If you’re a fan of nature photography, a total solar eclipse presents an unrivaled opportunity for some amazing shots. But photographing an eclipse requires some special considerations. Here are six things to keep in mind when photographing this year’s (or any other’s) eclipse.
A few notes before we get started. First, make sure you’re wearing proper eyewear during the eclipse. When you’re not photographing, you’ll want to be watching the event. Grab some eclipse glasses. Second, make sure you’re contributing to a good experience for everyone — it’s going to be crazy out there. Be polite, turn your flash off, and stay safe out there.
1. You Need a Solar Filter
Just like your eyes, your camera’s sensor will be irreparably damaged by looking directly at the sun, so you’re going to need a special filter. Solar photography filters are extremely dark filters that block out everything but the sun — and protect your camera. There’s a wide range of filters and prices, from $17 cardboard filters to $150+ professional-level filters.
Don’t use solar glasses as a filter for your camera. Eclipse-viewing glasses will protect your eyes, but they won’t protect them from the magnified light. They might not protect your sensor, either. Use a dedicated filter.
Even if most of the sun is occluded by the moon, it’s still extremely bright, and you’ll need your filter. When the sun is 100 percent eclipsed, however, there’s a short window of time in which you can look directly at it with the naked eye or a camera sensor. In fact, during the totality phase of the eclipse, a solar filter will be too dark to see the corona, so remove your filter during this phase. But be ready to put it back on immediately when the moon starts moving away from the sun.
If you’re not sure which solar filter will be best for your camera, get in touch with the manufacturer or head to a local camera shop.
2. Calibrating Ahead of Time Is Crucial
You don’t have much time to experiment during a total eclipse, so you’ll need to do some calibrating ahead of time. Pop on your solar filter and try your hand at solar photography in broad daylight. The portion of the sun that you can see during a partial eclipse is just as bright as the unobstructed sun, so you can use your results to pinpoint the best aperture and shutter speed for your eclipse photography.
Set up your camera and tripod (if you don’t have a tripod, now’s a good time to get one) and snap a series of sun photos. Experiment with different apertures and shutter speeds. Once you’ve taken a range of photos with different camera settings, take a look at your results. You can use the histogram to see which gives you the most detail. If your histogram is clipping on top, the image is too bright.
Take note of the settings that give you the best photos. You’ll want to use these during the eclipse. You can certainly vary your settings throughout the event, but starting from known settings will help you get the best results.
Keep in mind that you might want to use very slow shutter speeds to capture the detail of the eclipse. In this case, you’re going to need a smaller aperture.
3. Choose the Right Lens
To get a clear shot of the eclipse, you’re going to want a lens with a big amount of zoom. At least 300mm is a good place to start. You’ll see some people recommending lenses up to 800mm or beyond, but the cost of these super-telephoto lenses is extremely prohibitive. 300-500mm will give you a good level of zoom without cropping out any part of the corona.
If a lens of this length isn’t available, you can still take great pictures of the eclipse — they’re just going to be a bit smaller. Try snapping a photo of the full moon. That’ll give you an idea of how big in the sky the eclipse will be.
Also consider taking photos not just of the eclipse itself, but of the surrounding landscape; these photos can be very striking, and don’t require huge amounts of zoom. Use your calibration shots from the previous step to see how your photos will turn out.
4. Choose the Right Location
Where should you be planting your tripod during a solar eclipse? You might not give it much thought, since your lens is going to be pointed at the sky, but there are a few things you should consider. If you want to get landscape photos, for example, or photos of the eclipse throughout the event, you’ll need an unobstructed view. That might not be easy if you’re in a crowded park.
Getting away from trees, power lines, and any other high obstacles will also be helpful. You’ll also probably want to be away from streetlights, downtown areas, and other sources of light (unless you want to make them part of your photograph). Heading to high ground will make this easier.
Scout out your location beforehand, and get there early on the day. Prime spots will go fast, and having a tree branch in the way of your eclipse shot is frustrating. Think about the variety of shots you might want to take and make sure you’re in a good spot for as many of them as you can. You aren’t going to be able to move around much during the eclipse.
5. Bracket Your Exposures
Exposure bracketing is crucial for low-light photography. You take a photo at the exposure level you think is correct, then a slightly overexposed and a slightly underexposed one. In the end, you’ll have three shots that you can choose from (or, even better, combine) to give you the perfect shot.
Many cameras have automatic exposure bracketing that you can turn on. If you’re shooting in full manual mode, you may want to simply adjust the shutter speed up and down by one step to get these overexposed and underexposed shots. You can choose from or combine these later to get the best eclipse photos possible.
Once you have a series of photos, you’ll be able to use exposure blending to get the best parts of each.
6. Take Lots of Photos
If you want to get the best shots of the total solar eclipse, you need to take a lot of photos. As soon as the moon starts its transit, start shooting. You’ll get cool photos of the partial eclipse, a number of options for the total, and even more on the other side. You could edit them together for a cool effect like this:
Even tiny changes in the position of the moon or your camera settings can make a big difference in the quality of your shots. Experiment with small tweaks to your settings — try a longer exposure or a different aperture. Stick close to the settings you calibrated, but don’t be afraid to try some new things once you’re confident you’ve gotten the shots you want.
Professional photographers might snap hundreds of photos in the span of a few minutes during the eclipse. You don’t need to take that many, but remember that the more photos you have, the more likely you are to get a great one.
But don’t forget to stop shooting for a moment. Take a deep breath and witness one of nature’s most awe-inspiring events. Enjoy the experience.
Prepare and Practice
After you’ve read these tips, you might think that the whole process doesn’t sound so hard. And in reality, it’s not. But it’s easy to forget these basics steps when you’re seeing a potentially once-in-a-lifetime sight. It’s not a bad idea to take a practice run through your routine a few times before the actual event.
You can do it with a solar filter and take pictures of the midday sun, or you can try it at night and grab photos of the moon. Make sure you know what to do, and anticipate any difficulties you might face on the day. It might seem like overkill now, but you’ll be glad you prepared when the day comes!
Have you done any eclipse photography in the past? Share your best tips in the comments below!
Image Credit: SumanBhaumik via Shutterstock.com