An experience of a lifetime: Witnessing the longest Solar Eclipse of 21st Century

I consider myself very lucky to have witnessed the longest Solar Eclipse of the 21st century on July 22, 2009, which I saw from Varanasi, India. Scientists have predicated that such an event is not going to repeat until June 2132. I was reminded of my experience of that amazing celestial event, when I once again observed an annular solar eclipse the day before yesterday during sunset, which was partially visible from Dallas, Texas. The following post is an account of my experiences of the solar eclipse in 2009.

Coincidentally, I was already in India during that time, so I decided to travel to Varanasi, which is one of the oldest cities in the world, to observe the eclipse. The magnificent show of nature, lasted for 6 minutes 38 seconds in places which coincided with the point of maximum eclipse. The eclipse was visible from a narrow corridor through northern Maldives, northern India, eastern Nepal, northern Bangladesh, Bhutan, central China, and the Pacific Ocean, including the Ryukyu Islands, Marshall Islands and Kiribati.

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Extended corona — The corona (or crown) is directly visible only during totality.

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Inner corona and Prominence (the bright red loop).

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The Diamond ring (C3) — At third contact (C3) the brilliant diamond ring marks the end of totality.

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Partial Eclipse- Sometime after the first contact (C1).

(Continue to read more about the event, some more photographs and about solar eclipse photography)

A total solar eclipse consists of four phases:

  • C1 or 1st contact: the moon begins to touch the solar disk at the start of the eclipse.
  • C2 or 2nd contact: the moon covers the entire surface of the Sun. This is marks the start of totality.
  • C3 or 3rd contact: at the end of totality, when the solar disk just starts to appear from behind the moon.
  • C4 or 4th contact: marking the end of the eclipse, the moon is no longer visible against the surface of the Sun.

The diamond ring, which in my opinion, is the most spectacular and surreal moment of the show that happens twice during a total solar eclipse at C2 and C3. On that day, I missed (both through my camera and through my naked eye) the diamond ring at C2 partly due to my excitement, and partly because I was fiddling with my camera right at that moment. Just after the C2, the warm bright light changed to a faint dim with blue tint. It seemed as if someone quickly switched off all the lights and turned on the Earth’s 0 Watt night lamp. It was night during day! I think that the birds were confused as well. Some of them started to do their usual “evening chirping”. I was ready and careful not to miss out when the second diamond ring happened at C3 after about 5 minutes from C2. It was incredible! It is really hard to explain the experience to someone who have not experienced it firsthand.

The light from the Sun is very intense even during solar eclipse (except during totality). Solar filters are recommended for viewing the event. I knew people also use welder’s glasses in lieu of solar filters in desperate times. I was astounded to find a man holding up an x-ray film against the Sun to protect his eyes while he watched the rare event.

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A man witnesses the event through an x-ray film.

Apart from being spectacular to watch and providing tremendous opportunity for scientists to study some properties of the Sun, such as the solar corona, the solar eclipse has been associated with religious beliefs across all cultures and languages on Earth. The photographs below show thousands of people bathing in the ghats of Varanasi after the eclipse got over. According to Hindu mythology, a solar (or lunar) eclipse happens when a body-less demon called Rahu gobbles the Sun (or moon) as he is upset with them. However, since the demon doesn’t have a body, the Sun (or moon) escapes through the throat of the demon. It is believed that during the eclipse, the Earth is filled with “darkness”. So one shouldn’t drink or eat anything, chant holy mantras and should bathe (preferably in a holy river) soon after the eclipse is over.

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A large group of devotees taking a holy bath just after the end of the show.

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Large group of people filled the banks of for the holy bath.

Quite honestly, I believe that I cannot do justice to the splendor of the event, neither through my photographs nor through my words; it was one of the most beautiful and amazingly surreal event that I have ever witnessed in my life, and perhaps it will remain so for the rest of my life. I invite you to look at some of the photographs that I took on that day. I have embedded the eclipse set (from Flickr) into a slide show at the bottom of this post here.

Photography aspect:

Photographing solar eclipse is a little complex and requires a bit of planning and preparation. Not only does the scene brightness vary rapidly during and at the time of totality, but also there is a significant change in the brightness between the inner and extended solar corona. The following table [from Resource #1] illustrates the variation in brightness of the different features during a solar eclipse. As you can see, the partial and annular phases are about 1000 times brighter than the outer corona (during totality).

Brightness Value (approximate) Eclipse Feature
256 Partial and annular phases (using solar filter)
100 Prominence and innermost corona
32-128 Diamond ring effect
32 Inner corona
4 Middle corona
0.5 Outer corona

I adopted a two-part strategy:

  • During the partial phase (i.e. between C1 & C2 and between C3 & C4) I used a “hacked” solar filter (more on that in a bit) on top of the lens in order to avoid over exposure and also to prevent the camera sensor and/or the focal shutter from burning due to excess heat. I used the only telephoto lens that I had in my kit — a Canon 70-300mm IS lens with a Canon Rebel XT camera.
  • Between C2 and C3 the light is generally so dim that one doesn’t need, and in fact, shouldn’t use any solar filter. During this time it is even completely safe to watch the event with the naked eye. I took the photographs of the diamond ring and the solar corona without any filter. I also made multiple exposures (bracketed) by a few stops around the mid-grey during this period (between C2 and C3) in order to capture the variation in intensity in the different regions of the solar corona.

For detailed information on how to photograph solar eclipses please refer to Mr. Fred Espenak’s page on solar eclipse photography [Resource #4].

You can also use some other light absorbing material in place of a conventional solar filter if you don’t have one. I didn’t have a solar filter with me as I didn’t anticipate doing “solar eclipse photography” when I was traveling. Luckily, I had some “Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets” with me that I used for camping. After experimenting (photographing the Sun on a normal afternoon) with a few pieces of the Mylar sheets that I cut out, I found that they are perfect for the job.

Resources:

These are some very good resources if you would like to know more about Solar Eclipse and how to photograph them:

  • MrEclipse.com – it is a wonderful site containing huge amount of information, maintained by Mr. Fred Espenak.

[UPDATE:]

If you are interested in photographing the great American Solar Eclipse on 21st August, 2017, check this (and the above resources).
[UPDATE:]

I have created a separate multi-authored blog to allow community participation and to document my own preparation for the rare and once-in-a-lifetime celestial event, the Transit of Venus, 2012. Please visit the blog at http://photographingtransitofvenus.wordpress.com/. Thank you.

Slideshow from Solar Eclipse 2009 Flickr set:

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6 thoughts on “An experience of a lifetime: Witnessing the longest Solar Eclipse of 21st Century

  1. What an excellent resource post, not to mention, the outstanding images. We had our #14 welding goggles ready but were so disappointed. The sky was covered with clouds so we could not witness the solar eclipse in BC in Canada. Maybe next time.

    • Thank you very much, timethief, for your appreciation. I guess it is very depressing to miss out on these rare moments. As per the charts we weren’t likely to see the solar eclipse (on May 20, 2012) from here in Dallas, Texas. So, I wasn’t even carrying a camera with me when we (me and my wife) went for a late evening run. As the sun was just about to set, I saw the sun turning deep crimson red indicating the beginning of the eclipse. We saw the eclipse (only the partial phase) for about 6/7 mins. before the sun went down the horizon. Wish you get to witness the solar eclipse next time.

  2. Pingback: Gearing up: Received Baader AstroSolar film « Photograph'g Transit of Venus 2012

  3. Pingback: Let’s photograph the transit of Venus | Indranil's world

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