Total Solar Eclipse Photograph
There are very many ways to image a TSE, requiring various levels of expertise and equipment.
Photographing a Total Solar Eclipse
There are very many ways to image a TSE, requiring various levels of expertise and equipment.
But first, a word of advice – NO photo, NO Video, can capture the majesty of a TSE. I’ve seen the very best of each, taken by the most experienced photographers, with equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars, and using the most advanced post-processing techniques available, and nothing comes close to what you see and experience! And I assure you that unless you are an experienced eclipse photographer, even your very best efforts won’t be in the same league as the best you’ll see published in print or on the internet.
So my advice is, if this is your first eclipse, don’t worry too much about imaging it – just enjoy it as a visual, cerebral, visceral, emotional spectacle unlike anything you’ve ever seen before! And don’t think that a few quick glances at the Sun during totality will do – the longer you look, the more detail you will see; and you should try to look with binoculars as well as the naked eye.
However, by all means take SOME photos – just don’t sacrifice your own viewing in attempting to get that perfect image.
A TSE divides into the partial and total phases, which need to be treated totally differently both for viewing, and imaging.
During the partial phases, you treat the Sun as if it was the normal full blindingly bright body which we know it is. Even when 75%, or 95%, of it is covered by the moon, the bit that is left is still just as dangerously bright as the full disc. So even though the total amount of daylight is much reduced, the brightness of the part we see is just as dangerous to your eyes and your camera as the full Sun. So proper solar filters must be used for both direct viewing and imaging during the partial phases, both before and after totality.
And UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES LOOK AT THE SUN WITH ANY OPTICAL INSTRUMENT UNLESS IT HAS A PROPER SOLAR FILTER, EXCEPT DURING TOTALITY!
During totality, when the entire disc is hidden by the Moon, and we see only the Corona and some prominences, then it is totally safe to view it with the naked eye, and to image it without filters.
TYPES OF PHOTOS.
1. Photos of the landscape and perhaps other people before and during the early part of the eclipse, i.e. ‘setting the scene’. No filter needed. Any camera will do.
2. Wide-angle views showing the landscape and perhaps other people during the eclipse, with a small image of the partially eclipsed Sun in the frame. Probably no filter needed, depending on your camera.
3. Projected images of the partial phases, using either a small telescope or binoculars to project an enlarged image onto a white surface. You can get very interesting photos by projecting a set of pinhole images onto a white surface during the late partial phases, when the Sun is a crescent, and photographing that. Normal lens will be fine, no filter needed.
4. Telephoto (i.e. with considerable zooming in) images of the partial phases, showing the ‘bite’ out of the Sun. Requires a proper filter.
5. Shadow Bands. – For the specialist only.
6. Telephoto images of the ‘transition’ stages as totality begins and ends, showing Bailie’s Beads and the Diamond Ring – requires a good telephoto / zoom. No filter needed.
7. Telephoto / long zoom images of totality, showing the corona, prominences, etc. DEFINITELY NO FILTER!
8. Moderate telephoto / medium zoom images of totality showing the eclipsed Sun, corona, and trying to capture bright planets and stars in the surrounding sky. DEFINITELY NO FILTER!
9. Wide angle shot showing a small eclipsed Sun in an eerily dark landscape. It will look like a tiny black dot surrounded by a patch of white corona, in a dark sky, and an odd looking landscape. DEFINITELY NO FILTER!
10. A montage of a series of exposures showing the various stages of the eclipse on one frame. This can best be done afterwards using photo processing software, but can also be done on a single frame with multiple exposures if you have a very wide angle lens, and frame it so that the Sun moves across the diagonal of the frame during the eclipse. Best left to the experts!
FLASH OFF! IMPORTANT – you MUST switch your flash off while photographing ANY stage of a solar eclipse. Most cameras have flashes that automatically fire when the light level is low, and you MUST avoid this. All but the simplest digital cameras and cameraphones have a setting allowing you to do switch to ‘No Flash’ or ‘Flash Off’. If not, you must cover the actual flash unit at the front of the camera with opaque black tape – Put it on your checklist for things to do if you want to take any photos during the eclipse.
PROJECTED IMAGE OF SUN. This only works during the partial phases – during totality the corona is too faint to project. Use binoculars, monocular, small telescope to project the image onto a white card (about A4 size).
PINHOLE PROJECTED IMAGES: The smaller the pinhole (say 1mm) the sharper the image, but the fainter it will be. A larger pinhole (the size of a matchstick) gives a moderately sharp and moderately bright image, when projected onto a white card. Make a grid of about a dozen ‘pinholes’ in stiffish A4 card using a paper or leather punch with a punch size about 2-3 mm in diameter. A larger size hole, as from a standard paper punch, will also do. Let the Sun shine through this onto a white card about 0.4m – 0.6m away at about 75% eclipse: you’ll get a lovely pattern of little crescent Suns, which can be easily photographed – with the flash off, of course! Make this before leaving home.
