Total Eclipse of the Sun
Winnsboro, SC, August 21, 2017
Neither Tim Dwight nor I had ever experienced a total eclipse of the sun before. So on August 21 we left my house about 10:30 am and wended our way around traffic to head for Winnsboro, South Carolina, 34°22′37″N, 81°5′17″W, a town of about 3,500 residents, the majority of whom are African-American. It is notable as the hometown of North Carolina Governor James G. Martin and the town where in 1803 what became the modern Associate Reformed Presbyterian denomination was founded.
Totality lasted less than two minutes there, and there were places nearby with two and a half minutes of totality, but we chose Winnsboro because of its Davidson connection. The previous total eclipse visible from much of the southeastern US was on May 28, 1900, (so none occurred during the twentieth century). I missed that one, but I did graduate from high school exactly sixty-four years later. Professor Henry L. Smith gathered with other scientists in Winnsboro for the 1900 eclipse. He is best known for his pioneer work in x-rays and how his students made what we believe were the first ones made in NC. There is a highway marker on Concord Road about that. For the eclipse expedition, he took a new six-inch telescope from the college.
So in commemoration of Dr. Smith's expedition, Davidson Professor Kristen Thompson planned a series of events in Winnsboro, culminating in a public viewing of the eclipse on the Garden Street Park ballfield, while back in Davidson there was an eclipse party on campus during the first day of classes. The eclipse was 97.1% in Davidson.
We arrived about 1:15. By the time we got checked in and I set up my camera in the middle of the ball field, it was after 1:30 and the eclipse was in progress. Totality would not be until 2:41 EDT. (That was approximately 1:11 pm local solar time on that day, so the sun would be high in the sky for the whole eclipse.) The picture above was made at 2:16 pm looking east from my spot on the field. So it is a little more than an hour into the eclipse and 25 minutes before totality. Perhaps you can tell that the light was already taking on an unusual look. Of course this and other non-eclipse photos were taken with a different camera or with my iPhone, rather than disturbing my eclipse setup on the tripod.
Just as one needed special glasses to look directly at the eclipse, except during totality, I needed a special filter over my lens to photograph it. Automatic functions on the camera were worthless for focusing and exposure. I had run tests at home trying to take pictures of the sun through the filter. Early tries were an exercise in futility and produced some fuzzy shots. Even with the filter, one shouldn't look through the regular viewfinder, but instead use the LCD screen. LCD screens are hard to see in bright sunlight, and with such a dark filter over the lens, it's hard even to find the sun with the camera and get it in the field of view. Then comes the challenge of focusing. After I set up in Winnsboro, I thought I had found the sun, only to realize that, no, it was the reflection on the screen of a button on my shirt. Over the course of the afternoon I had to keep repositioning the camera since the sun was moving in the sky. So after much effort, I finally made my first decent shot of the eclipse at 1:38, just over an hour before totality:
I knew the picture was in focus because the sunspots were fairly clear, and the exposure was good enough not to wash them out.
For those curious about such technical matters, I was using a Canon Rebel T3i camera with an EF 75–300mm lens zoomed all the way to 300, equivalent on that body to 420mm on a full-frame camera. I set all the controls to manual. Somebody's graphs on line convinced me that f/14 was the best sharpest lens opening to use at that zoom level on that lens, so I made all shots at that setting and stuck with ISO 200. I controlled exposure by changing shutter speed, initially using 1/200 sec. and changing to 1/160 sec. as totality neared. I made about 160 pictures of the various stages of the eclipse. I will share a few of them on this page, and you can see most of them in the time-lapse video I made from them that you can see from links at the bottom of this page. All of the pictures of the eclipse itself on this page have been cropped but not resized. I chose not to color the sun orange to simulate the view through the glasses. Of course sunlight is white, by definition, except near sunrise and sunset when the light is filtering through so much of the atmosphere.
Just before I made that picture a physics major at Guilford College came by to talk. She was just wandering around answering questions.
