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.
On Monday August 21, a solar eclipse will cut across the entire United States and you will be able to see it! Even though the “totality” — the area where the sun is completely blocked out by the moon — is only 70 miles wide, the whole country (even Alaska and Hawaii) will experience a partial eclipse. To check when your area will experience the peak of the solar eclipse and to see how much of the sun will be obscured, click here.
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.
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.
Enjoy the Moment
A solar eclipse is not an everyday event; some people will go their entire lives without witnessing one and some will travel far and wide to try to see one or more in a lifetime – especially for rare total solar eclipses. 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. Make sure you take the time to look at the eclipse and enjoy it with your own (protected) eyes. As amazing as it would be to get a great photograph, you will have a lifetime of regrets if you miss the whole show because you are hyper-focused on photographing the event.
Basic Solar Eclipse Gear
You will need these for a couple of reasons: You’ll want to view the eclipse with your own eyes and you’ll need them to better aim your camera at the sun.
You do not need a professional DSLR camera to photograph the eclipse. Any camera will do, depending on how you want to capture the event. Just make sure to take the proper precautions to protect the camera (and your eyes).
The sun is brighter than you think, so when photographing the partial phases of an eclipse, you don’t technically need a tripod to avoid camera shake because your shutter speeds will be very short. However, during totality when the sun is blocked out, you are photographing in darkness and will need a tripod. Also, since the eclipse happens over a stretch of time, you may not want to be holding a heavy camera for minutes or hours at a time.
Remote shutter release
When it gets dark, your shutter speeds will decrease and you will want to trigger your camera remotely with a cable release, electronic release or mobile device to prevent camera shake and blurring of your images.
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. Even if 99% of the sun is covered by the moon, the remaining 1% crescent is dangerous to view with the naked eye and can cause serious eye damage or blindness. Make sure you use a properly designated solar filter. NASA, the National Science Foundation, the American Astronomical Society, Nikon and Space.com recommend solar filters instead of neutral density filters because these are the only filters designed specifically for viewing the sun and they are constructed to sufficiently dim the sunlight and protect your eyes and equipment from non-visible IR and UV radiation. Solar photography is not the time to experiment with homemade filters in an effort to save a few bucks. Your eyes (and gear) are worth more than that.
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.
Screw-On Filter: These white-light filters thread on your camera lens just like a standard threaded filter; but they are designed for solar observing. Some are made of Mylar film inside of a filter ring while others are made from optical glass. Pay attention to the fine print as some 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). The color of the sun in your images is dependent on the type of white-light solar filter used. For example, metal-coated glass and black polymer filters result in a yellow or orange tint while aluminized Mylar filters show a bluish tint.
Intermediate Filter: Intermediate filters are designed for solar imaging. They mount between your mount lens and the 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 accidentally come off the camera while photographing the sun.
Lenses and Focal Length
When we think of the midday sun overhead, we envision it filling the sky with brilliantly bright light. 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. 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 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 visible and extends well away from the surface of the sun.
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. 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.
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 will not change dramatically until the eclipse approaches totality, so your camera settings can be static for a huge portion of the event, which is 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.
Once the eclipse has reached totality and you have removed your solar filter from your camera, start bracketing your shots. There is a vast 12-stop dynamic range from the corona at the sun’s surface to the outer edges of the corona, so be sure to shoot plenty of shots at different exposures. When you post-process later, you can choose the image that looks best. Make sure you don’t lock into one exposure and take a bunch of equally exposed images. The easiest way to determine exposure is to run a calibration test on the un-eclipsed sun on a clear day prior to the eclipse. Digital cameras are ideal as you can see your results almost instantaneously. Shoot the mid-day sun at a fixed aperture, (choose an aperture between f/8 and f/16) using every shutter speed from 1/4000 second to 1/30 second. Looking at the exposures, choose the best shutter speed/aperture combination and use them to photograph the partial phases of the solar eclipse. Your camera’s histogram function is an excellent way to evaluate the best exposure. The histogram should lie toward the upper end of brightness values. Because the sun’s brightness stays the same throughout the partial phases, no exposure compensation will be needed. You may also decide to bracket your exposures to ensure that you photograph the solar eclipse with a perfect exposure. If you ran your test on a sunny day and the eclipse occurs on a hazy day, increase the bracket of exposures an additional f/stop. When it comes to ISO, you should set your camera to its native ISO – the lowest ISO setting.
Here are some additional settings to consider for your eclipse photographs:
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 celestial show.
Stock up on memory cards and – if possible – shoot raw files.
Use mirror lock-up on an SLR camera to minimize vibration.
Don’t be afraid to underexpose by a stop or two (or more) to avoid blown-out highlights.
Take an occasional glance at your histogram to verify exposure.
Use live view or an electronic viewfinder. It is also safer for your eyes to NOT be looking through an optical finder.
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.
You may want to keep your shoot simple by waiting for totality, aiming your camera at the sun and moon and snapping a photo; but there’s a chance you will want to capture all the phases of the solar eclipse. This means you will need to track the sun across the sky for a few hours and shoot as the eclipse moves toward totality and then back toward a full sun on the other side. This is where planning comes in handy. To determine the amount of photos you will take, you should divide the eclipse up into equal parts by time and capture; for example, one image every six minutes before and after totality. If you are planning on a montage or image series, you will want a solid agenda going into the event. If you are 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 will have to track the sun across the sky either by hand, on a tripod or with an electronic tracking telescope mount. One advantage of the mount is, 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. As the eclipse approaches, attach the solar filter to your lens and start shooting the full sun and continue to shoot as the moon intercepts the sun’s light. Once the sun is totally obscured, remove your filter and photograph totality without a filter. The start of totality is indicated by the famous “diamond ring” effect. After the ring goes away, you can remove your solar filter (and solar glasses). At the end of totality, when the second “diamond ring” appears, replace your filter and continue to shoot as the moon moves clear of the sun.
Wide Angle View
The benefit of using a normal focal length lens (or a non-super telephoto lens) is the ability to include some surrounding scenery in the foreground of your eclipse images. This is especially cool if you are shooting the sun before a spectacular mountain range, landmark 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. 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 multiple cameras during an eclipse to capture the celestial show from different perspectives and to improve their chances of getting a memorable image.
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 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. Before the main event, you should rehearse the actions of setting up the camera and adjusting exposures; it is common for photographers to become easily distracted when viewing this phase of the solar eclipse to the point that they forget to take pictures!
We’d love to see what images you capture during next week’s solar eclipse. Feel free to post you favorite images in the comments below!