Solar Eclipse Photography: How to Safely Get the Shot

Solar eclipse photography is a fun way to learn more about this fascinating natural phenomenon.  It's no wonder that anytime one of these events is on the calendar, people will turn their attention to the sky to try and catch a glimpse, or maybe even a photograph, of the partial or totally occluded sun.  For those who would like to capture some images, there are a few things to consider, especially in terms of the gear that is needed and the techniques necessary to safely and effectively make some photographs.  These events don't come around to where you live very often, so when they do, it's good to be prepared.

For those in North America, the Great Eclipse of 2017 is just over a year away.  That seems like a long ways off, but it will be here before you know it.  Make plans now to find the best location to view and photograph this once in a lifetime event.  Read on to learn more about solar eclipse photography.  There is some preparation that needs to happen, and hopefully this article will provide some helpful tips and tricks to keep up your sleeve for when the time comes.

Partial solar eclipse, taken October 23, 2014, in Utah. Photo by Rusty Parkhurst.

First Thing's First

Safety first!  You knew the safety talk was coming.  After all, it is part of the title.  Plus, it's kind of a big deal, especially when we're talking about photographing the sun.  You already know the sun is bright, and on sunny days you probably wear sunglasses to shade your eyes from the harsh sunlight when you are outside or driving.  It's even more important to protect your eyes, and your gear, when you are pointing the camera and lens directly at the sun.

Let's think about this a second.  The sun is a long ways away, so in order to get an image of it, you are typically going to be using a telephoto zoom lens to get as close as you can.  When sunlight enters that lens, it passes through several pieces of glass, and is magnified and concentrated on a relatively small area.  Just like you wouldn't look directly at the sun through a pair of binoculars or a telescope (or even with your naked eye), you shouldn't do so with your camera either.  At least not without something to block out most of those harmful rays.  Looking at the sun without proper protection could damage your eyes or even cause permanent blindness.  We'll talk more about the gear you need in the following sections, but never look at the sun through the viewfinder without the appropriate solar filter attached to the end of your lens.  In fact, don't even point the camera at the sun without a filter attached.  Not only could your vision be at stake, but you could also damage the lens and/or the camera's sensor.


So What's the Big Deal?

There were 239 eclipses in the 20th century and 224 eclipses are predicted for the 21st century.  It's amazing to me that eclipses can be accurately predicted for the next century, but astronomers have this down to a science (Ha!).  I won't go into too much detail about the science, and particularly the geometry, of how the earth, moon, and sun have to line up for an eclipse to occur. Generally speaking, eclipses (solar or lunar) can only happen during 2 eclipse seasons each year.  Of those eclipses, between 2 and 5 per year are solar eclipses.  In fact, on average, a total solar eclipse happens once every 18 months.

Based on the numbers, solar eclipses really don't seem to be all that rare.  However, it is important to remember that although an eclipse may be happening somewhere on earth, it's probably not visible from where you live.  Since a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, it is only visible to those who are in a relatively narrow path of the moon's shadow. The rarity of a solar eclipse is not necessarily in how often one occurs, but rather how often one occurs where you are able to see it happen.  This is especially true for a total solar eclipse.

The next scheduled total eclipse of the sun is August 21, 2017, which will only be visible along a narrow path stretching across the United States, roughly from South Carolina to Oregon.  The previous total eclipse occurred March 9, 2016, and was only visible in the vicinity of Indonesia, and a subsequent one will occur July 2, 2019, and be visible from central Argentina and Chile.  I happen to live along the path of the August 21, 2017 total eclipse, and hope to get a good view and some images of it.  It will be the only chance in my lifetime to see a total solar eclipse from where I live, as the last one was over 500 years ago and the average frequency for a total solar eclipse to recur in a given location is 400 years.  Given those odds, it's worth being prepared to try to capture some images of this rare event.


Plan Ahead

First, you will need to determine when and where an eclipse is going to happen and if it will be visible from where you live.  Check this link for a list of all solar eclipses in the 21st century and the regions in which they will be visible.  Note that this includes all types of solar eclipses, including total, annular, partial, and hybrid eclipses.  If a major eclipse event is happening just outside of the area in which you live, perhaps it would be worth planning a trip to see it.  I know some in the US who will be doing that for the August 21, 2017 event.

Eclipse glasses are nice for your spectator friends and family. Photo courtesy of Amazon.com.

