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Lessons in eclipse viewing from someone who saw the last one

Of the Keizertimes

When the total solar eclipse passes over Keizer on Monday, Aug. 21, the first instinct for many will be to pull out their phone or camera and try to capture a defining image.

Steve Davidson, a photographer with Photos by Orion, advises against it. Primarily because there is a lot to miss if you’re only looking through a camera lens.

“When I went to photograph the eclipse in 1979, I immediately went into my planned series of exposures changing shutter speeds and f-stops and it finally dawned on me that I hadn’t seen the eclipse with my own eyes,” Davidson said.

For the final 15 or 20 seconds, he put his camera aside and he remembers those moments most vividly.

“The sun was shimmering as it passed behind the peaks and valleys of the moon. You could also see the sun’s prominences in a pinkish-red color. It was startling to be able to see that. Those are explosions that would consume the earth,” Davidson said.

A solar prominence is an eruption on the surface of the sun. Davidson isn’t any armchair astronomer either, his undergraduate degree was in physics and astronomy. When the last eclipse passed over Oregon on Feb. 26, 1979, he was the director of the planetarium for the Southwest Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Eugene.

He and a small team of colleagues traveled to Goldendale, Wash., to view and capture the eclipse on film and through telescopes. His account of the event serves as a reminder that there will be much more to see than just a big black disc in front of the sun.

Davidson said he would have been among the first to discount ancient beliefs about the sun disappearing as an omen of end times, but experiencing it firsthand was something altogether unexpected.

“As totality started to arrive, my psyche and physiology was saying it wasn’t right – it’s slowly creeping up on you and in the last five minutes or so it really starts to feel spooky,” Davidson said.

A total solar eclipse is defined by four phases called “contacts.” While the second contact – in which the sun is directly behind the moon – is always the headliner, there is plenty to see in the hours and moments leading up to that brief period.

In 1979, Davidson’s viewing spot was atop a hill and he could see the shadow approaching. He was actually still watching the shadow approach when someone in another group called out that the diamond ring effect was happening overhead. That’s when he began snapping photos.

The diamond ring effect can be seen about 15 seconds before and after totality when the solar corona becomes visible and the gives off the appearance of a sparkling diamond along an edge.

While Davidson didn’t spot any in 1979, he was also looking for Baily’s beads, which appear around the edges of the eclipse about five seconds before and after totality. The effect is created by the mountains and valleys on the moon’s surface. They are named after English astronomer Francis Baily who provided the first exact explanation of the effect in 1836.

Once totality arrived, Davidson could also see the band of shadow in the sky.

“It wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be. I could see stars, but there was a big dark band in the sky and on either side the sky was basically normal,” he said.

If you are dead set on trying to capture the eclipse, Photos by Orion is offering a class Aug. 17 at Bush’s Pasture Park in Salem. Cost is $50 and pre-registration is required. Call 503-385-1435 to sign up.