Like millions of other people, I braved the crowds and traffic jams to catch the Great American Eclipse on Monday. I didn’t quite get the shots I wanted, since I don’t have the kind of long lens necessary to magnify the sun and moon’s discs, which have only a half-degree of angular diameter. (That’s the width of a pencil held at arm’s length.) At the wide end of the scale, when I upgraded to my new Canon, I gave away my T-5 Rebel and my 10-22mm wide angle lens, which would have allowed me to get more of a landscape view with people and structures in the foreground. My new lens—which in other ways is orders of magnitude better—couldn’t do what I wanted. Worse, we were viewing the eclipse in the South, which means the sun was high up and at 24mm I didn’t have the span to get anything but leaves and branches. But that’s where I started, bracketing down from 1/4000th down to the mutli-second exposures. I’m happy that I live-view focused properly. Everything was sharp.
After getting ten or so wide-angle shots, I took a break to just enjoy what I was seeing. My son was with me, and we had endured a long drive and many misadventures to find ourselves in this little park in eastern Tennessee. Given all of that, fiddling with a camera the entire time felt wrong. But I only had two and a half minutes to work with, so it was time to get a few more exposures in. I zoomed in to 105mm, but the whole thing was still pretty small. I might have had a shot at getting something interesting along the limb of the sun—Bailey’s Beads, prominences, etc.—but by the time I was shooting zoomed in, my exposures were still too long. I was at 1/100th or something when the moon slid out of the way. There was an unbelievably bright flare in my eyes and on my last image, then a cheer from everyone in the park. The big event was over.
I have taught astronomy, written about it, read about it, obsessed about it. I know how an eclipse works. In fact, it’s rather boring: one thing blocks the light from another thing, coincidentally the first thing is small but the bigger thing is far away, etc. But I was not prepared for how it would feel to see a total solar eclipse with my own eyes. For two and a half minutes, I stood at the toe of some benevolent giant, one who could have stepped on me and everyone at that park and kept on walking. Instead, he looked down at us, gave a friendly wink, and wandered off.