A solar eclipse is a rare event. We’ll often see a lunar eclipse once a year and sometimes more than once a year. On the other hand, a solar eclipse happens over decades apart in any given location. Therefore, witnessing a total solar eclipse could be a once in a lifetime event.
As a result, many people want to capture the event in images. It may seem that the duration of an eclipse gives you plenty of time take your photographs but there are some complex challenges that arise during any eclipse.
This gets to a critical question. Do you even want to go through the effort of photographing an eclipse? Solar photography is complex and it’s quite possible you’ll spend most of your time fussing with the camera settings, filters, lenses and tracking the eclipse across the sky rather than witnessing the eclipse. Then again, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime photographic opportunity so it’s up to you.
If you are not serious about this, our recommendation to you is taking a few snapshots to immortalize the moment. Then, putting the camera away and just enjoying this awesome natural phenomenon while it lasts, which is only a few short minutes (and feels even shorter).
If you are semi-serious, you can set up a camera with a fairly wide angle lens on time lapse. It will keep taking the pictures, while you enjoy your time without fiddling with it.
However, if you are serious about photography and want to document this rare event, this guide is for you.
Here’s the telegram when it comes to viewing and photographing a solar eclipse:
If you’re assuming you can show up at a remote location for a solar eclipse and capture some great photos, you may be in for a bit of a surprise. Especially if it’s a significant event like a total eclipse. If you want to guarantee your best chance for success you need to take some key steps. Many are common sense, but some are rather obscure related to equipment for solar eclipse photography. Here, in a very particular order, are the 10 steps you should consider for solar eclipse photography success.
Preparation begins with research. You’re doing that right now by reading this book. You can visit our website as well to learn more and find links to valuable resources that will help you plan and manage your solar eclipse photo shoot before and during the event.
Preparation also involves an inventory of your equipment. Your research will give you a good idea about the benefits and strengths of equipment you may already own, and additional equipment such as specialized filters you will need, and better tripod heads you might want to consider.
Plan, plan, plan and do it well in advance. This will give you time to think and anticipate what you’ll need to do in terms of travel, accommodations, equipment, location, arrival times, setup, and your strategy for tracking the sun and capturing the progression of the eclipse. One of the things you can anticipate if you are traveling to view and photograph a total eclipse is booking problems for just about everything.
Hotel rooms are often booked a year in advance at prime locations for any eclipse, but especially a total eclipse. You may be lucky to find a room as close as 100 miles away if you delay. The same goes for campgrounds if you’re assuming an RV or tent will make things easier. Worse, even the most basic resources like bottled water and lawn chairs or camp chairs will most likely be sold out. If you need it, bring it.
Last minute photo equipment rental will be just about impossible at times. If you assume you can rent it, make sure you reserve it with a deposit and show up on time to pick up your equipment. You may also want to have a backup plan for your equipment if traffic or some other factor causes you to lose your rental.
Consider a number of possible locations for your setup and think about what you’re trying to capture. Do you simply want the eclipsing sun in the sky, or do you want a cityscape or mountains in the foreground with the eclipsing sun looming over the scene? If that’s the case you must take the time to scout your locations and plan your setup. Figure out the parking arrangements and see if bathroom facilities are anywhere in evidence. You’ll also have to consider the fact that you might not be the only one with an eye on that location.
That’s why it’s important to arrive early everywhere.
Proper equipment is the most critical success factor for successful solar eclipse photography. This isn’t about shooting sunsets or a pretty shot of the harvest moon. Photographing the sun is a very specific task and it needs a precision approach. And some serious equipment. It’s quite possible that your digital camera or standard film camera can work. It’s also possible you want to shoot through your telescope but all require some modifications.
You also might want to consider a second or even third camera if you have access to them. There are several things you can cover automatically with additional cameras on a tripod, or give one to a companion after a little training.
The benefit of a digital camera is that it is highly adjustable to a broad range of settings that can be done relatively quickly. It also has a “what you see is what you got” capability that lets you quickly review and assess the quality of your shots as you progress through the phases.
Solar eclipse photography is particularly problematic if you are shooting traditional film. You won’t be able to see your shots until days later after processing and printing, and the viewfinder is your only way to compose your shot. Make sure your filters are in place before looking through a viewfinder. If you’re using a telephoto the magnification increases the danger to you and the camera. Few people shoot film for solar eclipses except highly experienced pros.
On the other hand, there are a few advantages of using film. Film, especially negative film has a very high dynamic range, which can allow you to capture extremes of darks and lights with a single shot. Also, you can experiment with infrared (IR) film to capture some interesting effects. Finally, there is no sensor to burn, so it is relatively safer on the camera.
