When a solar eclipse is announced, everyone goes into a frenzy hoping to get a glimpse! If you aren't sure how to prepare for an eclipse, whether as a casual viewer or as a photographer, one thing is for certain - view it safely. Read on to learn more about what a solar eclipse is, the different types of eclipses, preparation tips, and how to safely observe the event.
Key points of this guide:
What is a Solar Eclipse?
Different Types of Solar Eclipses
How to Observe & Safety Concerns
How to Photograph the Solar Eclipse
Impact on Ancient Civilizations
Impact on Astronomy
What is a Solar Eclipse?
A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun, blocking the Sun's light and creating a shadow on Earth. In simpler terms, as a spectator on Earth, you have your view of the Sun temporarily obstructed by the passing moon. View the graphic below to see a visual representation of how this effect occurs.
When a solar eclipse occurs, it produces two shadows - the umbra and the penumbra. In the graphic below you can see the difference between the two. The darkest part of the shadow is called the umbra and the effect has a much smaller path as it moves across the Earth. When you stand in the path of totality (the areas of the Earth where the total eclipse can be viewed) it provides the best view of a solar eclipse.
The penumbra covers a larger area around the umbra. In this spot, you would be in the moon's shadow but you cannot view the total eclipse as you would in the umbra.
This is the reason why individuals travel to areas in the path of totality - to see the total eclipse in full glory.
This uncommon solar event can only happen when two conditions are met. First, the Moon has to be in a new moon phase. Second, the Moon is in its orbital plane intersecting the plane of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. An orbital plane happens when celestial bodies line up in a way that the smaller body creates a flat disk path. In this case, the larger body is the Sun and the effect that occurs (the shadow) is visible on Earth. Even more incredible - we see this happen from the shadow side!
However, not every eclipse is the same type. As the Sun and Moon and Earth orbit, they can line up just right to make a total solar eclipse, but other times they might be just shy of a perfect path.
Different Types of Solar Eclipses
Listed below are the four types of solar eclipses. Find a short description of each one as well as an example of what it looks like.
Total Solar Eclipse
A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon completely blocks the Sun, creating a narrow path of totality on the Earth's surface.
During this eclipse, the sky darkens and the temperature drops, and the Sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, becomes visible to observers on Earth.
Partial Solar Eclipse
A partial solar eclipse occurs when the Moon blocks the Sun but not completely, and creates a crescent-shaped shadow on the Earth's surface.
During this type of eclipse, the Sun appears as a partial disk, with a portion of its surface still visible.
Annular Solar Eclipse
An annular solar eclipse occurs when the Moon is at its farthest distance from the Earth, and appears smaller than the Sun, creating a "ring of fire" around the Moon's silhouette.
During an annular eclipse, the sky darkens, but the Sun's corona is not visible.
4) Hybrid Solar Eclipse
The rarest type of solar eclipse is a hybrid solar eclipse. The eclipse switches from "total" to "annular" depending on your location.
For example, a total solar eclipse can be viewed from Australia, but a person in Southeast Asia may see an annular eclipse. (This actually occurred in April 2023!)
How to Observe The Eclipse & Safety Considerations
Before you rush out to buy your solar eclipse sunglasses, we recommend educating yourself on two very important things: how to prepare for the eclipse and how to safely observe the Sun.
1. How to Prepare for a Solar Eclipse
The biggest component of viewing an eclipse is preparation. Careful planning takes time and effort, but the payoff is well worth it.
Why is it so important? Well, unless you are fortunate enough to live in an area where the path of totality passes over your backyard - you have no choice but to travel and plan. If the trip (car, bus, train, plane) to the darkest zone doesn't hold you back, your lodgings surely will.
Often, hotels in areas in the path of totality are often booked up YEARS in advance now that science can predict upcoming solar eclipses. Camping might be a good alternative but understand that space at campgrounds is limited as it is. On a busy weekend, finding an open spot could be risky as thousands flock to the observation location. Consider your options in advance and make reservations and plans sooner than later as prices hike will up or availability might run out.
Once your lodgings are settled, all you have left is the equipment. For casual viewers, grabbing a pair of solar eclipse sunglasses might be enough. However, serious observers and photographers are compelled to get the best camera (and telescope!) possible to not only see but also take photos of the event.
Here are some helpful tips to assist you as you plan your experience:
Research the eclipse. Find out the date, time, and location of the eclipse you plan to observe. Researching this information will help you find out where you need to find lodging, where best to observe from (if away from lodgings), and what to expect during the event. We made a post about all upcoming solar eclipses until the year 2100, so be sure to check out when the next ones are near your location!
Choose a safe location. If you've never been to the area where you plan to observe, avoid several things that could block your view: tall buildings, trees, and other obstructions. If you are in a wildlife area, be wary of your surroundings and stay in permitted areas.
Bring the right equipment. Don't forget that you should never look directly at the Sun. Bring equipment that is suited for viewing the Sun such as solar eclipse sunglasses, telescopes, cameras, and binoculars (with solar filters, of course). On top of that, don't forget to bring equipment for comfort like a chair or blanket. The event lasts hours before totality, so get comfortable and have plenty of water and snacks.
Enjoy the experience. A solar eclipse is a rare and memorable event. While it takes a while for the eclipse to occur, the totality only lasts several minutes. Take the time to enjoy the experience before, during, and after. Observe the changes in the sky and the environment around you - it's a core memory waiting to happen.
Other things to remember about solar eclipses are:
It takes time until the eclipse reaches totality
Totality typically lasts for several minutes (be ready!)
Bring equipment that is modified or made for observing the sun safely (solar filters)
Find out when the next solar eclipse is in our 100 Years of solar eclipses post.
2. How to Safely Observe the Sun
The most important component of solar eclipses is safety. Staring at the sun for any period of time can result in long-term damaging effects or blindness.
It may be an obvious statement, but there is no harm in a second reminder about the consequences.