Seeing a solar eclipse, especially a total solar eclipse, is an unforgettable experience! It’s also a lengthy experience, plus you’ll want to share it with others, so it’s worth having a camera handy to photograph the event. Another good reason to take pictures is because the camera sees the eclipse differently from human eyes, so your photos may reveal details you didn’t notice at the time.
It’s easy to photograph a solar eclipse, but it can be extremely dangerous, if you do it incorrectly. Plus, the eclipse is exciting, so it’s best to plan your strategy in advance and then practice taking pictures with the uneclipsed sun so you’ll know what to do.
You know you’re not supposed to look directly at the sun because it can blind you. It can permanently damage your camera, too. Also, the sun looks small in a photo unless you magnify it, which means you’ll focus the light. You can instantly blind yourself if you aren’t careful. There’s an easy and surprisingly inexpensive solution to the problem — a solar filter.
While there are uber expensive solar filters, you can pick up a solar filter sheet off Amazon for a few dollars. This type of filter is a flexible plastic sheet that you can use for viewing or can place over any camera, binoculars, or telescope. It blocks enough light that it’s completely safe, even at your highest magnification. It’s inexpensive because it’s not fitted to your camera, but the filter is high quality.
For a small camera or your cell phone, you can simply place eclipse viewing glasses over the lens. Easy, right? Another option, if you have them handy, is to use welding glasses.
For a total solar eclipse, you need a different type of filter to photograph the sun. At totality (not before), you can take pictures of the sun using your cell phone without a filter. Otherwise, use a neutral density filter to block out some of the light.
Things To Have
For most digital cameras, the filter is the only must-have item. With a DSLR, you might also want to add a bit of electrical tape, to cover the viewfinder, just in case. Another good item to have is a tripod, because it will help eliminate shake or blurriness in the photos. Another helpful item is a remote control release, again, to eliminate shake.
- any camera
- solar filter sheet (or dark neutral density filter, eclipse viewing glasses, or welding glasses)
- neutral density filter
- tripod (optional)
- remote release (optional)
- tape (optional)
- watch or clock (nice to have so you know when the eclipse is at its peak)
If you have a camera, but can’t get a filter, don’t despair. One option is to take kitchen strainer, straw hat, or even your fingers, or a piece of cardboard with a hole in it and let the light of the sun shine through onto a sheet of white paper or a bright sidewalk. Take a picture of the shadow. Don’t use your flash.
Camera Settings and Taking Photographs of the Eclipse
You’ll want to experiment with these settings using the normal sun to get the best outcome for your camera and situation. Generally, you want to go with a low ISO (try 100 or 200), which allows a lot of light to enter the camera. It’s filtered light, so it’s okay, and it allows you to take a picture quickly, reducing your chance of blurring the image by moving.
- If your camera takes RAW, switch the mode to take both JPG and RAW files because you’ll have more flexibility processing the images after the fact. Yes, the files are large, but you’re not going to burn through a whole memory card unless you’re taking time lapse of the whole event.
- Turn off the flash.
- Focus the camera on infinity. Choose something very far away (not the sun). Switch to manual focus, but don’t change it! If you do bump it, refocus or else you’ll get a blurry sun.
- Attach the solar filter or neutral density filter. Tape the viewfinder, if you like.
- Put the camera in Manual mode, so you can adjust the settings. If you’re new to this, now is the perfect time to play with Manual mode. Don’t be afraid.
- Set the ISO to 100 or 200. Start with your camera’s fastest shutter speed.
- If you are controlling the f-stop, start out around f/8.
- If you have a tripod and remote release, set up the camera.
- Direct the camera toward the sun and take a picture. Examine it. There’s a good chance your camera’s fastest shutter speed was too fast and all you’ll see is blackness or a faint sun. Increase the time until you see the sun and any sunspots. If all you see is a white circle, you’ve gone too far. If you have a histogram, use it. You don’t want any blown-out white areas. This setting will take you all the way up to the ring of fire and totality. Before that, the brightness of the sun doesn’t appreciably change, even though the moon has started to cover it.
- Once you have a setting that works for you, you might wish to bracket the exposures.
Photographing the Total Eclipse
This is trickier, because the brightness radically changes during a diamond ring effect, ring of fire, annular eclipse, or total solar eclipse. Depending on your camera, you’ll use no filter (like for a cell phone) or a neutral density filter. No single setting can capture everything. You can vary settings to capture different effects to create an amazing composite shot.
One thing is certain — you don’t need the solar filter because it will block too much light. If you have stacking neutral density filters, remove them, one at a time, until you get the effect you want. Mr. Eclipse has a handy table of exposure times and settings for different stages of the eclipse. If it’s a very quick eclipse, pick a filter and ISO and bracket exposures or (if it’s really quick and you’re either inexperienced or highly excited), let the camera use automatic settings.
Why I Wrote This
This will be my fourth attempt photographing a total solar eclipse. I know I will get excited and forget steps, so now I have them written down to use.
For my first eclipse (1991 in Cabo San Lucas) I had a film camera, no filters, no tripod, and no clue. My photos basically showed a blurry blob (although I got some nice Mexican scenery photos with that camera).
My second total solar eclipse was in Uganda in 2012. Totality was a whopping 10 seconds long, which did not allow a lot of time for switching out filters and changing settings. I took a guess, bracketed exposures, and got a decent image.
In Iceland, I was in 757 jet snapping pictures through the window. I had over 3 minutes of totality, but some vibration, and photos were taken through fogged glass.
This time, it’s the Great American Eclipse. I’m driving to Nebraska to catch it and have my telescope along for the ride.
Every eclipse presents its own set of challenges. I’ll be sure to post what I get!