The Indian eclipse was very different to the last eclipse which I observed in Hawaii, 1991. For that eclipse, there was a luxury of about 4 1/2 minutes of totality, enough for a whole range of photographic exposures plus a minute observing through binoculars. In India, totality lasted about 54 seconds,in which time I took seven photo's, one every 7.71 seconds. During each exposure the film had to be wound on, the exposure adjusted a couple of seconds allowed for vibrations to die down, and then the cable release pressed. This gave six periods of about two seconds each to observe visually. Not ideal but that is the way things went for me.
Technically I left my options open until arrival at the observing site as to which film speed should be used, 100ISO or 400ISO. But in the end the 400ISO was loaded in, for three reasons. Firstly, the camera was not tracking, and I wanted a longish exposure to show the corona as much as possible. Secondly there was no time to move carefully and give things time to settle. Thirdly, my tripod is getting rather wobbly.
The next thing was to decide the exposure range. With my camera, to change shutter speeds manually involves looking through the view finder and moving a little dot of light up or down a scale which is totally invisible against a dark background, so the shutter speed was set to one-thirtieth of a second for the exposures,and the variation in exposure was achieved entirely by adjusting the F-number, the control of which is much easier in the dark, in a hurry, as there is a click-stop mechanism to help find the stops. So the first shot was one thirtieth at F6.3, the widest stop on the 400mm telephoto lens, then down a stop at a time to F22 for the last shot and the diamond ring. This is not ideal from the point of view of resolution but, under the circumstances, it was the best way.
Just before the Diamond Ring.
The actual eclipse was beautiful, what bit I saw of it. Long coronal streamers like rocket exhausts, and, as the moon only just covered the sun, the pink chromosphere was visible, along with with prominences, round most of the moon's limb for the whole eclipse. The diamond ring at the end was quite prolonged, about two seconds, and finally turned into a triple diamond sky itself did not get very dark, remaining quite a light-green blue colour which added to the beauty of the whole spectacle.
For the last excitement of the eclipse we had to wait until the film was developed when we got home. Yes, they had come out very well. All the travelling, the deciding, the "Ah-well, it's too late to change my mind now" panic of the fifty-four seconds of photography had been worth it. Just in passing, the other 220-odd non-eclipse slides came out O.K. as well. But all the photographs in the world are as nothing compared to the experience of actually being there to see that incredible sight in the sky, to hear that gasp of amazement from the crowd around, to talk about it with everyone after it is over. Be warned, solar eclipses are highly addictive.
Twelve months later, the evening of October 23rd 1995, after an excellent dinner at Clarke's Hotel Agra, I sat down with John, together with many other "eclipse chasers" to listen to the pre-eclipse lecture given by Dr. John Mason. For the first time I was touched by the enthusiasm and anticipation that precedes a solar eclipse. I also understood a little more, possessed a pair of mylar glasses and knew that as a first time eclipse watcher, my priority should be to simply enjoy every second of it.
It wasn't easy getting up at 4am next morning for a 5.30 start, especially after the Diwali celebrations of the night before- but that's another story! We travelled to Fatehpur Sikri- a deserted Mughal city, perfectly preserved- about 30 miles southwest of Agra, a perfect setting. We arrived about 6.45am.
Everyone immediately set about finding their own patch and began to prepare in earnest. Whilst John also was involved in getting his camera, lenses etc. ready for action, I had time to watch everyone else. "Hat-pack" telescopes, marvels of ingenuity, grew before my eyes. Tripods were set up, sited and recited, adjusted and readjusted. And all the time the sun rose slowly, nearly vertically, brilliant in a cloudless blue sky. Finally a hush decended. No, not because the moment we were all waiting for had come- it was time for breakfast! Then the arrival of the Minister of Tourism seemed to set the official seal on the occasion.
First contact. A quiet buzz of excitement, more adjustments to equipment, between times taking a look at the moon's progress. Hardly noticeable at first, the air gradually cooled, the light dimmed and the tension mounted as second contact came closer. The last seconds before totality and a jewel of a deep red crescent hung in the sky. Just for a moment a totally blackened sun, and then it happened. The sun's corona spread triumphantly into four magnificent streamers, a glorious sight and too soon gone. I saw the diamond ring of course, and yes it was beautiful. Then again the finest of brilliant red crescents reappeared in the lightening sky. Fiftyfive seconds of sheer magic for me.
I realised that the show was over. All around, telescopes were being packed away, tripods folded, much conversation, murmurs of approval, general agreement that yes it really had been a good one. A last look at the growing crescent sun and then we made our way back to the bus for the journey to Jaipur.
My first eclipse experience was over. Fiftyfive seconds is not a very long time in eclipse terms but enough to wet a novice's appetite. I believe the next total solar eclipse can be seen in Outer Mongolia in 1997. Now there's a land I've always wanted to see. Outer Mongolia and an opportunity to witness another total solar eclipse? Very tempting, I really think that I must send for a brochure straight away.