the North. Now my head was really spinning!
But I couldn’t spin for long: I needed to get back to taking photos! We only had two minutes 36 seconds to capture the most amazing photos of my life.
For about the next minute I snapped photo after photo. But at a certain point I thought I should stop shooting and just experience what was happening. First thing I noticed was how intensely quiet it had gotten. Everyone had stopped talking and was just absorbing this amazing experience (I realized later even the crickets had stopped chirping during the Totality!)
I also have to admit it was a little eerie to experience darkness in the middle of the day. I can see now why ancient civilizations would be freaked out when an eclipse hit. On August 21st we knew the eclipse was coming and yet it was still kind of crazy to experience it firsthand. I can’t imagine what is was like for ancient peoples to lose daylight and not have a clue why. Realizing there was no way they could know what to make of all this, I laughed at the thought that I, too, would haul a few thousand granite boulders up a hill to build a temple if I thought it would keep this $hit from happening again!
Yet even in the midst of this intense silence and strange eeriness, the whole thing was totally awesome and awe-inspiring for me. I was experiencing something very special.
During Totality you can look up directly at the sun without glasses. When I did, I was completely amazed to see a black hole in the center of the sun. It’s hard to put to words how strange this was. My whole life I had experienced nothing but intense brightness when glancing toward the sun. Now I was staring right at it and could see - with my naked eye - a pitch black darkness at its center. This alone was a totally unbelievable experience.
It was also totally unbelievable to see the sun’s corona in the photos I was taking. Normally invisible due the brightness of the sun, the corona is the outer-most layer of the sun’s atmosphere. The sun is a huge atomic furnace, constantly pumping material far out into space. The whispy tendrils of the corona were now totally visible in my photos. While the sun’s corona is still a mystery to many scientists, it was an immensely awesome and beautiful sight to see right on the back of my camera.
While the rest of us were shooting, Neeti’s husband, Girish, was periodically calling out the remaining time of the Totality. So much was happening so fast that when he said the first minute had passed, I remember thinking “How could that be?” It felt like it had been an hour since the Totality had begun. When he got to less 30 seconds remaining, I kind of snapped back to reality and prepared for the exit from Totality. I knew I only had a few seconds to replace the solar filter that would save camera - and my eyes - from the sun’s damaging rays.
It was about this time that perhaps the most incredible thing of the entire day happened. I mentioned earlier that we more or less popped into darkness at the beginning of Totality when the leading edge of the moon’s shadow crossed overhead. Well now, out of the corner of my eye off in the distance, I saw something racing towards us. I wasn’t sure about what I was seeing until later, but it turns out it was the trailing edge of the moon’s shadow streaking over us. It took only a fraction of a second to pass, but it was the most intense thing ever. I had to resist the temptation to duck – that’s how visceral it was.
After the shadow passed, the air was filled with spontaneous cheers and applause from all around us. I don’t know if anyone realized that moon’s shadow had just passed overhead, but the intensity of the applause made it clear everyone knew that something amazing had just happened.
I exchanged “high-fives” with some of my friends and we all agreed it was an incredible thing we had just witnessed. And yet I also knew this meant the Totality was over and things would be winding down for the next hour or so. For me it was bitter-sweet: I felt a little sad that the eclipse was now almost over, and yet, there was also a profound sense of exhilaration at what we just experienced. I knew in my heart this was a life changing event for me.
For the next hour or so, I completed my self-assigned task of photographing the eclipse. Compared to the excitement of when the eclipse first began, my friends and I were mostly silent now. As I looked around, I noticed that the other people near the lake had already returned to their normal activities – swimming, boating, etc. I was struck by how quickly life moves on. By the time we finished shooting, except for a stack of disposable eclipse viewing glasses sticking out of a nearby trash can, you’d be hard pressed to tell that anything out of the ordinary had happened at all.
My friends and I packed up our gear and said our good-byes. Right afterwards, I fantasized about flying around the world chasing eclipses. Yet I also knew my life back in New Jersey was waiting for me. Still, this amazing event had changed me in some way. I felt larger, more expanded. It’s hard to put the feelings into words other than to say it was “freakin’ awesome”!
Of course one of the great things about being a photographer is that I get to share my pictures with others and see their reactions. The response on social media to my solar eclipse photos has been “out of this world”! (Pun intended.) It has been incredibly gratifying to see how people appreciate the beauty and awesomeness of the eclipse. Sharing my photos in general gives me the ability to take other people along on my journey. The joy of sharing my experiences is a big reason I do what I do.
So I’d like to thank you for coming with me on this particular journey. I hope you enjoy all the photos and consider owning one for yourself. Signed, Limited Edition prints are available for purchase. Contact me for details.
And thanks again to my friend Neeti Kumthekar (and her husband Girish) for arranging the South Carolina eclipse shoot. Check out Neeti’s amazing photos on Instagram @neetikumthekar .
See all my photos from this Collection here.
Keywords: 2017, bailys beads, diamond ring, eclipse, moon, partial, solar eclipse, south carolina, sun, total eclipse, totality
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