Taking the photos for our post about the July 2019 total solar eclipse and for our photo essay from the December 2020 total solar eclipse wasn’t as tricky as we expected, but shooting those eclipses did require a bit of specialized equipment and know-how. Here’s our guide to solar eclipse photography, including the photo tips and gear you need so you can photograph a solar eclipse like a pro.
How to photograph a solar eclipse: gear guide
Here’s the photographic equipment you need to get the shots you want.
A solar filter
Don’t even think about taking photos of the sun without a solar filter. Just as looking at the sun without eclipse glasses can cause damage to your eyes, shooting the sun without a solar filter can cause damage to the sensor in your camera–especially if you’re using a telephoto lens that magnifies the sun.
A 5.0 solar filter is, essentially, a neutral density filter on steroids, offering 16.5 stops of light reduction. That means that this piece of glass looks nearly black. When you look through it at anything other than the sun you see nothing. That’s why, in the eclipse images below, everything in the photo is black except the sun. There are cheaper solar filters out there, but I didn’t want to skimp.
Solar filters may seem to block as much light as your eclipse glasses, but they don’t block all infrared wavelengths. So even when you’re using a solar filter, you shouldn’t look through the camera’s optical viewfinder. Use the camera’s LCD live view instead.
During full totality, you can take the solar filter off and shoot normally (as in the photo above).
A better camera
If you want to capture these kinds of images you need a digital camera that accepts interchangeable lenses and allows full manual settings. I usually shoot with a full-frame sensor camera like the Canon 5D. However, there are times when crop sensor (APS-C) cameras are handy because they give a 1.5 – 1.6x magnification factor to the lens. This is great for shooting animals, birds, and solar eclipses. For this type of shooting, I use my Canon 7D Mark II.
A bigger lens
When it comes to shooting a solar eclipse (and many other things), bigger IS better. I used my fantastic Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens. I can’t recommend this professional L series heavy beast enough for all kinds of telephoto shooting. If you like shooting animals and birds, it’s a game-changer that can’t be beaten…unless you can afford the US$11,000 Canon’s EF 200-400mm f/4L. My lens was locked on 400mm for the entire eclipse. With my Canon 7D crop sensor, which has a 1.6x magnification, this makes the 400mm the equivalent of a 640mm lens. Add on the Canon Extender EF, a 1.4X III, a 1.4x teleconverter which I used while shooting the 2020 Patagonia eclipse in December, and you raise the effective equivalent of the lens to 900mm.
All of the eclipse images below have been cropped. Above you can see how much of an uncropped frame is filled by the sun with various focal lengths — 400mm, 640mm, and 900mm. Clearly, the longer the focal length you can get, the larger sun, and hence less cropping is necessary. The 400mm lens (top left) results in a pretty small sun that I would consider too small if you wanted to enlarge the image. The 640mm lens (top right) is a more useable size, but the 900mm lens (bottom) provides a relatively large sun that doesn’t require too much cropping. If you were using a full frame camera, and a more commonly owned 200mm lens, the sun would be half the size of the 400mm on the top right, and this would be too small in my opinion for anything but online use.
A reliable tripod
To ensure crisp, sharp images a sturdy tripod is necessary when shooting a solar eclipse, especially when using a large lens. I used a carbon fiber 3 Legged Thing tripod. Tip: have some way of weighing the tripod down in case you must shoot in windy conditions as we did. 3 Legged Thing tripods come with a carabiner, an eyelet at the bottom of the center column, and a loop on the tripod bag so you can fill it with rocks to secure the tripod in windy conditions.
A better way to release the shutter
The vibration caused by pressing the shutter can cause blurriness in your images, so use a shutter release cable or an intervalometer that can be programmed to shoot at set intervals. I planned on using my intervalometer, but since the sun was moving faster than I expected, the centering of the lens had to be adjusted every couple of minutes so it was simpler to use a shutter release cable.