After figuring out when and where a solar eclipse will occur, the most important factor to consider is the weather.  You will want to choose a viewing location that is going to provide the best odds for favorable weather.  It will do no good to be in the path of an eclipse in a location that is typically cloudy.  Of course, there are no guarantees with weather, but there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of getting an unobstructed view of the sun on eclipse day.  For the “Great American Eclipse of 2017”, there is actually a website set up that provides some of the best viewing locations along the path of the eclipse.  While my location is great in terms of being directly on the central path of the eclipse, it may not be the best in terms of weather odds.  Therefore, my plan will be to keep a close eye on the weather forecast in the days leading up to the eclipse.  I will keep my plans flexible and if necessary, I can relocate quickly if the conditions in my area don't look favorable for the big day.

There are tons of other apps and websites that provide all kinds of useful information.  This eclipse calculator site allows you to enter the name of your city to find out when the next eclipse is at that location.  The NASA solar eclipse page provides historical eclipse data and much more information than you will likely ever want or need.


The Gear You Need

The gear necessary for solar eclipse photography is pretty basic.  A camera is an obvious place to start.  It doesn't matter if it is a DSLR or mirrorless, full frame or crop sensor.  The nice thing about a crop sensor is that it will give you more effective “reach” for each given focal length.  That could be important, since you will want to zoom in as much as possible, but either one will work.  I would recommend a camera on which you can easily change the exposure settings independently of each other.

For a lens, you will want something that's going to allow you to really zoom in.  Think of that landscape image you've taken with a 24 mm lens that included the moon.  The moon was probably so small in the image as to be almost unnoticeable.  It's the same way with the sun.  Although the sun is huge, it is 93 million miles away, and will look tiny in your image if you don't use a long lens.  I would suggest a lens that zooms to at least 300 mm, or longer.  Keep in mind that on a crop sensor camera, a 200 mm lens will give you the perspective of a 300 mm lens (or 320 mm, depending on the camera).  In order to get an idea of how large the sun will appear in the frame for a particular lens, you can take some shots of the full moon.  The moon is roughly the same apparent size as the sun, which is why it magically provides perfect coverage of the sun during a total eclipse.  Photographing the full moon well in advance of an eclipse will help you decide if the lens you have is long enough or if more reach is in order.  If you do need more focal length, you don't have to drain the bank account to buy a super-telephoto lens.  Renting is always a very practical option.

Photo by Rusty Parkhurst Photography (www.rustyparkhurst.com)
This image of the sun was taken at 105 mm on a full frame camera.  Hardly enough reach for this type of shot.

You are going to want to mount your camera and lens to a tripod.  For one thing, you don't want to have to hold the camera and heavy lens the entire time.  It's also likely that your shutter speed will be somewhat slower than the reciprocal of the lens focal length, so camera shake could be introduced if hand-holding.  Another plus is that using a tripod frees up your hands to make adjustments and install filters.  The sun won't be going anywhere too fast, so once you have it set, you can mostly just leave it be and enjoy the show.

A solar filter of some kind is going to be imperative to take pictures of the sun.  You may be thinking that sounds like an expensive item, like most other things in photography, but it doesn't have to be.  A relatively inexpensive solution is to buy this sheet of black polymer filtering material from Amazon.  You can get one slightly smaller or larger, but I decided on the medium size, which is 6 inches square.  This sheet can be attached to the front of the lens using gaffer tape or you can even fabricate your own filter holder out of cardboard or some other rigid material that can hold the polymer sheet in place in front of the lens.  I ended up sandwiching a piece of the filter material between two sheets of rigid plastic sheeting, then sliding the assembly into my Lee filter holder (see image below).

When you are ordering the filter material, you may want to go ahead and get some eclipse glasses while you're at it.  They aren't a necessity, but are inexpensive and can be nice for friends and family to use for watching the eclipse while you are capturing images.

Finally, you can use the shutter button to snap the pictures or even use the 2-second timer setting.  I like the ease and convenience of a cable release.  That way, once the camera is all set, there's no need to touch it again to take the shots.  It's purely a matter of preference, though.


Photo by Rusty Parkhurst Photography (www.rustyparkhurst.com)
Black polymer solar filtering material sandwiched between sheets of rigid plastic.  You can make for own solar filter on the cheap!

