Every once in a while, a total solar eclipse takes place somewhere in the world. In this tutorial, I tell you how to photograph a solar eclipse. Or rather I share with you my experiences from my first solar eclipse in 2015 in Svalbard: what you should do, and most importantly what you should be careful about to have a successful day and enjoy both the eclipse and your photography.
My experience photographing a solar eclipse
Before entering the technical topic, I made a list of organisational things that you may want to think about while planning eclipse day:
- Be flexible. Have a plan A, a plan B and even a plan C if possible. You really do not want to miss the eclipse because of the clouds. Preferably, you need to be mobile. I was very stressed in Svalbard as it is an island with no road, giving no possibility for anything else than the A plan.
- Go Alone. Or limit yourself to a company of people you really want to be with. In Svalbard, we did not have a choice and had to follow an organised group on snowmobiles, with mostly nice people but also a family with really annoying, loud and rude children. During totality, one of the children was screaming insanities. But that was not the worse: due to the recklessness of one of the group members, my gear was severely damaged on our way to our viewing location: my entire camera bag made a huge fall and the connection of my DSLR and 500mm lens broke, on both elements.
- Be early. Don’t go to eclipse site in the last minute. You don’t know how the traffic will be or potential local difficulties. We left too late with the group, and arrived at our viewing site long after first contact (first contact = when the moon first touches the sun). On top of missing first contact, it made me stressed to organise my gear and be ready to shoot. Ideally, I would have liked to be at the location at least an hour before first contact. Now I had to tweak last moment, in -20°C temperature, a solar filter that was originally meant for the diameter of a 500mm f/4 lens, to my tiny 70-200.
- Know your gear. If possible, try your gear and filter ahead of the eclipse. You don’t want to leave anything to chance on eclipse day. Using (very) long lenses is not something you improvise if you have never done it before. The sun is up every day before the eclipse, train on it (with solar filter!).
- Focus on infinity and tape the focus ring. Fine-tune your focus prior to the eclipse. I recommend you to tape the focus ring to the barrel of your lens. When you will remove/place again the solar filter, you don’t want to accidentally get your lens out of focus. This happened to me so all my totality photos are unsharp. The 500mm lens was all ready and taped, but not my 70-200 that I had to take out in emergency.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the eclipse. It was such a magical moment, especially there 1000 km from the north pole. Nevertheless, being in a group of strangers made the experience a lot less exciting than it would have been otherwise. Lesson learnt!
What gear to use
This really depends on what you want to achieve with your photography. If you want to capture nice details of the corona (the sun’s atmosphere) during totality, without wanting to crop too much, I suggest using a focal length of at least 600mm. I was planning to use the 500mm lens with the 1.4x extender, giving me a focal length of 750mm. A digital reflex camera (DSLR) is also highly recommended, as it allows you a great flexibility in exposures and easy bracketing.
Having said that, if you use such a long lens, you definitely need a very sturdy tripod. You would be surprised how the tiniest vibration ruins a close-up photo of the sun, even at very fast shutter speeds. During totality, you will use slower shutter speeds, so your gear needs to be totally immobile. A tripod without a centre column is the best choice for this. The centre column can slightly move through its shaft, so it’s better without.
Of course, with all this, you also need a remote shutter release. And I highly recommend using the mirror lock-up to minimise vibrations even more. Count to at least to 3 after locking up the mirror before taking a photo.
Of course, you can also take very decent photos with one of those compact cameras that have a very long zoom range. A tripod remains required though.
The solar filter
The sun is very dangerous for both your eyes and the sensor of your camera. First let’s repeat the safety instructions:
- Never look at the partial eclipse without proper eclipse glasses
- Never point your camera at the partial eclipse without a solar filter
- Don’t look through the viewfinder of your camera if it is not equipped with a solar filter.
An ND filter, even the strongest (ND1000) does not offer sufficient protection when pointed directly at the sun. You will need a dedicated specialised solar filter to place in front of your camera lens.
Baader has been producing solar filters for 25 years and they are very reliable. They seem to be making filters that are already mounted and ready to use on a lens. However this is quite expensive. You can buy a sheet of the same filter material, and make the mount yourself with cardboard. This will cost you about 4 times less. My cutting was not amazing, but it did its job perfectly. The exact reference is Baader AstroSolar® Safety Film 5.0.
You’ll want to make sure that the filter is well protected during transport to avoid any damages. With even the smallest hole or tear you should not use the filter. A detailed tutorial to make your own filter is also available. In hindsight, I think that the cardboard that I used was too thick so you may want to try with something a little thinner. The filter did its work wonderfully though, and I still use it now 2 years later when I want to photograph some sun spots.
During totality, you must remove the filter.
Photography and editing
The resources below give you lots of details on camera settings and post processing techniques so I don’t need to repeat them here.
I just have one useful recommendation here. Totality lasts only a couple of minutes, so you really don’t want to be fiddling around with your camera settings. Figure out beforehand how to bracket the exposure with your camera, up to the maximum number of shots that are available in the menus. This will immensely help you afterwards, and you’ll even be able to make a composite shot to show many details of the corona.
Additional resources on how to photograph a solar eclipse & wrapping up
As I wrote above, the goal of this blog post is more to share my past experience of eclipse photography. For all technical details on focal lengths, exposure, retouching, etc, I highly recommend the website Mr Eclipse.
After reading all this, there is one piece of advice that is never repeated enough: enjoy the moment, especially totality. A total solar eclipse is a unique magical moment that you need to experience fully, and you cannot achieve this if you are only dealing with your camera. Don’t forget to also look behind you. Some magical light also occurs opposite to where the sun is.
If you live less than a day’s drive from the path of totality, I can only recommend you just go. I promise you will not regret it.
Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions. I will be happy to answer. Happy eclipse!