The Complete Guide to the Solar Eclipse

Hey there!

In case you haven’t heard, a complete solar eclipse took place on August 21st, 2017 in the USA! This once in a lifetime experience can be discussed both simply (the moon blocks the sun) and as complexly as you can imagine. We’ve done the hard work of sifting through a few dozen NASA pages, photography guides, and misc blog posts and compiled the most important bits for both viewing and photographing the eclipse. We’ve even added a few ideas to help you navigate the circus of people trying to do the same thing!

So without further ado, we present the Alpine Labs Complete Guide to the Solar Eclipse. (11 minute read)

Table of Contents:

  1. Eclipse Basics
  2. Essential Eclipse Lingo
  3. Safety First
  4. Don’t Go Blind
  5. Planning a Trip
  6. Essential Gear
  7. A Few Fun Facts
  8. Photography Recommendations
  9. Experiencing the Moment Itself
  10. Audio Guide
  11. Final Reminders 


The percentages in this photo show the amount that the moon will block the sun. You will notice that a partial eclipse will be visible all across North America and even into parts of South America. Source: Nasa


The Basics

Solar eclipses are rare, very rare. While technically they do happen every few years, they are frequently only partial eclipses (some annular, some hybrid), and they are often in remote locations that are not easily accessible and don’t have easy sleeping accommodations… like the middle of the Atlantic ocean (2015) or in Antarctica (2021).  The complete and total blocking of the sun’s light is unique and the last time one hit the United States was in 1979.


In short, the August 21st, 2017 total eclipse was visible from a small strip of land that stretches across America, starting in Oregon and ending in South Carolina.


The eclipse will begin (on land) in Oregon at Lincoln Beach at 9:05am PDT with totality (the brief moment when the moon fully blocks the sun) starting at 10:16am PDT. For the next hour and a half, the eclipse will travel across the United States (and time zones) and totality will finish at 2:48 EDT in South Carolina. Technically you can view total eclipse over both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as well if you have a boat, just make sure your GPS is working. If you are not on the “line of totality”, you can still see a partial eclipse, which will be visible as far away South America and Europe. 

To see exact eclipse times for locations all across the country, use this map.

 Source: NASA

Essential Eclipse Lingo

If you attend an event (or even just attempt to read this whole blog post!) here are a few words you might want to know:

Totality: The brief moment when the moon fully blocks the sun.

C1,C2,C3,C4: The phases of the eclipse. C1 is the moment the moon starts obscuring the sun. C2 is when totality begins. C3 is when totality ends. C4 is when the moon stops obscuring the sun.

Partial solar eclipse: an eclipse where only part of the sun is obscured. For all locations outside of the eclipse path, viewers will observe a partial eclipse.

Corona: The burning atmosphere that surrounds the sun. This is the part of the sun that is still visible during totality

Umbral Shadow: the shadow that the moon casts upon the earth during a solar eclipse. If you are in the umbral shadow, you are experiencing totality.

Diamond Ring: a phenomena that happens before and after totality as the sun starts to become visible again and the eclipse looks like a ring with a vibrant diamond on one side of it.



Safety first... but seriously, read this

Day long traffic jams, cell phone blackout zones, insufficient access to drinking water and restrooms - up to 7 million people from all over the world are estimated to travel to the eclipse path and city populations near or in the path are expected to double or triple over a few days. As amazing and jaw-dropping as this event will be, the day of will likely also be chaotic.

The American Red Cross is preparing for disaster level scenarios - ramping up staffing at hospitals, building emergency support shelters, and generally adding capacity to handle challenges.

In summary, be careful out there. Specifically, bring enough food, water and clothing to take care of yourself in case you are stuck in traffic for several hours or even up to all day. Also print out your directions as your phone’s GPS and Google Maps app will likely not work because of all the people jamming the cell phone towers.

Lastly, please bring your patience and be friendly. Everyone is out there to enjoy this natural wonder.


Don’t go Blind

Get explicitly NASA approved glasses - like the ones sold here. Sunglasses will not work, and using non Nasa approved glasses brings the risk of damaging your eyes. Nasa says to buy glasses from these manufacturers who have approved materials. Random glasses purchased on Amazon or elsewhere may not be as safe as they claim. You can only look at the eclipse with the naked eye when the moon has fully blocked the sun (totality).

Protect your camera: Protect your camera with a solar filter or Neutral Density filter of at least 16 stops. Anything less and you risk burning out your sensor. Lastly, even with the filter on, do not look through your viewfinder. It will act as a small magnifying glass, focusing the light on your eyeball...kind of like creating fire with a magnifying glass as a kid, except your eye is on the receiving end. Plan to review test shots on your LCD monitor instead and save your eyes. Also note that leaving Live View on exposes your sensor to the sun, again risking damage to your sensor. If you must use Live View only do it for a second or two at a time.



Planning a trip 

If you want to stay in a town and don’t already have a hotel booked or have a ton of money, you are probably out of luck. Last minute eclipse trips will either require you to do a day trip, or camp in the middle of nowhere (campgrounds will be booked). 

What kind of experience do you want?

Experiences can range from sitting in a busy city (Nashville), drinking a beer on an outdoor patio, to having camped in some isolated location in Wyoming for several days, to pulling over on the side of the highway for 5 minutes and watching totality.

Think about what you want from the day, and what you are capable of in terms of time and self sufficiency (take 3 days off? Backpack into a hidden lake? Take one day off and bring some audio books for the traffic?)

If you do go to a city and have the ability, biking and walking around will likely make things much easier. Last thing to note if still you are deciding on where to go, look at monthly trends on weather or if close enough to the day of, just the weather forecast. Clouds or thunderstorms will put a damper on your day.

