A total solar eclipse is a rare event. Even when it happens, you can only see it from certain locations and for a short period of time.
Knowing how to capture eclipse images well in advance is key. This article will help you bring home great images of this rare phenomenon.
What Is a Solar Eclipse?
A solar eclipse occurs when the Sun, the Moon and the Earth (specifically your location on Earth) all line up. The Moon passes between us and the Sun.
If this celestial alignment is perfect, and if you are in the right location, the Moon will cover the solar disk in the sky. This plunges you into darkness (no wonder people in ancient times saw a solar eclipse as a bad sign).
A total solar eclipse is possible because the apparent size of the Moon in the sky is pretty much matching that of the Sun.
Here’s a fun fact. The moon is getting away from Earth at about 3mm/year, so in the distant future total eclipses will not be possible anymore. Better take those pictures while you still can.
If the alignment is less than perfect, we’re talking about a partial solar eclipse. This is where you can still see the outer corona, but not the inner corona.
The Gear: Safety First
Because this is a rare event, you will get news of the incoming eclipse weeks in advance, even if you are not into astronomy. Use this time to ensure you have the right gear and that you know how to use it.
This is by far the most important piece of equipment when it comes to photographing the Sun. This filter is not there to create nice photographic effects. It’s there to prevent irreparable damage to your camera (and, more importantly, your eyes when you look down your optical viewfinder).
The lens, a telescope or a binocular, in fact, will concentrate sunlight. Failing to observe or photograph the Sun with the proper filter will result in a hole in your cornea or your sensor.
Especially if it’s a midday sun. That’s why you were told to protect your eyes using eclipse glasses when you were young.
This video below shows quite well the point I’m trying to make.
A proper solar filter (technically called white light solar filters) can be purchased online (better on astro-related websites, such astroshop.eu). They start at $50 or so and will cut down not only the visible light, but also the IR and UV radiations.
Before using the filter, inspect it for deep scratches, cuts or holes. Change it if you are not sure about its integrity. Having a damaged filter is like looking at the sun with your naked eye.
Once you’re sure it’s okay, slide it on the lens and tighten the thumbscrews to lock it in position. Check the filter is stable and be careful not to knock it off the lens.
White light solar filters can be used all year long to observe and photograph Sun Spots. These are regions of the solar surface that are colder than the rest.
It is VERY IMPORTANT that your filter is properly mounted before you point the camera at the Sun. Also, don’t allow children to manipulate your equipment to observe or photograph the Sun on their own.
A tripod is a must-have. It will allow you to set up your DSLR camera before the beginning of the phenomenon.
You might have to compete for your photography spot. Particularly if you want to photograph the eclipse and the landscape using a wide angle lens, so plan to be at your location well in advance.
The Sun moves in the sky at about 15º/hr. So if you want to use a long telephoto lens, you will need a tracking device like the Skywatcher Star Adventurer to follow it. That’s if you don’t want to re-frame very often.
If you don’t have a tracker, a 3-way pan head may be an easier option than a ball head. That way you can re-center the Sun in the frame easily.
A remote shutter/intervalometer will allow you to easily create a time-lapse of the event. Remote shutter release will also prevent camera shaking.
What Lens Should You Use?
As mentioned before, the sun appears in the sky as big as the full moon. This means that you can use the same lenses or telescope you would use in moon photography to get the full moon in the frame.
If you are interested in isolating the sun, a telephoto lens or zoom lens of about 300mm is a good starting point.
If you don’t have a super-telephoto lens, you can opt for old, manual lenses from the film era. For my lunar eclipse and solar images, I use an old Olympus Zuiko OM 200 f/4 with its 2X teleconverter on my Olympus OMD camera.
If you want to photograph the landscape too, you’ll need a wide-angle lens.
What Camera Should You Use
Any camera will do, as long as you can use a long focal length lens. Low light, high ISO performance, and camera lens performance are not an issue here. So cameras with smaller sensors have the advantage here. They fill the frame better at any given focal length than full frame cameras.
