Taking the photos for our post about the July 2, 2019 total solar eclipse in Argentina wasn’t as tricky as we expected, but it did require a bit of specialized equipment and some 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.
Camera equipment you need for solar eclipse photography
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 which 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 profession 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.
All of the eclipse images below have been cropped. Here’s an uncropped image (above) so you can see how little of the frame is filled by the sun, about 1/20th of the entire frame, even with the equivalent of a 640mm lens. If you were shooting with a full-frame camera and a 200mm lens, the sun would be less than 1/3 this size which, for me, is too small because it would require such a large crop in order to really see the sun.
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
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.
Eclipse photography 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 magic in our post about the July 2, 2019 total solar eclipse in Argentina.