Photographing a Solar Eclipse
Of all the natural phenomena, a solar eclipse has to be one of the most awe-inspiring, with the sun disappearing and the world being plunged into darkness for a minute or two when it should be brightly lit. Solar eclipses are not common events – a maximum of five in a year worldwide – and total eclipses, when the dark silhouette of the moon completely obscures the light of the sun, only occur in a narrow track on the surface of the earth. It’s no surprise then, that people will travel far and wide to view an eclipse. And many people aren’t content with just viewing an eclipse – they want to photograph it.
However, it’s not as simple as pointing your camera towards the sun and pressing the shutter. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to photograph the eclipse on March 20th, these tips will help you make the most of the opportunity.
- Look after your eyes. You should never look directly at the sun, especially through the viewfinder of your DSLR. You’ll probably be shooting with a telephoto lens, which will magnify the sun, and looking directly at it could cause permanent eye damage. A solar filter fitted to the lens will provide protection for your eyes and also your camera’s sensor. Failing that, a strong neutral density filter, such as the Lee Big Stopper or B + W 10-stop ND can help. However, even with one of these in front of the lens, don’t look directly through the viewfinder – instead, use the Live View function of your camera’s rear LCD. If you want to view the eclipse with the naked eye, invest in a pair of eclipse glasses.
- You’ll need a long lens – the longer the better. If you have a 600mm lens and a teleconverter, then use them. Unfortunately, big telephotos like this are very expensive, but you could consider hiring one. Otherwise, use the longest lens you have – a 2X teleconverter is a reasonably affordable way of extending its reach. A neutral density filter is useful not just for protecting your eyes. As the sun is so bright, overexposure is likely until total eclipse occurs. An ND filter will help prevent this.
- Camera settings. Put your camera and lens on a tripod – with the high magnification of a telephoto lens, any movement will become obvious; set your ISO to its lowest setting for maximum image quality; Shoot in manual mode, with a mid-aperture of f/8 and a fast shutter speed; review the shot and if the sun is overexposed, either use a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture and if it’s underexposed, set a slower shutter speed or wider aperture.
- You need to focus on infinity when shooting the sun and unfortunately, it’s not as simple as lining up the infinity symbol with the focus mark on the lens, as this is not always as precise as it should be. It’s easiest to sort out your focusing before the eclipse. Pre-focus on a distant object such as a mountain top (autofocus or manual focus are both fine for this) but then make sure you switch to manual focus, so that the camera doesn’t then refocus.
- If you’re shooting with a really long lens and only have the sky and sun in the frame, don’t place the sun smack in the middle of the frame as this can lead to a rather static composition. Instead, off-centre it, and try composing according to the ‘rule of thirds’. If you’re shooting wider, try to include some foreground interest in the scene to help add scale and depth.