When the moon passes directly between Earth and the sun, those on Earth are treated to one of nature’s greatest spectacles—a total solar eclipse. It is a phenomenon that almost every observer would like to capture in a photograph.
Due to the rarity of the event, the short duration in which to capture it, and the dynamic nature of the subject, it is one of those photographic opportunities that requires the proper gear, setup, planning, and practice.
Above photograph © Todd Vorenkamp
I cannot emphasize the previous sentence enough. Plan your eclipse photography, have the right gear, and practice, practice, practice on the non-eclipsed sun before the big event.
DO NOT look at the sun with your naked eyes. Permanent damage to your eyesight, and even blindness, may result. ALWAYS wear certified solar viewing glasses when viewing the sun before, during, and after an eclipse. We have all glanced at the sun, but prolonged exposure causes permanent damage. During an eclipse, when the moon covers a portion of the sun, the intensity of the light remains constant. The ONLY time it is safe to look toward the sun with the naked eye is during the brief period of totality at the height of a total eclipse of the sun.
DO NOT point a camera at the sun unless the optics are fitted with a certified solar filter. Optics can magnify the intensity and brightness of sunlight, and this can cause damage to your equipment.
DO NOT look through the viewfinder of an unfiltered SLR camera when it is pointed at or near the sun because of the increase in intensity and brightness of the sunlight passing through magnifying optics.
DO NOT look through the viewfinder of a rangefinder camera when it is pointed at or near the sun, as the optical viewfinder will not protect your eyes from the sun’s damaging light.
DO NOT point an unfiltered digital camera at the sun and use live view or an electronic viewfinder, due to the possibility of focusing concentrated, unfiltered sunlight at your camera’s sensor.
A solar eclipse is not an everyday event. Some people will go their entire lives without witnessing one. Some will travel far and wide to try to see one or more in a lifetime—especially for rare total solar eclipses.
So, what you DO NOT want to do is spend an entire eclipse event messing around with your camera gear or viewing it entirely through a camera’s viewfinder or on an LCD screen.
LOOK at the eclipse. Enjoy it with your own (protected) eyes. As amazing as it would be to get a great photograph, I promise you that you will have a lifetime of regrets if you miss the whole show because you are hyper-focused on photographing the event.
I have friends who have viewed eclipses only through a camera viewfinder and I feel sorry for them. The one time I was present for a total solar eclipse, my best views and experience, by far, were in viewing totality through a pair of unfiltered premium 8x42 birding binoculars. There was a jewel-like surrealness to the view that was definitely not present in my images, or on my digital viewfinder. I am so glad that I took myself away from the camera to see the eclipse with my own magnified eyes. The next time I am at a total solar eclipse, I plan to spend more time with the binoculars.
Now that we have that stuff out of the way, let’s look at how to get the shot!
1. Eclipse glasses. You’ll need these for a couple of reasons. a) You’ll want to view the eclipse with your own eyes and, b) you’ll need them to better aim your camera at the sun.
2. Camera. You do not need a professional DSLR camera to photograph the eclipse. In fact, any camera will do, depending on how you want to capture the event. You just need to take the proper precautions to protect the camera (and your eyes).
3. Tripod. The sun is beyond bright, so, when photographing the partial phases of an eclipse, you don’t technically need a camera support to avoid camera shake, because your shutter speeds will be very short. However, during totality, the sun is blocked out, which basically means that you are photographing in darkness. Here is some further reading on gear needed for night photography, to fully prepare you for these conditions. Also, since the eclipse happens over a stretch of time, you may not want to be holding a heavy camera rig for minutes or hours at a time.
4. Remote shutter release. When it gets dark, your shutter speeds will fall and you’ll want to trigger your camera remotely with a cable release, electronic release, or mobile device to prevent camera shake and blurring of your images.
Gear: Solar Filters
When photographing the sun, you will need a solar filter for your camera and lens. The ONLY time the filter is not needed is when the sun is completely obscured by the moon during the totality portion of a total solar eclipse.