For example, 1-inch type cameras or point-and-shoot digital cameras, such as the Nikon P900 or Sony RX10/RX100 give great reach in a smaller package. If you have a telescope, you could even use your camera phone.
Composition Tips for Solar Eclipse Photography
An eclipse happens in five major steps. Each one lasts for a short amount of time and has interesting characteristics you can photograph.
Check out the graphic below for more details.
Here’s a brief description of what happens during each phase.
- Partial eclipse begins (1st contact): The moon starts to appear over the sun’s disk.
- Total eclipse begins (2nd contact): The entire disk of the sun is covered by the moon. Observers in the path of the moon’s umbra may be able to see Baily’s beads and the diamond ring effect, just before totality. The chromosphere can be visible.
- Totality and maximum eclipse: The Moon completely covers the disk of the Sun. Only the Sun’s corona is visible. This is the most dramatic stage of a total solar eclipse. At this point, the sky goes dark, temperatures can fall, and birds and animals often go quiet. Observers in the path of the Moon’s umbra may be able to see Baily’s beads and the diamond ring effect, just after totality ends.
- Total eclipse ends (3rd contact): The Moon starts moving away, and the Sun reappears.
- Partial eclipse ends (4th contact): The Moon stops overlapping the Sun’s disk. The eclipse is ending at this stage in this location.
The Moon is only partially blocking the Sun. This is the phase that precedes or follow totality when the entire Sun is blocked by the Moon.
A bit before totality, when the Moon has almost fully blocked the Sun, you can witness the so-called Baily’s beads and diamond ring effects. They are the result of the Sun shining through the uneven Moon’s Limb (the edge of the lunar disk) forming a series of bright “beads”.
In this phase you can have a hint of the Solar Chromosphere too. This is a reddish line around the still visible solar edge.
When totality is almost reached, only a single bead will shine, mimicking a shiny diamond on a ring (hence, its name)
The Corona is very faint and can be seen only during totality. When the New Moon covers the Sun entirely, the outer Corona is the only visible part of the Sun, often appearing as a halo.
On Earth, the Solar Corona can only be seen during totality. It doesn’t matter how good, large or expensive your equipment is. With less than totality, the remaining sunlight will overpower the much fainter halo of the corona.
This is similar to an annular solar eclipse. This happens when the Moon covers the Sun’s center, leaving the Sun’s visible outer edges to form a “ring of fire”.
A prominence is a large, bright, gaseous feature extending outward from the Sun’s surface, often in a loop shape.
Usually, prominences can be seen and photographed all year by using special narrow-band telescopes. These allow you to see only a particular kind of light.
During a solar eclipse, though, you might be lucky enough to photograph a prominence even with the classic white light filter.
First of all, set your camera to shoot in RAW and use the lowest possible ISO (typically ISO 100 or ISO 200). If you are on a tripod, remember to disable any image stabilisation. As per aperture, I rarely go wider than f/5.6.
White balance should be, obviously, set to sunlight.
Because the Sun is bright even with solar filter installed, your auto-focus should work well. For consistency though, I prefer to focus manually.
The amount of Sun blocked by the Moon varies during the eclipse. This means that you will have to adjust your shutter speed or your solar eclipse exposure.
Here are some shutter speeds you should consider during the partial phases or the different steps in the solar eclipse. This is assuming you are using a white light solar filter, ISO 200 and f/5.6.
- Full Sun: 1/1000th of a second or faster;
- Partial Solar Eclipse: 1/500 – 1/250th of a second;
- Diamond Ring: 1/250th of a second;
Please note that those settings are more of a solar eclipse exposure guide or a starting point. You may tune your exposure settings considering your gear and weather conditions (haze, fog, clouds, etc.).
In this article, you have learned the basic of solar eclipse photography. Before you go, the last thing to consider is to make a composite of all your photos to show the progression of this rare and breathtaking event.