Getting the Shot

After the camera is set up on the tripod and the solar filter is in place, it's time to get the camera settings dialed in.  Turn on Live View on your camera so you can use the LCD to frame up the shot. Using Live View could also prevent possible eye damage in the event that the solar filter should happen to fall out of place.  Set your camera or lens to manually focus, then use the focus ring on the lens to get the edges of the sun's disc as sharp as possible.  Since everything in the frame will be far away, the lens will be focused to infinity.

After framing the shot and getting it in focus, you need to get the exposure set.  Even though you are pointed directly at the bright sun, a dark solar filter will cut out a lot of light and slow the shutter speed quite a bit.  Start out by switching your camera to manual mode.  Since you will start shooting just as the moon is passing in front of the sun and continue throughout the entire series, the light will be constantly changing.  A good starting point is an aperture of f/5.6, an ISO of 400, and then set the shutter speed accordingly based on the camera's meter.  You will likely need to underexpose to avoid completely blowing out the sun in the otherwise black frame.  When most of the sun is visible, the scene will be very bright and the shutter speed may be somewhere around 1/100th of a second.  Take some test shots and adjust the exposure accordingly, but make sure to have the highlight alert (the “blinkies”) turned on and that the sun isn't one big blinking ball of light.  As the moon begins the cover the sun and the scene darkens, the shutter speed will slow down considerably.  Just make sure the shutter speed doesn't get too slow, which could impact sharpness due to the sun's movement.  If that happens, boost the ISO or open the aperture to compensate.


Timing is Everything

20120520Annular Eclipse128-L-2
Annular eclipse captured over New Mexico in May 2012. Photo courtesy of John Van't Land.

If you are photographing a total or annular eclipse, you will want to be ready for the decisive moment when the eclipse reaches its peak.  For a total eclipse, this is when the moon fully occludes the sun and all you see is the solar corona, which is a band of light reflecting off of particles that extends far beyond the sun's photosphere.  For an annular eclipse, the moon does not fully cover the sun, but rather a ring is visible around the moon as it is perfectly centered in front of the solar disc.  These moments last for only a few short minutes, so you want to be prepared to capture these images.

This eclipse app for iOS devices is a neat application and a handy tool to have in your pocket.  It is a calculator that not only gives dates for upcoming eclipses, but also shows the precise times for the start, the peak, and the end of each eclipse. That can really be useful for helping to be ready to capture that once in a lifetime shot of the upcoming total eclipse.


Mark Your Calendars

If you have any interest in solar eclipse photography, then determine the next eclipse that will be visible in your area and mark it on the calendar.  Maybe you even want to plan a trip to coincide with a time or place where an eclipse is happening.  Either way, give yourself plenty of time to gather the few things you will need to make some amazing images.  Also, bookmark this article and some other helpful resources that can be referenced as the time draws near.  A solar eclipse, especially a total eclipse, can be a fun and fascinating event that wouldn't soon be forgotten.



16 thoughts on “Solar Eclipse Photography: How to Safely Get the Shot”

    1. Thanks Jesse! That’s another one of the sites that I have bookmarked. I live in NW Missouri, near the center path of the eclipse and where it will be at totality for one of the longest times. Hoping for clear viewing!

  1. Been looking forward to this one for a while. Awesome article, Rusty! Now I’m just going to need to try to balance squeezing as many shots as possible into the eclipse window while also remember to kick back and enjoy it…

    1. Thanks Kevin! It’s going to be really interesting. I’m with you…I want to get an image or two, but don’t want to observe the entire eclipse on the back of the camera. I should have put something in the article about making sure to take the time to enjoy it.

  2. Nice article, thank you.
    We are down to 97 days of waiting. Eclipse sunglasses already here. I’m making a couple of viewers with black polymer film, I like this better than white lighg filter. Camera filter is made. So is one for my telescope, a 6″ f5 reflector. I plan to video with the scope, piggybacking another camera for stills of the corona.
    I’ll be in Southern Illinois, at my parents. 2min 18sec of totality.
    Thanks again for the article.

  3. i bought several pair of Solar Shield Glasses so wonder if I could just use one of those pieces of plastic to cover my Nikon Digital?

  4. I have a question about photographing the full eclipse phase. Should the solar filter in front of the camera lens remain during this phase or should it be removed since it will get dark?

    1. You can actually remove the filter during totality. It will be too dark otherwise. Just make sure to put it back on as the sun starts to peek out from behind the moon again. Also, be sure to only use the LCD screen on your camera to prevent possible damage to your eyes. Thanks for reading, Raghu!

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