A telescope is another story. The benefit of a telescope is an optional motor drive on the tripod that can be programmed to track the sun automatically. Better yet, there are rigs with a digital camera on the eye piece that connects to the computer screen of a laptop to display what the telescope is capturing. This is also a safe viewing setup and is no different than watching a solar eclipse on TV. Better yet, some telescope setups like this let you control settings from the laptop keyboard to adjust shutter speed, f.stop, and ISO or film speed.
A telescope will still require a high quality solar filter to protect the inner elements of the telescope and the camera.
This is probably the most unique piece of equipment for solar eclipse photography. There are dedicated solar filters designed specifically for shooting solar eclipses. They are quite effective. Most are designed to screw onto the lens of a digital or traditional film camera, but others are designed to be screwed onto the eyepiece of a telescope.
A neutral density filter does not affect the color of a subject or object but it does reduce the amount of light entering the lens. It’s often used for intensely, bright light situations like full sun across a field of snow or bright reflections off water that can’t be exposed correctly because the f.stop and shutter speed simply can’t handle the light intensity. They can also be used for solar eclipse photography but you’ll have some juggling to do in terms of adding or removing filters.
Remember, although ND filters reduce brightness of sun, it is still not safe to observe sun with your eyes through an ND filter. Because although visible light is reduced, it is possible that invisible bands of light still shine into your eyes. For example heat carrying infrared and cell damaging ultraviolet waves may have been insufficiently filtered.
Lenses are identified by focal length measured in millimeters. The range of focal lengths for solar photography go from 18mm which is an extremely wide-angle lens to 1200mm which is an extreme telephoto. As any eclipse progresses you will find that different focal lengths will capture the best detail of certain events. In some respects, focal lengths of 1000mm and greater essentially make your camera into a telescope. We’ll cover eclipse events across phases and specific lenses and camera settings later in this chapter.
If you choose to use a zoom lens you’ll be able to adjust quickly, but you may find that the ability to achieve some of the longer and more powerful focal lengths are limited or simply not available on most zoom lenses.
Here is what we recommend to pack for solar eclipse day:
Although hand holding your camera gives you great flexibility, it reduces sharpness of images because of hand shake. It is most visible at longer focal lengths. As you may have heard, traditional rule of thumb is using a shutter speed that is at least 1/focal length. For example, if you are using a 200mm lens, your shutter speed must at least be 1/200 seconds. Near totality, you will find that hitting that threshold will be harder and harder. Therefore, you will need a good tripod head. We recommend ball heads that will allow you make adjustments quickly and secure the head with a twist of a lever. Alternatively, you can consider geared heads. They are slower to make big adjustments, but they allow you to make precision and incremental adjustments. This is great when tracking the sun across the sky.
Remote release such as a cable or infrared controller is great to trigger the shutter without causing any vibrations at all. More interestingly, an infrared remote controller will allow you to trigger multiple cameras at once. That way, you can capture the event with different focal lengths, shutter speeds, etc.
Many digital cameras have an automatic bracketing feature and in seconds will bracket any exposure level over 3 shots with one above and one below the recommended aperture. If you are doing it manually, keep in mind that it is usually the best to bracket with varying the shutter speed as opposed to aperture, because different aperture settings change depth of field, making it hard to stack the images later.
The search for the perfect exposure can be elusive with any photographic effort. Fortunately, there are many software programs designed for photography that allow you to crop, adjust brightness, color, contrast, clarity and other parameters to enhance your photos and present them at their best.
These software programs also allow you to create special compositions including a compilation of shots across the solar eclipse phases. Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture are the most popular programs, but even some basic programs give you tools to manipulate and enhance your solar eclipse shots.
Practicing with your software will inspire you of possibilities (HDR, panorama, stacks, etc.)
The worst thing you can do is show up the morning of the eclipse and try to figure out how to work with your equipment and settings for the first time. Practice makes perfect and you’ll have to be perfect if you want to capture some great images in a narrow time-frame of a little over two hours or less (only minutes for totality).
You really should practice at home during a regular sunny day. This first practice session will teach you two things:
If you’re an amateur astronomer you’re familiar with this concept and know how you to use and manage your tripod or a motor drive to keep your telescope and/or camera on track. If this is your first time tracking a celestial object you’ll learn a lot from this practice session. Especially when your target disappears behind a tree as it moves across the sky.
Solar eclipse photography requires both equipment changes related to lenses and filters, and changes in camera settings. While a standard sunny day won’t be presenting you with the immediate need for any of these changes, anticipate what they will be for a solar eclipse and when so you can get used to making these adjustments.
This type of practice will help you identify some other challenges. Start your first practice session by carrying your equipment from the trunk of your car in the driveway to your front yard. If you’re traveling alone, see if you can carry everything. If you’re traveling with others, ask them to at least join this first practice session and share the load.
Now think about when you plan to arrive at your location. If it’s four hours before the event so you can secure your location and setup, start your practice four hours before your practice event. Now add the two hours for the eclipse and an hour to breakdown your equipment and reload the trunk. You might also want to sit in the car for an hour because traffic could be backed up.
