How to Photograph a Solar Eclipse

I intentionally waited on posting this article on photographing 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.

Solar Eclipse

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:

  1. Build a small pinhole camera/projector
  2. 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:

  1. Set your camera and lens on a tripod.
  2. Set your ISO to the lowest value like 100.
  3. Set your camera mode to Manual.
  4. Start out at the fastest shutter speed your camera has to offer, such as 1/8000 and see if you need to lower it.
  5. 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.

6) Composition

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:

Partial Solar Eclipse

7) Post-processing

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!

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Sam Yeong
    May 22, 2012 at 6:17 am

    Thanks for the info, Nasim. I missed it this round :-(

    • May 22, 2012 at 12:31 pm

      Sam, no worries, more eclipses will happen in the future, so you will have your chance! :)

  2. 2
    ) Stefan
    May 22, 2012 at 8:52 am

    Nice article as always – ONE BIG PROBLEM though!!!!
    You post that too late.
    I have same problems you’re mentioning here, but it’s too late to correct those.
    It seems I underexposed the whole thing – it will be nice for a timelapse and also I can see the sun spots, but i miss that glow, which is quite nice.
    Trying to compensate the exposure in post processing adds only noise, nothing else.
    So, yeah, it would be nice to read this article few days before the event… they don’t happen that often anyway…. :((

    • May 22, 2012 at 12:30 pm

      Stefan, I was going to post it earlier, but the problem is that I have never photographed a solar eclipse, so I did not know what to expect. I did not want to post inaccurate information, because this was my first time photographing the event. But it is OK – more eclipses will happen in the future, see the calendar here.

      • 7
        ) Stefan
        May 22, 2012 at 12:50 pm

        Thanks Nasim,
        I do have nice shots, but I should just experiment to open the exposure it a little bit, so I have variations. It’s always better to have more and then to choose from. But I was scared if I can “fry” the sensor.
        I flew all the way from Philadelphia to Albuquerque, NM for the event. And it was right in the middle of the path.
        I will post link to my pictures later if someone is interested to take a look (I was too tired last night after the flight back, plus the plane broke and we had to land back in Albuquerque and change airlines).
        I have seen that list with the eclipses, but most of them won’t be at convenient spots. The next big thing is near Nashville in 2017 for the total eclipse.
        Btw – you may think of organizing something like a workshop and we can all get together at some best view point to document that great phenomena.
        :-)

      • 9
        ) Stefan
        May 22, 2012 at 12:57 pm

        btw – for your 5th point – about the focusing.
        I double what you say.
        I was thinking it would be easy to focus just to infinity, but because I took my sony nex cameras for this shoot (again I was afraid to fry my new D800) and NEX lenses doesn’t have that window when you can see the focus.
        It’s good that the manual focus on NEX’s automatically zoom in about 7 times so it is very easy to see the focus on the screen (if you can find the sun) LOL
        But as you state – the focus point can definitely go beyond the infinity and the sun look like a foggy spot.

  3. 3
    ) David
    May 22, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Nasim,

    Very nice tutorial. Some of these techniques can also be used for the upcoming transit of Venus across the face of the sun on June 5.

    This was my first attempt to photograph a solar eclipse. I did a lot of research on the best techniques. Then I purchased my eclipse viewing glasses as well as an aluminized mylar filter. I already had a neutral density ND3 (10 stops) that fit my smaller lenses. With this gear and information I then began to practice shooting sequences and testing equipment. That practice paid off during the event.

    I shot a sequence of images at 3-minute intervals using the 50mm lens with the ND3 filter. As the eclipse ended and the sun set I took a final set of images without the filter. These were then composited to produce a single image showing the progression of the eclipse.

    I used the mylar filter on a second camera (600mm focal length). I don’t think this darkened the solar disk as much as the ND3 but it still produced excellent results.

    Overall, a successful day.

    My images can be seen here: http://blog.dblanchard.net/

    David

    • May 22, 2012 at 12:36 pm

      David, looks like you had much better luck than me in terms of weather. And you picked a great spot to watch it too – Grand Canyon :) Your composite image is stunning, wow, what a beauty! Thanks so much for sharing.

    • 8
      ) Stefan
      May 22, 2012 at 12:52 pm

      Nice pictures, David.

  4. 10
    ) Ron Sprunger
    May 22, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    I envy David the 600mm — thought of renting one from LensRentals, but couldn’t hack the $380 or so. So I drove 200 miles south to Parowan, Utah with my 200-400 + 2x TC and got very nice pictures with the D7000. I planned in advance, and prepared safe solar filters. The relatively cheap and very safe way to do that is to get some Baader ND5 solar filter. I got mine from Agena (http://agenaastro.com/baader-astrosolar-film-visual-nd-5.html), but there are many sources. Sandwiched pieces of it in foamboard, with cutouts for my 200-400, 70-200, and binoculars.

    It worked great. Ended up shooting everything at ISO 400, f/8, 1/1000, which put the sun right against the right side of my histogram. Loaned the 70-200 + 1.7x TC to my 10-year old grandson to use on his D50, and he got something to be proud of as well. The whole family used the binoculars and our old 8″ Dobsonian telescope, and found it an awesome experience all around. We were 30 miles north of the center, so we didn’t get it quite exactly centered, but close enough.

    My real goal is the Venus transit, and if you want to photograph that you absolutely need the proper solar filter to get the definition on the sun’s surface that you need. It won’t happen again for another 129 years or so, so worth doing.

    • 11
      ) David
      May 22, 2012 at 7:35 pm

      Ron,

      The 600-mm was just the zoomed-in end of the Panasonic Lumix FZ-150 — which is a 24x super-zoom from 25mm to 600mm. I was surprised that it worked this well!

      I’ll probably use the FZ150 and solar filter combination for the Venus transit. Hope the weather is as good for that as it was for the eclipse.

      David

      • 13
        ) Nebula
        May 24, 2012 at 10:43 am

        Hello David, I also have a Fz150.

        I’d appreciate tips for the Venus transit :D like where to find the filter and what settings I should set the camera at xD. (Kinda new at this and I’d love to capture this moment!)

        • 14
          ) David
          May 24, 2012 at 7:04 pm

          Hi Nebula,

          The settings I used on the FZ150 were ISO100, 600mm, f/6.3, 1/100 second. I used manual focus because the auto focus was having trouble. The filter was purchased a few months ago from Kendrick Astro Instruments — from this page:

          http://www.kendrickastro.com/astro/solarfilters.html

          and look for the P-6xxx filters. I ordered a larger filter for another lens but it fit this camera as well. Note, however, that they can not guarantee delivery in time for the transit.

          Alternatively, you can order a ND3 neutral density filter with a 52-mm thread from any of the photo sites (e.g., B & H Photo). It costs more but is very high quality and it can be used for other types of photography. I have this filter: B+W 52mm 3.0 ND MRC 110M and used it on my Nikon 50-mm lens for the composite image.

          Good luck!

          David

  5. 12
    ) Scott
    May 23, 2012 at 11:36 am

    I want to mention that for non-total eclipses, it’s really useful to figure out your desired exposure a few days ahead of time, because even with the sun 95% blocked you want to properly expose the portion that is visible. Note, for total eclipses (like the one in Aug. 2017), during totality, you’ll need to remove your filters and and select new exposure settings in order to photograph the corona.

    I found (courtesy of the Baader ND5 material I ordered weeks before the eclipse not having shipped) that two layers of aluminized mylar gives you ND 4 or so (about 13 stops).

    Also, telescopes with 1200mm focal lengths are available with stellar optics for a fraction of the price of a 600mm lens + TC, since an aperture fixed at f/8 or f/10 isn’t really a problem when photographing the sun (and you can use a mask if you want in addition to using a solar filter), and also comes in handy when photographing the moon.

  6. 15
    ) Jonathan Siow
    May 25, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Hi Nassim! I’ve been a huge follower of your website from Singapore! And I have learnt a lot from the articles and reviews!

    By the way, would you be attempting to capture images of the “Transit of Venus”, which is coming up on the 5th/6th of June this year? It would be great if you could write an article about tips for us photographers to read up on, prior to the actual event.

    This would be the first time I’ve heard of the Transit, and will also be the first time I will be trying to capture it on camera. Hope to hear from you!

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