I intentionally waited on posting this article on how to photograph a solar eclipse until it actually took place on 05/20/2012, because I wanted to document my experience and provide information on what challenges I had during the process of photographing this rare, but stunningly beautiful phenomenon. This was my first time trying to photograph a solar eclipse; in fact, it was my first time seeing one take place. Yes, there have been solar eclipses before, but I have been missing them all for some reason. This time, after I heard it on the news a week ago, I decided to watch it with my family and document the event with some photographs. While we in Denver were not as lucky as some folks in US southwest, Japan and a few other places to see the total solar eclipse, the partial eclipse still looked beautiful. Unfortunately, clouds moved in and blocked most of it for us here, but I still was able to capture a few shots when the clouds cleared up a little. I will be sharing those photos with you in this short tutorial. Hopefully when a solar eclipse takes place next time, you will have some useful information on how to photograph it with your camera.
By the way, lunar eclipses typically happen more often than solar eclipses. Photographing the moon is a very different process when compared to photographing the sun. See my how to photograph a lunar eclipse article for more details.
1) The Danger of Viewing and Photographing a Solar Eclipse
Before I talk about the process of photographing a solar eclipse, let me first talk about the dangers of doing it. First of all, you should never look directly at the sun with your eyes, especially through a DSLR viewfinder that shows the sun much more magnified. Remember Galileo or those crazy Indians that stared at the sun and went blind? You surely do not want the same faith. Looking at the sun through the viewfinder without blocking any light, especially UV can result in immediate blindness. See this article on Wikipedia for more details.
So what do you do? If you prefer to see the eclipse with your naked eyes, then get a pair of eclipse glasses. If you cannot find them or it is too late to get them now, then there are two things you can do:
- Build a small pinhole camera/projector
- Use the camera’s liveview/LCD for viewing the sun
Building a small pinhole camera/projector is very simple. Just grab two pieces of cards, make a small hole in one card, then hold the card above the other one and align them with the sun. The sun’s image will be projected through the hole into the second card. If you want something more advanced, check this tutorial out.
The second method to view the sun through the camera LCD is what I did. First, make sure to mount a very dense/strong neutral density filter in front of your lens. Then, use your camera’s LiveView function to look at the sun. It is ideal to have a camera that allows manual exposure control, so that you could stop down the lens and increase the shutter speed while looking at the sun through live view. Bear in mind that if the ND filter is not strong enough, viewing the sun through the LCD could actually damage your camera. Either way, I would not use LiveView for more than a minute or two, since it could overheat the image sensor. I only used LiveView when taking pictures and turned the camera off in between. When the sun is too bright during partial eclipse, unless you have something like Hoodman loupe, you might not see much when looking at the LCD though.
If you have a point and shoot camera with a relatively small lens, the same eclipse glasses you war could be used as neutral density filters. Just hold one in front of the lens and it should work great.
2) Photographing the Sequence
One thing you need to decide on, is whether you want to shoot the entire sequence of the solar eclipse, or just the middle of the process (period of totality) when the moon blocks most of the sun, creating a “ring of fire”. I would personally recommend to document the whole process from the beginning to the end, so that you have pictures of all the phases – from partial eclipse to totality and then back to partial eclipse. The nice thing about having the entire sequence in pictures, is that you can later combine images together, creating a nice sequence.
Bear in mind, you will have to be very patient though, as the process could take a while. If for whatever reason you cannot stay for the entire duration of the eclipse, then I would just stay for the total eclipse to capture the “ring of fire”.
3) Camera Equipment and Lenses
When it comes to photographing a solar eclipse, the type of equipment you are using plays a huge role. Using a camera with a bare lens is not going to work, because the sun is way too bright (especially during partial eclipse) – it will be totally blown out. Even stopping down to a very small aperture like f/22 and lowering ISO to the lowest value might result in an exposure faster than what your camera allows. Therefore, you need a very strong neutral density filter that would block most of the light from the sun, allowing you to use slower shutter speeds and larger apertures. If the neutral density filter is not strong enough, you might need a couple – in my case, I had a 6 stop ND filter stacked with a 3 stop ND filter together, but a 10 stop ND filter would be better. Stacking multiple filters is not a problem, because you will be shooting with your longest lens at its longest focal length anyway.
Talking about lenses, the longer the lens, the better. I used the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S with a 1.4x teleconverter, because I had it handy. Longer lenses are ideal, so if you have a 600mm lens with a teleconverter in your arsenal, then get them ready! My 300mm was already mounted to my Nikon D700, so I did not bother changing the camera body.
Camera does not matter, because you will be capturing the solar eclipse at the lowest ISO. Cropped-sensor/DX cameras would work great, because they provide better magnification on the pixel level.
4) Camera Settings
Camera settings are quite simple. Here is what I recommend:
- Set your camera and lens on a tripod.
- Set your ISO to the lowest value like 100.
- Set your camera mode to Manual.
- Start out at the fastest shutter speed your camera has to offer, such as 1/8000 and see if you need to lower it.
- Start out at f/8 and stop down a little more if the shutter speed is too fast. If the sun comes out too bright and overexposed, it means that you are using a weak ND filter.
Depending on what ND filter you are using, your shutter speed should be fast enough to not cause any vibration issues. I was shooting between 1/500 to 1/8000, depending on the phase of the eclipse and how bright I wanted to sun to come out.
5) Focus Accuracy and Sharpness
No matter what lens you are using, getting a very accurate focus on the sun and moon is extremely important. I know that some photographers suggest to shoot at infinity using the lens marks, but since many lenses now allow focusing “beyond infinity”, getting a true infinity focus is not that easy – a slight inaccuracy in focus will make the sun and moon appear blurry. Forget about trying to acquire focus on the sun without an ND filter – it is too bright and could be too small in the frame for that. What I would do, is point your lens at a really far object and focus on that object (either through viewfinder or LiveView). Instead of dealing with refocusing every time you take a picture, I highly recommend to switch off autofocus once you get an accurate focus. Take a picture and use the LCD screen of the camera to see how sharp the sun is. Zoom in all the way and make sure that the sun appears sharp.
One more thing I would like to point out, is if you are using a lens with a teleconverter, or if you are using a consumer zoom lens, the optics are probably not very sharp when shooting at large apertures. Stopping down the lens aperture to f/8-f/11 should give you the sharpest results. Don’t use apertures larger than f/16 – diffraction will kick in and make the moon appear even softer.
Unless you are shooting at short focal lengths with a foreground object or some sort of a scene, don’t worry about composition – place the sun anywhere in your frame. The location does not matter, since you can easily crop the sun out in post-processing. If you have some thick clouds in your frame, then play with the exposure a little and see if you can use clouds as part of your composition. Here is an image that I captured with the clouds, when clouds opened up a little bit during the start of the eclipse:
As for post-processing, aside from cropping and playing with white balance and saturation levels, the only issue you might have is dealing with some noise that might show up even at the lowest ISO levels. Noise levels will increase if you underexpose and try to brighten up in post-processing, so try to expose the sun correctly (you can also bracket your shots). If noise is an issue, see my “noise reduction tutorial” that I posted a while ago – there are plenty of tips in that article on how to clean up noise in Photoshop and Lightroom.
Please let me know if you have any questions!