Buy a shutter release cable: B&Hphoto.com
An app to plan your solar eclipse shoot
Despite the dreadful name, the best photo planning app, hands down, is the PhotoPills App. It does everything and then some when it comes to planning and setting up photos, especially when your shooting involves the sun, moon, and sky. Its eclipse database let us set up right on the centerline of the eclipse to maximize our totality time. The app also told us exactly what time each phase of the eclipse would begin and end to the second. The app’s augmented reality also let me line up my shots with a nearby Andean mountain peak so that I could catch the partially-eclipsed sun setting directly behind it. The PhotoPills website is also full of useful tips and tutorials about shooting the sky, milky way, eclipses, and other tricky situations.
Save some money on gear
We recognize that camera equipment is expensive, especially specialized gear that may not get used much outside of special shooting circumstances like eclipses. A more affordable option is to rent specialized gear when you need it. Eric can personally vouch for the fact that Lensrentals.com is an amazing operation that offers just about any type of camera, lens, light, or photography accessory for rent at extremely reasonable rates including shipping and insurance.
This is an ingenious way to try out new gear prior to making a purchase and an affordable way to use the specialized gear you may not want to invest in long-term. The only downside is that if you don’t live in the US you’re out of luck.
As a special gift to our readers use the code TAJ15 during checkout at Lensrentals.com and get 15% off your gear rental.
How to photograph a solar eclipse: tips and techniques
Do your homework: Make sure you know your equipment. Shooting this fast-moving event is not the time to be figuring stuff out, especially when you also want to be able to watch and appreciate the moment, not just shoot it.
Shoot in RAW: RAW gives you much more flexibility in post-processing and correcting so you can make the most of the shots you take of this possibly once-in-a-lifetime eclipse you’ve invested time and money to see.
Use your spot meter setting: You probably don’t usually use the spot meter setting, but you should use it when photographing an eclipse because it’s the best way to get a proper reading for the sun. Just be sure the sun is in the center.
White balance: The sun is yellow, correct? No, it’s actually white, it’s just that when it’s low in the sky the short-wavelength colors (green, blue, violet) are scattered out by the earth’s atmosphere. Since this is the only time we can comfortably look at the sun, we think of the sun as a big yellow ball.
If you’re like me, the color balance on your camera is always on AWB (average white balance) and then I correct when necessary in post-processing. But the white balance of the sun is about 5,400K, so I manually set the camera to that setting ( see image above left). However, I found the totally white sun, though correct, a bit boring so I warmed it up in most of the partial eclipse images to around 8,000K (see image above right).
ISO is tricky: Ideally, you want to use a low ISO like 100 to reduce noise. However, I had to use between 200 and 640 to enable a faster shutter speed to keep things sharp with the long lens and the extremely windy conditions where we shooting were.
Aperture is less tricky: I left the aperture at f8 for all images.
Bracket your images: I took at least three shots of each moment of the eclipse that I wanted to capture using what I expected to be the necessary exposure and setting the camera to auto-bracket +/- 1½ stops. This ensured that I ended up with a range of exposures to be sure that one was close to correct. When I was in doubt about exposure, I shot two sets of bracketed exposures, essentially covering a range of six stops.
Exposures: Here are exposure recommendations for various stages of an eclipse.
Partial Eclipse – As a general rule, my best exposures during the partial eclipse were between 1/400s and 1/640s when using f8 & ISO 100 and a solar filter. This had to be boosted a little as the sun got weaker toward sunset.
Diamond Ring & Baily’s Beads – These exposures were between 1/2,500s and 1/4,000s when using f8 & ISO 100 and a solar filter. I think the Diamond Ring would have been more dramatic with a slower shutter speed than I used. Next time.
Totality – These exposures were between 1/80s and 1/100s when using f8 & ISO 100, except when capturing the chromosphere which took a 1/15s to 1/30s exposure. The solar filter was removed to take photos during totality.
I used this handy solar eclipse exposure guide as a starting point and it was pretty spot on.
Skip image stabilization: Presuming you’re using a tripod, turn off image stabilization if your lens has this feature. Switch to manual focus and focus on the edge of the sun.
We can get sucked into our photography, but remember to stop, experience, and enjoy the moment. Totality is magical and it’s over before you know it. We all want to capture the “perfect” photo, but take a few moments during totality to appreciate this magical moment.
See all the eclipse photography magic in our post about the July 2, 2019 total solar eclipse in Argentina.
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