How to Photograph a Solar Eclipse
On August 21, 2017 a small swath of North America will be in the path of a total solar eclipse. This is pretty sweet, and happens rarely, so it’s a good chance to get out there and photograph it. As this day approaches, I’ve been asked by a few people how to best shoot the eclipse, and what I would recommend as far as gear goes to get the best possible images.
First off, let it be known that I have never photographed a solar eclipse. I’ve shot many types of interesting natural phenomena, but a solar eclipse is not one of them. With that said, I do understand photography pretty well and the aspects that go into photographing an event like this. Below is how I would prepare, the gear I would bring with me and the settings I would likely employ into getting that epic image of a solar eclipse.
Step 1) Plan your shoot
Know exactly where you are going to be for the event and go out and pre-plan that spot. If your plan is to shoot the solar eclipse over a lake or mountain or whatever, make sure you understand exactly what time of day the eclipse is going to happen in the location where you will be shooting. If it is going to be at noon, there’s a good chance you won’t be getting anything in your shot except the eclipse itself because the sun will be so high up in the sky.
It’s very important to know the area you will be shooting. I would go to the spot I had pre-selected the day before the solar eclipse and scout out exactly where I wanted to be. Then, the day of the solar eclipse, I would make sure to be at my location VERY early. It may seem like overkill, but for an event like this that doesn’t come around often, there will likely be photographers everywhere. Getting there early helps ensure you’ll get the spot you want.
Step 2) Have the right gear
This means knowing what you want that final image to look like before you get out there and start shooting. If you want to shoot it with a wide angle lens that’s fine, but be aware that the sun and eclipse will be very small in your frame.
On the other hand, shooting with too much zoom will cut off the flare from the eclipse itself. Most of us don’t carry super long lenses where this would be a problem, but for me, I’d likely want to be around 800mm if I were shooting just the sun and solar eclipse. This would give me the sun big enough in my viewfinder to capture all the magic of the solar flares around the eclipse. While you could probably go even larger, I’d want to make sure I had a little breathing room. 1000mm, 1200mm would probably be fine too, but if you get much bigger than that, you could run into issues.
Now, I don’t have any lenses of that magnitude in my arsenal. So, I would go to a place like lensrentals.com or one of the many alternative sites that rents gear and rent a big telephoto zoom lens. If this is too expensive, consider renting a 100-400mm lens and a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter. Again, you’re not going to have the opportunity to shoot this very often, so if you can get your hands on some of this gear, it would make for a super impressive image.
These are numbers based on my full frame camera too. If you are shooting with a cropped sensor camera like a Canon Rebel or 60D or any Nikon DX camera then you already have a crop factor of between 1.4x to 1.5x or so depending on your model. This cuts down the size lens you would want to get your shot. So, instead of an 800mm maybe a 600mm would be good. Again, it all depends on what you want your final image to look like. Maybe you want more in the foreground, such as mountains, trees, lakes, etc. In that case, you may not want that much zoom at all. Maybe 200mm or 400mm would be good for you.
Alright, what else do you need? Well, a solar filter is certainly recommended. These come in quite the variety of shapes and sizes. Some screw on to the end of your lens, while others are drop-in square filters. Others still go in between your camera and your lens. The purpose of all these filters is to protect your sensor from the rays of the sun. Your camera’s sensor is like your eyes, they are very sensitive, and while we would never want to look directly at the sun without some sort of eye protection, the same is true of our cameras. Damage can certainly be done to the sensor. Check out B+H’s selection of solar filters here. You’ll want to keep this on your camera until the sun is fully blocked out. At that point you can remove the filter and fire away a few shots.
Don’t forget the tripod. Tripods are essential for shooting a solar eclipse or really for any type of landscape photography in my opinion. I never leave home without one.
It’s also a good idea to have a cable release. This allows you to fire off shots on your camera while not actually touching the camera. Why is this important? Well, every time you touch the camera, even a simple press of the shutter you have the potential of moving the camera slightly, thus adding blur to your images. These don’t have to be expensive. Amazon has a whole heap of imported ones for under $10 and they work great.
Make sure you have enough memory cards and batteries too. You’ll have a good amount of time to photograph the solar eclipse, which means you’ll also have plenty of time to eat up batteries and memory cards!
One more thing before we get into the settings, and this is an important one… Say your prayers. All the preparation in the world won’t help your images if it is rainy or overcast. Pray for clear skies!
Step 3) Camera Settings
File Type: RAW. Always shoot in RAW format. Jpeg will condense your files, while RAW will give you way more data to work with in post production. Every serious photographer shoots in RAW format.
ISO: I would set this at 100. This will give you the least amount of grain in your images. If you’re not shooting on a tripod you’ll have to increase this number, probably quite substantially. Though really, if you’re not shooting on a tripod then don’t bother with the rest of this article until you go get yourself a tripod. Seriously, it’s that important.
Aperture: All lenses seem to have a different aperture that tends to take the sharpest images. For most lenses that’s generally somewhere between f8 and f16. If you have found an f stop on your lens that you feel is sharper than the rest go with it, if not, choose something in that range, like an f11.
Focus: You will want to manually focus your scene. Most lenses have the ability to switch from automatic focusing to manual focusing right on the lens itself. Make sure you are manually focusing, and then set your distance to infinity. There’s usually a little figure 8 like symbol (infinity symbol) on the lens, make sure the indicator line is pointing at this symbol.
If you don’t have that option, or to get a bit more accurate, use your electronic view finder and the controls on the back of the camera to zoom in to the subject. As you do this, try adjusting your focusing ring on the lens itself until the subject becomes as clear as possible.
Flash: If you have a flash, put it away or turn it off. You won’t be needing this today.
Shutter Speed: This is where it gets tricky. The sun will be giving off a lot of light as the moon begins to block it’s path. While it is still really bright you’ll be shooting very fast. Of course this is going to be dependent on how dark your solar filter is, as they come in different darknesses. If it were me, I would not get locked in to one set shutter speed at any point during a solar eclipse. I would shoot a lot at a lot of different shutter speeds. You can leave the rest of your settings alone, but change up that shutter speed to see what works best with your gear and filters.
As the moon begins to cover all of the sun it will become much darker and the need to increase your shutter speed will be necessary. It won’t be uncommon for you to be shooting at over 1 second, maybe 2, or even 4 seconds when it gets dark. Again, try different shutter speeds to see what works best with your equipment.
When the moon fully covers the sun, I’d take off the solar filter and start firing more images. This is when you can get some really sweet compositions and NASA like images of the solar eclipse. Keep changing up your shutter speeds while leaving the rest of your settings alone.
Bracketing: If you are familiar with bracketing, I would definitely bracket some images, especially when the eclipse is full. This is an easy way to essentially change your shutter speed while shooting multiple images at different exposures.
I know that was a bit more information than you perhaps bargained for, but it should put you in a good position to get that epic solar eclipse shot. If you have any additional questions, let me know. If not, good luck and send me what you get!