Among the Davidson folks in attendance were Julio Ramirez and his and Annie's son, pictured below. Julio also took my picture with my camera setup, in case the alumni office need a shot of an old alumnus at the event.
The crowd looking up at the eclipse through their glasses at 2:25 pm, sixteen minutes before totality:
2:38, three minutes to totality:
Totality at Winnsboro lasted just one minute and twenty-one seconds. I had promised myself that I would not take any pictures during that time. Being in totality could well be for me a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I wanted to look at it and experience the unusual look of things and the sky, and feel the chill, and listen to the crowd. Well, so much for that promise. When totality began, I unscrewed the filter from the front of the lens and changed to a slower shutter speed, and took a picture, and then I lowered the shutter speed some more to get different amounts of the corona to show up:
I did take a little time to look at the eclipse with my bare eyes and observe the crowd and experience the light and chill, but I was doing too many things at once. It went by like a blur. This picture during totality looks lighter than it appeared at the time. Notice that the street lights had come on. Of course the auto exposure and color balance of the camera tries to make it look normal. Maybe some time I will try to edit this shot with Photoshop to make it look more like it did at the time.
As totality ended, I took one last shot, and lucked into getting the "diamond ring" effect:
After totality ended, many of the people began packing up their stuff to leave for home. I put the filter back on and took occasional pictures. It took me a while to get the shutter speed back fast enough to get detail in the sun, so the earlier post-total pictures are not as good. Eventually Tim went back to his car and moved it close to the entrance so we wouldn't have so far to carry our stuff. The eclipse ended there about 4:03. Here are a couple of pictures, taken at 3:48 and 3:58:
It turned out to be a very good day. Perhaps I would have been better off to have left the camera at home, or maybe just shoot pictures of the crowd and activities, but now I'm glad to have my own personal record. I was tied down somewhat by the setup, but I did get to interact with people who came up to talk, and I did walk over and chatted with Julio and his son. Some people wanted to see what I was getting with the camera, so when I took a shot, they could see that picture on the screen for a few minutes, and I needed to check the screen from time to time anyway to see if the sun had moved enough for me to move the camera. One small boy come over with his mom and a sibling or two. He couldn't see anything, so he started to leave. I called him back and handed him the remote shutter release I was using, and told him to push it to make a photo. Then he got to see on the screen the picture he had just made. Then he was ready to move on, and his mom could breathe again after he moved away from my photo equipment.
Tim left for a while and went back to the car for things, and on the way back he chatted with people including a woman from France. He pointed her out to some folks from WFAE. You can hear some of the interview here. After he came back he had an umbrella with him, and a few times he held it over me and the LCD screen, so I could see what I was doing much better when repositioning and refocusing. And after totality he did stay with my stuff long enough for me to get to see what was left of some exhibits and a projection from a telescope.
By waiting until the end of the eclipse around 4:00, we missed the worst of the traffic there, though we knew things would be bad between Columbia and Charlotte. Our sunscreen had worked well over the three hours we sat in the sun, and we had bottles of water to drink. It wasn't really that unpleasant out. But we still were glad to find an ice cream place in town before we headed back. We talked some with the owner and then others who had been involved with the event as they came in to cool off. Very friendly folks. Tim and I both knew the less traveled roads west of Charlotte, and eventually we went around Belmont and got on Wilkinson Blvd. I realized we were headed toward the Open Kitchen, and we decided to eat supper there. By then traffic had cleared, and we could head back up I-77 with no problem.
It was a fun day, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, at least until 2024.
Over the following month, I assembled and lined up the various still pictures to make a time-lapse video. The seventeen seconds on the video before totality represents just over an hour of time. Then the five shots during totality are given a little time each. Note that in higher resolution versions, you can see a star or planet on the left side of the photos. The final seventeen seconds represents an hour and fifteen minutes after totality. You can see the video on YouTube. Watch it in the highest resolution available, and try seeing it in full screen mode.
For highest quality, see the 1080p version.
Or you can watch one of these smaller versions if you have less bandwidth: