Solar eclipses, particularly total solar eclipses, are spectacular occasions. Although they aren’t rare, visibility depends on where you are at the time of the eclipse. The solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, for example, will be visible across much of the United States, but for some, the sun will be complete covered. The next total eclipse will occur on July 2, 2019, but over the South Pacific and South America, and not visible in the U.S. (In case you were wondering, the next total eclipse to cross the U.S. won’t take place until 2024.)
If you’re lucky enough to catch one, odds are you’re going to want to snap a few photos of the astronomical phenomenon. To ensure you get the best photos possible, we’re going to run through a few basics to keep in mind when snapping away. Here’s how to photograph an eclipse, safely and properly.
Unlike almost anything else you photograph, shooting a solar eclipse will require a bit more equipment than only a camera and a lens. To protect your camera’s sensitive sensor, as well as your eyes when staring through the viewfinder, you’re going to need a solar photo filter — essentially a dark piece of glass designed to limit how much light is entering your camera and hitting its fragile sensor.
Solar photo filters range from $20 all the way up to $250. As with most things in the photography world, you get what you pay for. High-end filters will likely be made of a more optically pure glass and therefore have less effect on the final images, while the lower-end filters will likely have some impact on the final image. That said, many of the negative qualities of a lower-quality filter can be touched up in post-production without much fuss.
Likewise, you will also need a pair of sunglasses specifically designed for solar eclipses. Unlike your average sunglasses, they’re far stronger to ensure your eyes stay protected when looking directly at the sun.
We can’t stress this enough: Do not look through the viewfinder or directly at the sun without proper protection.
What to bring
On the topic of lenses, it’s ultimately up to you on what lens you decide to put on your camera. If you want a really-close-up shot of the eclipse as it happens, you’ll want a 500mm or longer lens. If you want to include a bit of foreground in the image to give context, something along the lines of a 70-200mm lens might better suit your needs. If you’re hoping to catch the entire sequence of events, a wide-angle lens might be your best option — something between 15-25mm, for example.
It’s likely you’ll be shooting with a smaller aperture — probably no less than f/5.6 — so fast lenses aren’t a necessity. Use what you have and make the most of it. Just remember to not photograph a solar eclipse without your solar filter attached to the front of your lens.
Other accessories you’ll need include a sturdy tripod, a cable or remote shutter release (to control the shutter without touching the camera), extra battery, and extra memory cards — you won’t want to miss the shot because of a dead batter or full memory card.
The following video, created by Nikon for the upcoming solar eclipse in August 2017, does a great job explaining what you’ll need to capture the eclipse and what lenses might best fit your desired composition. Canon also has a website dedicated to shooting an eclipse.
Where and how to shoot
Once you have all of your equipment, next up is to figure out where exactly the solar eclipse will be visible and where you want to be in order to best compose the shot. To figure out the exact path of where the solar eclipse will be most visible, keep an eye on NASA’s website dedicated to eclipses. There, you will find a map detailing the path of the impending eclipse. You can also download the Smithsonian’s app for the August 21 solar eclipse.
Even if you aren’t in the direct path of the eclipse, known as the path of totality, you will still be afforded an impressive view. So, figure out how far you’re willing to travel to capture the eclipse, and get comfortable with the surrounding area so you’re better prepared when the event happens.
When planning the composition of your photograph, don’t be afraid to get creative. Rather than shooting only the sun, consider framing it within your environment. Shoot through a building or bridge, capture the silhouette of fellow star-gazers, and don’t be afraid to shoot from a lower or higher angle than everyone else. You can also take advantage of the unique shadows the solar eclipse will case on objects. Look for nearby trees and watch as the crescent-shaped shadows change throughout the range of totality. Remember, there’s no right or wrong way to capture a solar eclipse. Only your way.
One of the most important things you can do is to understand what kind of settings you’ll be using when the time comes. As pointed out in the second part of Nikon’s solar eclipse video series, seen below, knowing exactly what settings you’ll need before the event will help ensure you’re not fumbling around with ISO and aperture when you’re trying to capture what’s potentially a once-in-a-lifetime event.
The exact settings you use will vary depending on your location, when during the event you’re shooting, and the overall exposure you’re looking to achieve. That said, there are a few general settings you can keep in mind. The first step is to take your camera out of any automatic shooting modes, including but not limited to Program, Shutter Priority, and Aperture Priority. These work for a lot of situations, but with the quickly-changing scene of a solar eclipse, your camera will likely struggle to take into account the extreme brightness of the sun and the moments of complete darkness throughout the entirety of the eclipse. Your best bet is to shoot in the manual mode.
For the sake of simplicity, keep the white balance in the “Auto” mode. If you do this and shoot in your camera’s RAW format, you won’t have any problem warming up or cooling down the image in post-production. As for the rest of the settings, odds are you’re going to want to shoot with a fairly small aperture — somewhere around f/8 through f/22. This will ensure everything in the scene is in focus. Shutter speed shouldn’t matter much, since your subject isn’t a fast-moving one, but unless you’re planning on capturing a long exposure shot, odds are you won’t want to go below 1/3oth of a second or so. This should ensure your shot is tack sharp and doesn’t have any blur.
If video is more your cup of tea, the same settings and rules apply. Just flip your DSLR into its video mode and expose for the sun — again, with the appropriate solar filter in front of the lens. The video should come together as the solar eclipse takes place. Keep in mind many DSLRs have 30-minute capture limits, due to unusual regulations, so be ready to stop and restart your video if you’re planning on capturing the entire event. Extra batteries and memory cards will likely prove beneficial as well, since video capture burns through both fast.
If you don’t have a DSLR, mirrorless, or point-and-shoot on hand, don’t worry. Even though it’s limited, the camera inside your smartphone is more than good enough. Using any number of adapters, such as this universal Gosky mount, you can connect your phone to a standard telescope and capture the action from up-close. Remember though, ALWAYS have a solar filter on your telescope when viewing a solar eclipse, be it with your phone or your own two eyes.
When the time does come to shoot the eclipse, plan on being at your desired location in advance to not only secure your spot, but also set up your equipment and play around with your settings to ensure your photos will turn out exactly as you’d like. Besides crowds, the only other obstacle you should face is weather. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can control in that regard, so it might be a good idea to have a secondary, backup location in mind that might have a better view.
Beyond that, make sure you have all of your gear and hit the road. The rest is up to you, as you are the visionary behind the camera. Also, as important as the image is, be sure to take in the eclipse with your own (protected) eyes. It’s not every day you get to see an eclipse, so live the moment through your own lenses, not only the one attached to your camera.