How to photograph a solar eclipse
Events such as a solar eclipse are not that common. So, not surprisingly, we photographers tend to get drawn to photographing them. There are dangers involved when it comes to looking at the sun so it is very important to think about safety when planning how to photograph a solar eclipse. Remember:
- Avoid looking directly at the sun (you can damage your eyesight or even go blind)
- Avoid exposing your camera’s sensor to the sun for prolonged periods – even seconds (the sensor can be damaged!)
- Put a lens cap on to protect your equipment while waiting to shoot (helps prevent damage or over-heating)
What filter should I use?
To enable you to photograph a solar eclipse, you will need a filter to cut down the amount of light. Only when the sun is fully eclipsed can you photograph it or look at it briefly without a filter. The best type of filter to use is, of course, a solar filter. If you do not have one then you could perhaps try a very high density Neutral Density filter, e.g. a 10 stop filter. Alternatively, you may be able to get away with stacking a few lower ND filters, but this will risk affecting image quality and safety. You should also bear in mind that a solar filter will be far more effective at removing harmful rays. So, ideally you should use this specialist filter for photographing an eclipse. Using other filters is done at your own risk.
What lens should I use?
Your choice of lens will depend on whether you want a more detailed shot of the sun itself or if you want a broader view. The best lenses to use to get a really good view of the eclipse are telephoto lenses. Ideally you would want to use a 300mm or longer lens. With some lenses you may be able to increase your reach by using a teleconverter. A longer lens enables you to get the sun larger in the frame and gives you the chance of getting more detail.
What camera settings should I use?
The ISO should be set low as the sun gives off plenty of light! Similarly, there is no need to shoot at a wide aperture. A smaller aperture of around f/8 or f/11 is probably best. If you go beyond that to f/16 or so, then you may find your image is a little soft because of diffraction. Shooting around f/8-11 tends to be about the best setting for the sharpest image from your lens anyway. It may also help you out if your focussing isn’t 100% accurate!
First of all, if possible set your camera up on a tripod. That way you won’t need to alter your settings once you have set them. You will probably have to focus manually. One option is to set the focus to infinity on your lens. However, there is still a chance that this may not be completely sharp. You can check using a test shot (best) or possibly by focussing using live-view (do NOT look through the viewfinder), although you shouldn’t do this with the sun at full strength as it may risk damaging your sensor. Once you have focussed, make sure that you have switched autofocus off so that your camera won’t risk hunting around or messing up the focus.
Shutter speed will be dictated by how bright things are at the moment of taking the photograph. This changes as the phase of the eclipse changes. So, you will need a different shutter speed when the sun is only slightly covered compared to when it is nearly at totality. There is a very useful resource to help you work out which shutter speed to choose for each phase of an eclipse here. A useful approach can be to bracket your exposures, using the auto-bracketing function if your camera has it. That way, you should increase your chances of getting a good image.
Make sure that you shoot RAW files and not just jpegs. You want as much data in the file as possible as it is easy to get the exposure wrong and need to tone down the highlights or bring up the shadows a little. RAW files make this much easier to do and also enable you to play around with white balance more easily (you may find your filter alters the white balance).
What types of images might I get?
It is worth taking photos at the various stages of the eclipse. This enables you to document the event more thoroughly. There is a good selection of images of the various stages of a solar eclipse here. I do not at present have a good set in my portfolio, which is why I haven’t yet posted any with this article.
Instead of photographing the sun directly, you might choose to do something more creative. It might be worth doing this with a second camera if you have one, in case it doesn’t come out well! One option, for example, would be to try and capture the reflection of the eclipse in water.
When is it happening and where should I go?
There is a list of solar eclipses and lunar eclipses for the next 10 years. As of the moment of writing this, there is due to be a solar eclipse visible in the UK this coming Friday 20th March 2015. It is due to be around 9:30am. Different parts of the UK and elsewhere will see differing degrees of eclipse – from total to partial. This useful article shows roughly what to expect where and when. Clearly, to get the best view you need to be somewhere that isn’t completely covered over with cloud!
Good Luck! I hope you manage to get some great images. Do share them with us and any other tips you think might help people.
Please note that these are suggestions and not rigid guidelines. You are responsible for your own safety and your own equipment. I would suggest that you familiarise yourself with the subject by reading other people’s articles as well and then make a judgement based on the common methods. No liability is accepted for damage occurring whilst using suggestions found in this article.
© Joe Lenton, March 2015