If you think about it, you’re looking at 8 hours total. Have you ever tried standing in the sun in your front yard for seven hours and then sat in a car for an additional hour? You’ll notice all sorts of interesting things.
Your legs get tired so you head to the garage for a lawn chair. Better add that to the list for when you get to your eclipse location.
You get thirsty and go to the kitchen fridge two or three times. Better add water to the list as well.
The skin on the back of your neck and arms starts to itch. Add sunscreen to the list, a hat and depending on your location and time of year, insect repellent or in winter, warm clothing and boots.
Standing in bright sunlight without shade is starting to give you a headache. Did you remember your regular sunglasses in addition to your solar glasses?
Your young children are feeling overwhelmed by the sun. Did you remember a simple shelter to offer them some shade?
Your first practice session is going to give you a lot to think about and you most likely will make adjustments to your plans
There’s more to an eclipse than capturing a partial phase or the totality. There are unique occurrences particularly during a total eclipse that you want to understand, practice and be prepared for.
Even when sun is obscured significantly, it is still very bright. Given the relative brightness of this phase, low ISO’s, small apertures and fast shutter speeds are the rule with the addition of ND filters or solar filters to reduce the light intensity.
In this instance, you want a closeup of the totality that almost fills the frame. You’ll lose the corona but you might capture Baily’s Beads. They’re dots of color both orange and red that circle the rim of the totality. This is because of irregular features around the rim of the Moon. It’s amazing that the relative size of the Moon and the sun are almost a perfect fit, but the mountains, craters and valleys on the Moon let some of the sunlight shine through.
The result looks like a necklace of beads. Once again, you’ll need a high ISO, large aperture and slow shutter speed with a three-shot bracket for the shot. But don’t dally, there are other events that happen during the totality.
The corona of the sun extends well into space. Sometime the corona will be as large or larger than the diameter of the sun. It’s a combination of plasma and escaping gases. Because of its relative size it’s why you want to consider a wider field of view for the totality to capture the corona. You’ll need a high ISO and slower shutter speed and a small aperture but if you bracket you should get the shots.
Recommended settings for outer corona
Recommended settings for inner corona
The sun is constantly exploding large, arcing fountains of gas and plasma on its surface. On the rim, they look like orange rainbows exploding over the surface. However, when these prominences occur on the surface during the end or return to partiality rather than the rim, they appear as darker spots of color. That is when a prominence is referred to as a filament. They add texture and detail to a prominence shot and you might want to add it to your shot list.
As totality returns to partiality there is a brief moment when a bright spot of light occurs on the rim. This is called the Diamond Ring because it evokes the appearance of a diamond ring. You should make sure you have your filters back on the camera and your solar sunglasses back on. Even though it’s a small point of light it will affect your exposure settings so be prepared to quickly change ISO, shutter speed and f.stop based on your research and practice and don’t forget to bracket.
A shot you might to capture during partiality is a curious accident of nature. As light travels through a maze of leaves in a tree, tiny gaps in the leaf cover actually act like pinhole cameras projecting the eclipse on the ground.
Shadow Bands are a very rare phenomenon that happens only during total eclipses and occur in the first 2 minutes before and after totality and only visible on the ground around you. In fact, 20 seconds before and after totality are the best time to observe them. Many people don’t even notice them.
There must be light to moderate winds in the mid atmosphere and the lower the sun is to the horizon, the easier they are to see. They literally look like grey bands of shadows on the ground and move a bit like the heat shimmering on a highway in the desert.
The decision to try and capture shadow bands is a tough one given their appearance is so close to totality, but if you have a second camera they may be worth a try. They show up best on a white sheet spread on the ground. You could also switch your second digital camera to video focused on the white sheet with the same settings so you can concentrate your primary camera on the totality rapidly approaching totality.
During your initial setup and while you wait for any eclipse to happen, it’s fun to capture some photos of the people around you. Use a normal lens and you can probably set your camera to automatic focus and exposure.
It is also an opportunity to make some friends who can watch your equipment when nature calls and you have to find the bathrooms. It adds a human element to the event and will enhance your memory of a very memorable day.
A solar eclipse occurring over a mountain range can be breathtaking.
Using a city scape or urban landscape as a foreground can make the photograph surreal if not mesmerizing. Given that any eclipse has a prolonged partial phase measured in hours, try to think of way you can incorporate some foreground interest. You’ll want to use a wide-angle lens and a small f.stop like f.11 or f.16 to get the best depth of field, and you can always go to a longer focal length and different exposure settings if you want to return your attention to the sun or the totality.
Time lapse is an interesting proposition. You have two options:
If you take the time to prepare and remember to practice and bracket you should return with some remarkable photos. Remember to also make a shot list with recommended settings so you can maximize this rare and precious time with your photographs. With any luck, the skies will be clear and you’ll have captured a memory to last a lifetime.