Several online tutorials mention using a neutral density filter or stacking neutral density (ND) filters. I ONLY recommend using a properly designated solar filter. I am not alone in this recommendation. Experts at NASA, the National Science Foundation, the American Astronomical Society, Nikon, Space.com, Sky & Telescope magazine, and others all recommend solar filters instead of neutral density filters. Why? Because these are the only filters designed specifically for viewing the sun, and they are constructed to not only sufficiently dim the sunlight, but they also protect your eyes and equipment from non-visible IR and UV radiation. Solar photography is NOT the time to experiment with homemade filtration concoctions, like stacking polarizers and ND filters, in an effort to save a few bucks.
There are some ND filters out there marketed for solar photography. If you are looking for this type of filter, it looks like the consensus among brands is that 16-stops is the minimum strength for a filter. In comparing different brands, there was a dramatic difference between the light transmission of one brand’s 16.5-stop filter and a competing brand. This concerns me a bit. Use at your own risk!
WARNING: Do NOT use these ND filters with an optical viewfinder! Many come with fine-print on their packaging, so use due diligence and stick to using your Live View mode or an electronic viewfinder. Your safest option is a solar filter, but the optical glass ND filter may have other uses besides solar photography.
When it comes to solar filters, you have several options: filter sheet, screw-on front filter, or a solar filter that mounts between the camera and lens on an interchangeable-lens setup.
Filter Sheet Mylar white-light solar filters come in different shapes and sizes. Some are round and have tether holes to secure to your camera and/or lens. Many veteran observers also use sheets of #14 Welder’s Glass, which they mount or hold in front of the camera.
Screw-On Filter These white-light filters thread on your camera lens just like a standard threaded filter. However, they are designed for solar observing. Some are made of Mylar film inside of a filter ring, and others are made from optical glass. Pay attention to the fine print; some optical filter brands state that you should not look through an optical viewfinder or eyepiece while using them—they are for electronic viewfinders or LCD screens only.
If a screw-on filter does not have the correct diameter for your chosen lens, you can simply employ a step-up ring and adapt the larger filter to your smaller lens.
The color of the sun in your images is dependent on the type of white-light solar filter used. Metal-coated glass and black polymer filters result in a yellow or orange tint. Aluminized Mylar filters show a bluish sun. #14 Welder’s Glass creates a greenish image.
Intermediate Filter Intermediate filters are designed for solar imaging. They mount between your lens and your camera. The design of the optics filters out different wavelengths of light, allowing you to see detail on the surface of the sun that is not visible with standard white-light solar filters.
WARNING: Regardless of the filter system you employ, take care to ensure the filter does not accidently come off your rig while photographing the sun.
Restated to emphasize: Filters are needed at all times for solar viewing, except during the height of a total solar eclipse. So, when photographing the sun during totality, you should remove your filters. More on this later.
Gear: Lenses and Focal Length
When we think of the midday sun overhead, we envision it filling the sky with brilliant light. The truth is that even though the sun is 864,000 miles wide (109 times the size of Earth), the fact that it is approximately 93 million miles away means that it appears to be almost the same size as the Moon in our skies. Don’t believe me? Just look at a solar eclipse to see how the moon, when it is at or near its closest approach to Earth (perigee), blocks out the entire sun. (When the moon is farther from Earth (apogee), the result is a partial blockage of the sun during what is called an annular solar eclipse.)
What this means is that, with a wide-angle lens, the sun is very small in your frame. With a standard-length telephoto lens, the sun is slightly larger, but not frame-filling. To fill your viewfinder, you will likely need to go well past a 300mm focal length lens.
During the total eclipse of the sun, when the umbral shadow passes over the observer, the sun’s corona, usually invisible to the naked eye, is suddenly visible and it extends well away from the surface of the sun. So, an extreme telephoto lens may cause you to crop out significant portions of the corona. Keep this in mind when selecting a lens for an eclipse image. A focal length between 500mm and 1000mm will allow you to capture most of the corona while keeping the sun a good size in the frame.
Do some research online by looking at the thousands of images of solar eclipses available on photo sites. Many have information on the gear used to capture a particular image, including camera type, lens focal length, and exposure settings.
