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Photography

How to Photograph an Eclipse

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This post is part of a series called Night Photography.
Exposure Explained: ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture for Night Photography
How to Perfectly Capture the Rise of a Full Moon

England and Ireland (where I live) will experience a near total solar eclipse tomorrow. In this this tutorial you'll learn how to get ready and photograph an eclipse. Preparing for such a rare and brief event is a challenge, and photographing an eclipse requires some special preparation, but it's not hard with a little forethought and planning.

Partial solar eclipse
Annular solar eclipse, May 20th, 2012, about halfway into eclipse just prior to sunset at Comanche Springs Astronomy Campus of 3RF Sciences, LLC, near Crowell, TX. By Jeff Barton, CC BY 2.0.

1. Timing is Everything

At 09.29 on the 20th of March, 2015 the sun will be, by my estimate, 95% covered by the moon. The moon will start it’s passage across the face of the sun at 08.24 and leave the other side at 10.37. This gives me a seriously narrow window for the shoot. The maximum eclipse will last for all of a few moments. While I’ll obviously be shooting during the lead up and fall off, I really would like to capture as much as possible during these few seconds.

calculating the eclipse
What I'll see from my location according to timeanddate.com

I know all this thanks to timeanddate.com’s eclipse calculator. Any time you’re planning a shoot where you’re unsure of environmental factors it’s important to try and find these kinds of tools.

2. Find Your Location

The first thing I had to do was find a location for the shoot. Thanks to the eclipse calculator I know the sun will be roughly East-South-East of Dublin when the eclipse starts. It is also happening early enough that the sun will still be quite low in the sky. Both these factors played a significant roll in deciding on a location.

Beach front location
My location is just below where I took this shot.

I’ve written before about finding a location for shooting sunrises using SunCalc. The location I settled on is actually a beach very close to the lighthouse I photographed for that tutorial. Especially with time sensitive photoshoots its essential to have your location locked down before you pick up a camera. 

Your lens can magnify the sun's rays and leave you with eye damage if you’re not careful

If you’re scrambling looking for a location at the last minute you might end up missing out on the shot you were looking for. I’m familiar with the local area so didn’t have to do too much searching but if you aren’t a local, either ask one for advice or use tools like Google Street View to investigate. Anthony James, who’s written a great series on night photography for Tuts+, was particularly helpful with recommendations when I was planning for my shoot.

2011 Solar Eclipse from NASA Goddard
On January 4, 2011 the Hinode satellite captured these images of an annular solar eclipse. NASA CC BY 2.0

3. Photograph the Eclipse

The light during the eclipse is very dynamic and changes rapidly. Camera settings that work one minute will result in a poor exposure the next. This means that using fully manual exposure settings can cause issues, especially if you’re making a time-lapse of the eclipse. Instead, it’s a good idea to work in aperture-priority mode. Start with an aperture of f/8 and an ISO 100. If it’s still too bright you can tighten the aperture, or if your camera supports it, drop to a lower ISO.

Set Up Your Camera

Manual Focus to Infinity

Pre-focus your lens to infinity using manual focus mode. Autofocus is not designed to handle situations like this and will likely react strangely if you try to use it.

Use a Tripod and Shutter Release

For this kind of project, you really need to use a tripod and cable release. A tripod gives you far more stability and lets you lock down composition and focus more easily. So as not to knock anything off, use a cable release to trigger the shutter.

Use a Telephoto Lens

The sun is very far away and surprisingly small in the sky. Without a telephoto lens it’ll be just a tiny part of the overall image. A lens in the 400mm to 800m range is ideal. Crop sensor cameras have the advantage here, due to their lens magnification factor. For example, an ASP-C camera with a 300mm (or longer) lens or a Micro 4/3 camera with a 200mm (or longer) lens would both work well. Super-zoom cameras with built-in lenses will also work just fine for photographing a solar eclipse if the lens has a telephoto range.

Use Filters

Except for the moment of totality (which I won’t be seeing where I am) the sun is still extremely bright. Even with the moon blocking more than 90% of the sun, the edge that remains visible will still be as bright as it normally is. Sensors, like our eyes, are not made for pointing directly at the sun. Your lens is essentially a sophisticated magnifying glass: you can quickly burn the photosites if you're not careful.

To protect your camera you'll need to use, at a minimum, a six-stop neutral density filter. A ten-stop would be better, or ideally a glass solar filter if you’re prepared to invest in astrophotography gear. The mylar sheet filters you can find online will degrade the quality of the final image, so only use one if you’ve no other option.

Protect Your Camera and Your Eyes

Even with the filter, don’t look through the viewfinder. Your lens magnifies the sun's rays and can leave you with permanent eye damage if you’re not careful. Instead, use your camera’s live-view feature. Don’t leave the live-view on too long, though: use live-view only long enough for you to compose the frame, and then turn it off. Protect your sensor and your eyes.

Get a pair of eclipse glasses and look at the eclipse yourself. It’s too easy for photographers to get caught up with their camera and end up experiencing everything though a viewfinder. If you’ve set everything up properly, sit back, relax, use your cable release and enjoy.

Occulted eclipse
Partial solar eclipse by Dave Lundy. CC BY-ND 2.0

Recompose as Needed

The sun moves throughout the eclipse. If you start photographing just before it begins and stop after it ends you’ll have been working for more than two hours. If you’re planning to do a time-lapse you need to bear this in mind when you’re composing the shot. Even if you’re not making a time-lapse you’ll need to adjust your framing a few times to keep the sun in the image. To work out what position the sun will be when the eclipse ends, you can use the aforementioned SunCalc.

At the moment of maximum eclipse, or the totality if you’re fortunate enough to see it, use your camera’s motor drive to capture as many images as possible. Luck plays a large roll in capturing a great image in situations like this. Taking as many frames as possible maximises your chances of capitalising. The one exception to this is, again, if you’re taking a time-lapse.

Conclusion

So that’s my plan for the eclipse! An eclipse is a rare thing to experience, so if you have the opportunity to get outside this Friday, take it.

If you’ve any questions, please let me know in the comments!

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