clock menu more-arrow no yes

Watching a total solar eclipse for the first time? Here are 8 tips from the pros.

For the love of all good things, do not try to photograph the total solar eclipse.

SSPL/Getty Images

Here at Vox, we are thoroughly convinced the August 21 total solar eclipse will be worth the hype. As we’ve learned from astronomers, astrophysicists, and eclipse-chasing enthusiasts, in the 70-mile-wide band of totality from Oregon to South Carolina, the moon will completely block out the sun, day will turn to twilight, stars and planets will appear, and the sun’s ethereal atmosphere will dance in the sky. Many people say standing beneath a total solar eclipse is a life-changing experience. We’re pumped.

(Don’t worry, the rest of the country will see a partial eclipse, which will be cool too.)

But here’s the problem: Totality only lasts for about 2.5 minutes. So how does a first-time eclipse viewer make the most of this rare moment? We asked several veteran chasers, some of whom have seen upward of 30 total solar eclipses, for some advice. Here’s what they said.

1) The most important piece of advice: Get to the totality!

A 99 percent partial eclipse is still a partial eclipse. Make an effort to drive to the path of totality, if you can.

“My best advice for first-timers is to at all costs try to get into the path of totality,” says Mike Kentrianakis, an astronomer with the American Astronomical Society’s solar eclipse task force. “And I mean anywhere in the path of totality. Simply getting within the northern or southern limits is fine [where the duration of the totality will be shorter]. ... See one minute, you'll be just as awestruck.”

2) Consider what kind of experience you’re looking for and plan for it

Some people want to experience totality in a crowd. Some want to take the time to be alone and contemplate their place in the universe without distraction.

“Just spend a little bit of time thinking about what it is that you want out of the eclipse,” Vicky Sahami, an astronomy professor and eclipse tour guide, says. “Maybe it's going to be a very personal, very spiritual thing.”

If that’s the case, let people around you know not to bother you during the eclipse.

3) For the love of God, do not try to photograph totality

The eclipse enthusiasts we spoke to said this over and over: Totality only lasts a precious few moments, and photos never do it justice.

“Anytime you've ever taken a picture of the full moon, it never captures how it felt in your eyes and in your heart, you know what I mean?” says Rhonda Coleman, an eclipse-chasing resident of Bend, Oregon. “It seems to fill the sky, but your photograph will only be a memory.”

Joe Rao, a meteorologist who collaborates with the Hayden Planetarium, says, “trying to photograph your first total eclipse of the sun is like ... your first girlfriend or boyfriend. You're not very good, it's over very quickly, and you just want to do it again.”

You get the point.

The picture can’t really capture it because totality is so much more than just a visual experience. It’s auditory: People around you may scream in joy; birds may start chirping their nighttime songs. It’s tactile: The winds shift and temperature changes. It’s otherworldly: You’re surrounded by 360-degree sunset colors. It all adds up to an awesome gestalt: a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

“Try and be there in the moment,” Kate Russo, an eclipse chasing clinical psychologist, says. “Really focus on what you're feeling and what you're thinking because there're some profound things that are gonna happen. Also, it happens within you, as well, so yes, it's how it can change you as a person.”

4) But you could set up your camera to record the people around you

Bill Kramer, a retired computer engineer who has seen 16 eclipses, says it’s fun to set up a video stream of the crowd witnessing the eclipse. You can turn on the video camera before it happens, and then watch the sky show without fiddling with any buttons.

“You'll hear people crying, screaming, swearing, etc., etc.,” Kramer says. “The video can be a lot of fun.”

5) Don’t forget to take off glasses during totality!

You cannot look directly at the sun during the eclipse’s partial phases, so this is the time you’ll need to keep those glasses on. Only during the short totality can you take off the glasses and stare directly at the sun.

“If you leave the filters on, you won't see anything at all,” says Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astrophysicist who has been to 27 total eclipses. It’ll be too dark.

6) A pair of binoculars will help you see the corona

During totality, you can see something rare and specular: the solar corona. It’s the sun’s outer atmosphere, and it’ll radiate out from the black disc of the moon like the petals of a lotus flower. With binoculars, you might also be able to see prominences: enormous filaments of plasma and magnetic energy that appear as ropes or loops in the corona.

“Binoculars are going to give you a nice, improved view that you'll be able to see a lot more detail inside the corona,” Kramer says.

Just know: If you’re going to use binoculars during the partial phases, you’ll need to put solar filters on them to protect your eyes.

7) Make a list of things to look for before and after totality

Coleman also suggests making kind of a list of cool astronomical features to look for. For instance, she suggests, you can make it a point to try to spot some Baily’s beads. Those are the last beams of light that slip through the canyons of the moon before and after totality. (The Astronomical League has a handy checklist you can print out to keep you on track.)

“There's a lot of things to see in a short period of time, so make a list,” Coleman says. You might also want to remember to look around for 360-degree sunset colors. Or try to spot a prominence in the solar corona. There will also be stars and planets — like Mercury and Mars — and the bright star Regulus to spot during totality. (Use an astronomy app like Sky Guide to figure out where to look.)

Sky Guide

Coleman also insists: “If you're going to be with a sweetie, you have to kiss them because that's super good luck to kiss while an eclipse is going on.”

8) Stick around after totality is over

Everything that happens in the buildup to totality — the eclipse partial phases, Baily’s beads, the diamond ring effect (where one last beam of light makes the eclipse look like a diamond ring in the sky) — all repeat themselves after totality ends. Savor them! “After totality ends, very few people bother to watch the last partial phases,” Espenak says. “They are too busy celebrating, telling each other their own experiences during totality, what they liked most.”

Joss Fong contributed reporting.


Why a total solar eclipse is a life-changing event, according to 8 eclipse chasers