Trying to decide where exactly to go? Use these maps and recommendations to help decide.


Essential Gear

This is by no means a complete list as we trust travelers to know their basic needs. Here are a few key or easy to overlook items that are must haves:

  • Solar glasses
  • Chair - you may want to get in position several hours beforehand... and may want to sit.
  • Jacket - temperatures can drop up to 28 degrees F while the sun in obscured, though 10-15 degrees is more common.
  • Lots of food
  • Lots of water - recommended 2 liters per person per day minimum
  • Camera
    • Tripod
    • Solar Filter or 16 stop ND filter
    • Remote trigger (may we suggest Pulse?)
    • Extra Charged Batteries



Photography Recommendations 

There is a LOT of information regarding best shooting practices and techniques for the eclipse. Below we have three top resources that really dig into the nitty gritty. Fundamentally if you know how to shoot in Manual, it is still the same basic process of adjusting your setting to your desired exposure - especially during totality. Here are our high level recommendations:


  • Get a solar filter
    • Either that or 16 Stop Neutral Density filter, otherwise you will ruin your sensor. Check your histogram to make sure you are getting what you want. You can take the solar filter off during the few minutes of totality.
  • Decide on what you want to shoot before hand and practice
    • You will have minimal time during the eclipse to make adjustments or change plans.
  • Turn your flash off
    • Especially if you are in a group setting, this will be a real buzz kill. Flash is not helpful and will ruin yours and other’s low light sensitivity.
  • Think broadly about your composition
    • While many get (and should get!) excited about the classic macro shot of the moon, it has both been done many times, and requires either a telescope or a 500mm - 1000mm lens which most photographers don’t have. We encourage you to think outside the box and maybe play with some foreground in your shot. For most of us shooters this is really only possible during totality, as that is the only time where you can expose for both the moon/sun and the foreground at the same time. Even still doing so will require massive bracketing and probably some effort with HDR compilers later if you want your exposure to be even across the image.
    • Once any portion of the sun is visible, you will need your solar filter on your camera. If you correctly expose for the sun the rest of your image will be completely black.
    • Also remember that due to the earth’s rotation, the sun will move quite a bit during the eclipse- approximately one solar diameter every two minutes. Keep this in mind when setting up your tripod deciding how large to make the sun in your frame.  
  • Use an exposure guide for reference, like this one here.
  • Long exposure and HDR will be your safest photos
    • Long exposure during totality will be pretty amazing and you might even get stars. You can also take some HDR shots to be safe if you are concerned about getting the right exposure. If you really want to set it and forget it, set an HDR time lapse. Put your camera in bracket mode and set a time lapse. It’s not so much that you will have a time lapse at the end but rather lots of shots to choose from.
  • Try taking a video
    • While we haven not tested or practiced this ourselves, here is a popular video on how to take video of the eclipse. While this video does jump around a bit, it does interview an experienced astronomer who has some great recommendations.
  • Time lapsing the entire event will be difficult, but stunning if achieved.
    • A day to night to day, all in about three minutes, would be absolutely incredible. Given the technical challenge of this shot, we’ve dedicated a separate learn article to discussing strategies for managing your solar filter, your interval, and your settings. Check it out here.


***Remember that the moment is more important than the shot, and forgive yourself if you don’t nail it. Make sure you get to experience the magic, not just from behind the camera***


Extra Recommended Photography Reading:

Ken Slute, Alpine Labs Advocate and Canon Explorer of Light has created a comprehensive resource on a variety of aspects of shooting the eclipse. This is the most thorough photography guide we have seen and is called Canon’s Total Guide to Totality: Solar Eclipse Photography

Nikon Photography Guide

National Geographic Photography Guide



The Moment Itself

Be patient and ready. Totality will last only 2.5 minutes, and from what we’ve read it will feel like 8 seconds. It is best to not just stare at the moon for 2 minutes, as you will miss much of the drama.

As the moment gets closer, look around you to see the little details of how the world is changing. In the final moments before totality, the shadows on the ground will get sharper as the light becomes less diffuse. If you look in the distance you will be able to see the oncoming darkness and depending on your vantage point even watch the shadow line fly across the ground at 16 miles a minute!

As totality begins, you can remove your protective glasses and look directly at the moon. Remind yourself to look around you at the dark world you are now in. Watch the shadow line moving away from you as you approach the center of the eclipse. Look around as not too far away are 360 degrees of sunrises and sunsets happening extremely quickly. Clouds will be colored. Look back now at the moon, and now that your eyes have adjusted to the dark, try and notice more detail. Look back to the surrounding sky and see if you can see any stars. Look back one last time at the moon in the final moments of totality. Notice that is is just barely starting to get brighter and you should grab your solar glasses again. In a moment sunrise will be here and totality will have ended.

Do your best to enjoy the moment and experience the magic. It will be quick. For an inspiring and beautiful essay on what it feel like to be there in the moment and feel those 8 seconds, click here. We've also created an audio guide so that you don't need to look at your written notes for instructions or reminders during the eclipse.


Solar eclipse audio guide

Solar eclipse audio guide with background music


Some Final Reminders

Have plenty of supplies to support yourself, be patient out there, don’t worry about missing the shot, and remember to enjoy yourself. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so if you have the chance to actually watch it in person, don’t sweat the minutiae. You are still getting to experience an incredible astrological event.

Feeling inspired to catch this eclipse? Watch it live here and plan for the next one here!


 Source: Great American Eclipse

If you have any questions about the eclipse, please let us know! We’d love to help out and hope that you can get out there and enjoy it.


- Greg and the Alpine Team