Describing a Total Eclipse

Describing a Total Eclipse

Capturing the experience of a total eclipse is difficult. Even photographers like me with all the proper equipment fail to really capture the experience. There’s a host of sensory experiences that happen all at once. I’ve personally seen people moved to tears – and I found it such a profoundly moving experience the first time I saw one in 2017 that I flew to the Midwest to see my second one in 2024. Both times it never failed to awe.

I thought this thread on reddit had some of the best descriptions of the recent US eclipse.

So what is it like? Other’s have tried to describe it online:

  • “Its like trying to explain the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. Imagine if Yosemite valley, or the Grand Canyon, just appeared in front of you for four minutes, then disappeared.”
  • “Its hard to explain and hard to remember at least for me. I see why people travel so far to see it. I honestly wasn’t expecting what I seen. I just been telling people it looks nothing like what you see in photos.”
  • “You can’t [explain it]. If they’ve never seen it, they won’t get it. I’ve just been telling people it’s exceeded every expectation I had.”

Trying to explain what totality is like

First off is the run-up and expectation. For months, even years, people start hearing about the next eclipse. I personally planned and bought my flights/hotels/rentals about 8 months in advance.

Around 6 months out you’ll start hearing about eclipse watching events taking reservations and selling tickets. The news will start mentioning it on air and online. Accommodations, flights, rental cars, and local attractions all along totality start making news as they start selling out.

A month out, the eclipse is a regular news item – everything from event organizers touting their upcoming events, local service industries (hotels, gas, food, etc) warning about floods of people overwhelming them, to advisories about traffic and safety issues. Within 2 weeks, there will be news every day. Energy and anticipation just keeps building.

Starting about 3-4 days out, all the eclipse chasers will be watching the weather reports. Comparing all the different predictions and trying to figure out the best place to go. If there is bad weather, there’s a flurry of last-minute changes of location and drive time calculations. Plans change fast and furious. Weather in my area was completely terrible just 12 hours before the event – would we see anything? There’s anxious nail biting and second guessing by lining up alternate plans.

The day before the eclipse, I went to bed tingling with anticipation and excitement. The weather reports were looking good; but the sky sure didn’t. I double-checked weather, my alarms, traffic conditions, routes to the location I wanted to get too. I had the car filled with gas. I went through all my gear, chargers, snacks, timetables, and had everything double-checked and piled by the door. I planned secondary plans if the primary location looked bad and went to bed.

I got up at the crack of dawn. I looked at last weather reports and checked traffic along the 1.5 hour route and left 5-6 hours before totality. I arrived in the path of totality, filled up the car with gas and stopped at a local greasy spoon diner nearest to my desired eclipse watching spot (10 miles away). I had nice leisurely tea and breakfast reading and chatting with locals – secure knowing I was already in totality even if traffic became madness.

About 2 hours before the moon started covering the sun, I loaded up with drinks and snacks I headed to my eclipse watching spot and settled it. I set up my gear and got all ready – excitedly talking with those around me about what to expect. The weather looked great – no need for last minute changes. We killed time catching up, looking up reports, talking about what we expected and had heard, watching the traffic on the interstates turn from green to yellow to red in google maps, and listening to live TV reports on eclipse events across the country.

Unnoticed to the naked eye, right on time, the moon appeared in front of the lower corner of the sun. For the first 25% of the moon covering the sun, you pretty much don’t notice anything besides the slow creep of the moon over the sun. It was exciting to see it start happening! I talked with those around me, took photos, and we watched as the moon took a bigger and bigger bite out of the sun through our glasses. Around us, little appeared to change though.

Right after the halfway point, however, you could see the light around you begin to change. At first it’s just kind of a general oddness of the light around you. Things seem a bit dimmer, but it’s so uniform that it feels…strange. It’s not like stepping from sunlight into a shadow, it’s all around you.

As you get from halfway to 75% covered, you notice changes in the shadows cast around you. They start looking odd – but it’s hard to see why at first. They just seem different or blobby. As things progress, you’ll see it clearly with sharp shadows. They aren’t round, but strange crescent shapes. All the little shadows between the leaves are creating thousands of pinhole cameras on the ground.

The light and air continues to change too. Slowly at first. Almost imperceptibly. The light becomes more dim, increasingly more like twilight, but with a different flavor. Instead of it just getting orange/red in the one direction of sunset, the color is on the horizon all around you.