A popular approach is to capture the many phases of the eclipse and some scenic foreground detail with a standard focal length lens or a standard telephoto. You do not have to go out and buy an extreme telephoto to capture a beautiful image of a solar eclipse, but if you are looking for a telephoto lens on a budget that reaches farther than your trusty kit lenses, consider the relatively inexpensive catadioptric mirror lens for solar viewing. These lenses are small, light, and easily portable.
Digiscoping is a popular way to photograph the sun and solar eclipses. Many telescopes and spotting scopes allow cameras to be affixed to the scopes via adapters. Additionally, you can just hold a mobile device camera or point-and-shoot to the eyepiece of a scope or binoculars for casual digiscoping. The advantage of digiscoping is that, like with a mirror lens, you can achieve high levels of magnification without much of the expense of an exotic photographic telephoto lens.
Unless you are digiscoping through a dedicated solar viewing telescope, you must use a solar filter for imaging the sun. Some spotting scopes or telescopes have threaded front openings that allow the attachment of screw-in filters, and others have solar-viewing eyepieces. If your scope isn’t threaded, you can cover the objective lens with a filter sheet (described above).
Camera Settings: Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO…and Bracket!
During the progression from direct sunlight to the height of a total solar eclipse, the light will quickly change from broad daylight to twilight-like darkness. For the photographer, this is a blessing and a curse. The light really will not change dramatically until the eclipse approaches totality, so your camera settings can be static for a huge portion of the event—a good thing. The curse is that, when the eclipse show is at its most exciting, the light will be changing quickly, and you must be ready to adapt. Bummer!
Luckily for all of us, eclipse photographers have given us some great exposure guidelines on which to base our settings, so we can efficiently prepare for the show.
When the eclipse reaches totality and you have removed your solar filter from your camera, this is the time to start bracketing your shots heavily. Use the exposure guide as just that, a guide. Bracket, bracket, and bracket some more. According to experts, there is a vast 12-stop dynamic range from the corona at the sun’s surface to the outer edges of the corona. Shoot a ton of shots at different exposures. When you post-process later, you can choose the one that looks best. But, during this rarest of events, do not just lock into one exposure and take a bunch of equally exposed images.
When it comes to ISO, you should set your camera to its native ISO—the lowest un-boosted ISO setting. Research the Web for your make and model and the native ISO of your particular camera.
|TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE EXPOSURE SETTING GUIDELINES|
|Outer Corona||1/4||1/2||1 sec.||2 sec.||4 sec.|
Here are some additional settings to consider for your eclipse photographs.
1. DO NOT USE A FLASH. When the sun is out, the flash is useless. When the sun is obscured and all is dark, your flash will not illuminate the dark side of the moon, but it will annoy those around you trying to enjoy the spectacle. Also, by popping a flash, you will prove to everyone present that you don’t read this blog and, therefore, have no idea what you are doing with your camera.
2. Stock up on memory cards and shoot raw files. Have sufficient memory to handle a lot of raw images if you choose to lie down on the shutter release.
3. Use mirror lock-up on an SLR camera to minimize vibration.
4. Don’t be afraid to underexpose by a stop or two, or more. Avoid blown-out highlights. Use the highlight “blinkies” if your camera has them.
5. Take an occasional glance at your histogram to verify exposure.
6. Use live view or an electronic viewfinder for the “what you see is what you get” advantage. It is also safer for your eyes to NOT be looking through an optical finder if you ignored my advice about securely mounting a filter.
If you are photographing the sun (and the eclipsing new moon) as the only subject in your image, you can certainly center the sun in the frame. But, feel free to position your subject using the rule of thirds, or place it somewhere else in the frame for potentially dramatic effects or a unique look.
If you are shooting a wide-angle image and want to include some foreground detail, be sure that whatever you include in the foreground will not block the path of the sun, and be careful not to let that scenery dominate the scene—the dramatic display of this rare event will focus all attention on the solar eclipse. Also, with a solar filter in place, the foreground scenery will not show up in a photograph, so you will likely need to make multiple exposures.
