Design, Photography, & Fashion

Solar Eclipse Photography: Settings, Gear, and Safety Tips

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 8, 2019 • 6 min read

An eclipse is one of nature's visual wonders. It begins when the sun seems to acquire a bite in its circumference, a sliver that grows, darkens a portion of the sun's glowing disc, then half, then most of it, until a circular shadow overtakes the sun completely, replacing it with a black disc surrounded by a brilliant halo of fire, the corona. For a moment, day turns to twilight, the temperature drops noticeably, and nature seems to quiet.

As a photographer, you will likely feel compelled to capture this amazing phenomenon if given the chance. You'll need to follow some basic instructions and take precautions to protect your equipment and, more important, your eyesight.

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What Is a Solar Eclipse?

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and the Earth, casting its own shadow onto the Earth's surface. If you're in the center of that shadow—in what's called the path of totality—you will see the moon appear to blot out the entire disc of the sun, which we call a total solar eclipse. If you're somewhere along the edges of the shadow, you will see the moon obscuring only part of the sun, which we call a partial eclipse. Either display offers opportunities for unforgettable photographs.

You may think that a total solar eclipse is a rare event, but solar eclipses actually take place two to four times a year somewhere on Earth. They seem rare because the moon's shadow covers an area of the Earth's surface only about 50 miles wide, and most of the Earth is covered by water. Unless you're in a boat that can travel wherever that shadow makes groundfall, you're not going to see the eclipse.

If you stand in just a single place on Earth, the moon's shadow will pass over you only once every century or so. You can blame the Earth's tilt, as well as the variability of the moon's orbit around the Earth and the Earth's orbit around the sun.

Solar Eclipse vs. Lunar Eclipse: What’s the Difference?

Don't confuse a solar eclipse with a lunar eclipse. The latter happens when the Earth passes between the sun and the moon, casting the Earth's shadow on the moon. You'll see the effect on the moon: The Earth's shadow turns the moon dark or may obscure it completely.

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Can You Photograph a Solar Eclipse?

Yes! You'll need the proper equipment, but you don't necessarily need a DSLR camera and professional photography rig. There are ways to shoot an eclipse with your iPhone, too.

Proper Gear for Photographing the Solar Eclipse

You never want to look at the sun directly: you'll suffer permanent eye damage and loss of vision. That holds true even if the moon obscures part of the sun. And that applies to your camera as well.

  1. Protective eye gear. To view a solar eclipse with your eyes, you'll need to wear specially darkened glasses or hold a darkened filter—such as welder's goggles rated 14 or higher—in front of your eyes before looking up. A word of caution: Regular dark glasses and sunglasses won't protect your eyes while you view an eclipse; you'll need to buy special glasses or filters approved by the International Organization for Standardization or from vendors approved by the American Astronomical Society. If in doubt, you can consult the society's or NASA's websites.
  2. Specialty filters. Similarly, to photograph an eclipse, you'll need to employ a special solar filter lens on your camera or phone. Such filters fit over the front of your camera lens (not in the filter slot of your telephoto lens, if you're using one). You can use a so-called full-aperture solar filter, which completely covers the front of your lens.

Other equipment you will need to photograph an eclipse:

  • A tripod to keep your camera fixed while you're tracking the sun.
  • A tracking device to follow the sun as it moves across the sky at about 15 degrees per hour. If you don't want to invest in one, you can use a three-way pan head on your tripod to adjust your camera manually to keep the sun in the center of your image.
  • A remote shutter to prevent vibration to your camera and allow you to make multiple exposures during the course of the eclipse event.
  • An extra battery in case you need it during that period.
  • An extra memory stick in case your camera's memory fills up while you're shooting.

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5 Camera Settings for Photographing the Solar Eclipse

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Turn off your camera's automatic settings. You'll want to configure your camera's aperture, shutter speed and other settings manually.

  1. ISO: Solar filters diminish the sun’s energy by a factor of 100,000, so you can use any ISO setting because the sun is bright. But the actual filter factor you use and your choice of ISO may determine the correct exposure. You may need to try a few out before the eclipse itself.
  2. Aperture: The best settings fall between f-8 and f-16 to make sure your image remains in focus.
  3. Focus: Set your focus to infinity.
  4. Lens: A telephoto lens or zoom lens of about 300 mm works well to shoot an eclipse. But you can increase the size of the sun in your image by using a lens with a longer focal length: The longer the focal length, the larger the image of the sun. To capture the sun’s corona during an eclipse's phase of totality, use a focal length no more than 1400 mm for a full-frame sensor camera.
  5. Shutter speed: You can set it to a fast speed—say, 1/125—as the sun is bright. You can experiment before the eclipse by attaching a solar filter to your camera and shooting images of the noon sun at a fixed aperture at varying shutter speeds, checking the resulting exposures and selecting the best combinations to use to shoot the partial phases of a solar eclipse.

You can shoot an eclipse with your smartphone if you download the appropriate photo apps to adjust your phone's camera settings manually and use a solar filter designed for your particular phone.

How to Shoot the Totality Phase of a Solar Eclipse

During the total phase of an eclipse—when the moon covers the entire surface of the sun, leaving only the wispy crown, or "corona," of fire around its rim—you can remove the solar filter from your camera to capture the moment. But only then: Before the eclipse progresses, you'll need to reattach the solar filter to your lens or risk burning out your sensor (not to mention your eyes if you're looking through your camera) once even a small piece of the sun reappears from behind the moon's shadow.

4 More Tips for Solar Eclipse Photography

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  1. Know what equipment you'll need well in advance of the day, especially if you need to order your solar filter and rent a long or telephoto lens.
  2. Know where and what time the eclipse will begin near you and get there with plenty of time beforehand to stake out an unobstructed location, set up your equipment and take some experimental shots to prepare your optimal settings.
  3. Know how long the phase of total eclipse will last so you are prepared to capture it. It usually lasts only a few minutes; the longest one lasted a bit longer than seven minutes. How long it lasts also depends on where you are located within the moon’s path of totality.
  4. Take plenty of images!

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