By the time the sun is 75% covered by the moon, you notice the temperature start to drop. It feels like you’re sitting on the deck as evening creeps in. From 85%-99%, all of these effects start happening faster and faster. It seems every 30 seconds the light around you in all directions is changing. The sky dims faster and faster, the air cools more, the moon continues to block more and more of the sun until there is just a crescent there. You can sometimes even see planets (like Venus) or other stars appear with just seconds left before totality. Building and street lights with darkness sensors turn on automatically. This is all happening faster and faster – the sun is reduced to just a final bright diamond in one corner, and then like the snap of the finger it goes totally dark in your protective glasses. You pull them off, and see this in the sky:

These are the best shots I’ve found that capture what it looks like in the sky. The surrounding horizon in all directions looks like a uniform sunset. As you look up from the horizon to where the sun was, it goes from sunset colors to black. Almost pitch black. So dark you can see bright planets like Venus (if they’re in the right spots) or a few bright stars. The contrast between the light at the horizon gradually turning to complete blackness around the sun is astounding. Add to this fact that just 30 minutes before it was a bright and sunny day.

Then there is the sun – or where it used to be. There is a completely black circle surrounded by an impossibly electric white halo. It’s like looking at the white flash of a lightning bolt. Yet it doesn’t move or go away – or hurt your eyes. It seems like it should, but it doesn’t. It’s a camera flash that you can look at continually. It’s just hangs there around the black circle. White-hot electric mother of pearl color.

And it stays like that. You’re completely captivated; staring at it in awe. After an eternity that’s probably only 30 seconds, you notice all the changes around you. The coolness and stillness of air. All nature sounds have gone silent (no birds chirping, dogs barking, bugs buzzing, or anything else). The horizon in all directions looks like sunset – yet the sky around the sun looks almost pitch black. The suspended halo of shimmering, impossible light. You look around to be surrounded by dim light casting everything in a muted grey color. It’s hard to take it all in. I stared at the sun, then at the horizon, then made exasperated comments to my friends, then looked all around me at the colors of the horizon, then felt the air on my skin, the dimness of the trees and building around me – over and over again. Trying to drink all this sensory input at once. It happened all at once and yet each moment was like an eternity flying by.

After what seemed ages and yet the blink of an eye, the time grew close for the sun to peak out of the opposite side. We anticipated the light again but were trying to still soak all of this in. To squeeze every second out of the experience. Suddenly again, like the snap of a finger, the tiniest bit of sun came out from behind the moon on the opposite side and it was brilliant white again. 1% of the sun exposed could completely blind you like the full noon-day sun. The totality was over.

I barely remember what happened after that. We were so in awe and in wonder of what we had just experienced. The light came back up and all the effects unwound. I would occasionally look through my glasses to see the moon releasing more and more of the sun – but we were all excitedly talking about what we just saw. We gradually put away our gear and sat chatting. We started checking our phones, sending pictures, sharing texts, checking the traffic, etc. I had to put my hat on since the sun started baking us again. Only 20 minutes earlier, it was dark and cold.

We sat around and talked about everything and laughed and wowed. Then, after saying our goodbyes, we hit the road and took all this home feeling changed by the experience of having witnessed something so wonderful. You know you’ve been changed – but unsure how just yet. I drove home realizing this exceeded and shattered any expectations I could have possibly imagined.

Another description I found online

“Excitement bubbled as totality drew near. People were getting settled, climbing on top of their cars, or getting chairs from their trunk to sit on the side of the road or on the hillside. The light had changed subtly like a dying flashlight slowly going out. It was a gradual and strange dimness that was hard to notice at first. Realization set in that it was a bit cooler and although the sun was still fairly bright, it wasn’t warm on my skin anymore. With eclipse glasses on, spectators watched as the silhouette of the moon crept closer to complete coverage of the sun and the sky above us became darker yet. It was enough to cause an expectant hush over the crowd. The last small crescent of sun became only a sliver of brightness.

Then it happened somehow slowly and suddenly. It was safe to remove our glasses to see what we traveled so far and wide to see. When I looked up, I was so stunned by what I saw that I lost my breath and had to sit down! (I don’t know why I was standing in the first place.) The crowd oohed and aahed at the sky. Onlookers in the distance lit off fireworks. Some people laughed, some even cried, but many were silently looking up in awe. It was spectacular!

I looked up at the sky and saw a black orb with a thin band of dazzling light dancing around the edge. The dark disk looked like a wheel that rolled in a tiny bit of fine red glitter with brilliant golden light bursting from the sides. And the blueish corona flaring out beyond the light was astonishing in the dusky deep blue sky. Then I noticed the planets on their way around the sun. First I saw Venus, the brightest, then Jupiter. And because I knew where to look I also saw, faintly shining, Mars and Mercury. I tried to take it all in while sitting there on that hillside near the truck stop, eclipse glasses in hand. It was spellbinding. I took note of the dark sky above and the strange glow of light on the horizon, outside of the shadow. The sparkle of our star eclipsed by the moon was the closest I’ll ever get to observing it’s light with the naked eye and I wanted to savor every second. But time was up and just as slowly and suddenly as the sun disappeared, the light returned, first as a sliver then gradually a crescent. There was so much light from that tiny bit of sunshine. Shortly after totality, beneath the penumbra of the new moon, we headed back home.”

More amazing pictures can be found here

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