Shooting the Eclipse: Telephoto Lens
Of course, you can just wait for totality, point your camera at the sun and moon, and snap a photo, but you will likely want to capture all the wonderful phases of the solar eclipse. This means you will need to track the sun across the sky for a few hours, and keep shooting as the eclipse moves toward totality and then back toward a full sun on the other side.
This is where planning comes in. How many photos do you want to take? Should you divide the eclipse up into equal parts by time and capture, for instance, one image every six minutes before and after totality? Many photographers put together beautiful montages showing the progression of the eclipse through its entire cycle. If you are planning on a montage or image series, you will want a solid game plan going into the event. For those planning multiple exposures, know that the Earth’s rotation causes the sun to move the distance of one solar diameter through the sky approximately every two minutes.
Also, you have to track the sun across the sky—either manually by hand or on a tripod, or with an electronic tracking telescope mount. One advantage of the mount is that, if used correctly, the sun will remain at a constant position through your frames and you will not have to work to manually track the event.
Here is the standard progression:
1. The eclipse approaches, you attach the solar filter to your lens and start by shooting the full sun, and then continue to shoot as the moon intercepts the sun’s light.
2. Once the sun is totally obscured, you must then remove your filtration and photograph totality without a filter—capturing the awe-inspiring sight. The start of totality is indicated by the famous “diamond ring” effect. During totality, you can remove your solar filtration (and solar glasses). The diamond rings should be photographed and can be viewed without filtration.
3. At the end of totality, when the second diamond ring appears, replace your filters and continue to shoot as the moon slides clear of the sun.
Shooting the Eclipse: Wide(r) Angle View
The benefit of using a normal focal length lens or a non-super telephoto is the ability to include some surrounding scenery in the foreground of your eclipse image(s). This is especially cool if you are shooting the sun before a spectacular mountain range, rock formation, man-made landmark, something else visually complimentary, or something that provides a sense of location.
The progression will be the same as above, but you will also have to capture images that are exposed for your foreground as, during totality, all will be dark.
Again, research is the key here. No two scenes will be exactly alike as far as lighting, composition, and the position of the eclipse are concerned. Many photographers shoot with two cameras (or more) during an eclipse, to capture the celestial show from different perspectives and to improve their chances of getting a memorable image, or series of images.
Shooting the Eclipse: Projection Viewing/Imaging
There are many ways you can create a pinhole camera obscura to project an image of the eclipse on a secondary surface. This can be done using optics like a telescope or binoculars, or it can be done simply by putting a small hole in the center of a piece of construction paper.
Light passes through the “lens” and a monochrome image of the eclipse will appear on your surface. This camera obscura image can be photographed by any camera, even a mobile phone camera, without any filtration.
A Baker’s Dozen General Tips
1. See “SAFETY FIRST,” above.
2. See “ENJOYMENT SECOND,” above.
3. DO NOT USE YOUR FLASH. AT ALL. EVEN WHEN IT IS DARK.
4. Bring extra batteries. Charge them the night before and bring at least one more than you think you need. How awful would it be to run out of power just before the show?
5. Bring extra memory for the same reason. Pack a secret memory card in your bag that you can reach for if you took way more photos than you planned.
6. If you do not have an accurate infinity hard stop on your lens, pre-focus your camera and lens at infinity and lock the focus or use gaffer tape to keep it from changing, if you can.
7. For goodness sake, again, DO NOT use a flash!
8. Practice your solar photography days, weeks, months before the actual eclipse. Practice, practice, practice.
9. Scout your location a day or two in advance to see the path the sun will take across the sky on the day of the eclipse.
10. Make a checklist of the gear you need. Check it twice.
11. Pray to anyone (or anything) you think can help for clear skies during the eclipse.
12. See #1 on this list.
13. See #2 on this list. Read it twice. ENJOY THE SHOW! Seriously, put the camera aside and look at the eclipse with your own eyes—or better yet, through binoculars. You’ll thank me later. I promise.
What are your tips and techniques for capturing a solar eclipse? Share them with us and our readers in the Comments section, below!