TYPES OF CAMERAS (all assumed to be digital)
1, Cameraphones / smartphones etc. Usually fairly simple, automatic, fixed focal length, though often of good quality. The sensor will however be small.
2. Compact cameras with a simple fixed focal length lens
3. Compact cameras with a moderate range zoom lens: say 3x to 6x zoom
4. More advanced compact cameras with a greater zoom range: say 8x to 16x zoom.
5. Bridge cameras, which are a cross between compact cameras and Digital SLRs – they can have lenses with huge zoom ratios – up to 60x zoom - but they only have the same size sensor as a compact camera. They need a tripod at more than 10x zoom. And you will probably find it extremely difficult to even find the Sun in the camera viewfinder using a filter, or during totality without a filter, at anything above 30x zoom.
6. Compact System Cameras, with interchangeable lenses, or a small range zoom lens. These have a larger sensor (chip) than other compact cameras, but generally no more than a moderate zoom range even with other lenses.
7. Digital SLRs. These are much bigger and heavier, and are designed for interchangeable lenses, and are for serious photographers, with strong arms and good bank balances. They have much larger sensors than the other types, but usually come only with a fixed focal length, or a small zoom ratio lens as standard. Much longer zoom lenses are available, at considerable extra cost, and weight. If you have one of these cameras and lenses you’ll already know a lot about photography in general. They will need a tripod if using a moderate or longer zoom or telephoto.
The image of the Sun with a standard lens on any camera is VERY small, and will show very little. More detail for various types of cameras is available via the weblinks below. To show detail during the partial or total stages you need to magnify the image by at least 8 and preferably 10 times or more. Note that just having a zoom lens of 8x or 10x is not enough, as that is its complete range of focal lengths, from wide angle to moderate telephoto. So at the maximum of a 10x zoom you may only get 6x magnification over the ‘standard’ setting.
But a 15x zoom will probably give about 10x magnification over the standard setting.
Using a long zoom magnifies any camera shake when it is held by hand, which will cause slight blurring of the image. The better modern digital cameras have some form of automatic optical image stabilisation to reduce or eliminate this shake. If your camera does not have this built in, you will need a tripod, or some sort of clamp to hold it steady, if using a zoom lens of more than about 8x range. And even if it has image stabilisation, a tripod is a good idea if you are using 12x zoom or above.
Most modern digital cameras have at least 10 Megapixels, which is more than enough for nice souvenir eclipse photos. Most now have at least 12Mp, and 14 or 16Mp is now common, which is enough for good quality photos. It’s not worth paying more to get a higher value than that, unless you go for a camera with a larger sensor.
All compact cameras and Bridge cameras (numbers 2-5 in the list above) have a standard size sensor, which is where the image is actually captured. This limits the quality of the image, no matter how many megapixels there are. But if you have a long zoom, then you won’t need to magnify the image much, if at all, so the quality you get in the actual captured shot will probably be OK.
Compact System Cameras (6 in the list) have a larger sensor (often described as “4/3” or “four thirds”), which will give considerably better image quality, all other things being equal. However unless you buy an additional long telephoto or long zoom lens the image size of the Sun will still be very small, and you will have to enlarge it considerably before printing or saving it as a final digital image.
Digital SLRs (no 7) have sensors one step larger still, giving very high quality images, but once again you’ll need a long telephoto lens to give a decent sized image.
The ISO rating is the sensitivity of the sensor, i.e. how much light needs to fall on it to give a proper exposure. More advanced cameras (4 to 7 in the list, and some in category 3) allow you to vary this setting so you can take pictures in dimmer light. But a higher ISO setting will give slightly poorer quality images, with more grain or noise, and less sharp detail, so it’s a trade off against getting a bright enough image.
If you can’t set the ISO manually, you may have an option for ‘night-time’ or at least ‘twilight’ shots.
This is the cause of more failed eclipse photos than anything else. All but the more advanced cameras in the list above will have automatic focus. But many focus sensors have problems focussing on a small spot which is in effect at infinity. When you try to take the shot, the camera may ‘search’ back and forwards in its focus range, and may not be at infinity when the shutter actually operates. So if your camera has a manual focus setting, use it, set at infinity. If not, choose a setting such as ‘landscape’, which will probably be as near infinity as makes no difference.
Some camera also allow you to ‘hold focus’, by letting the camera focus on an object, then holding the shutter button halfway down, you point it somewhere else. If yours does this, point it at a distant hill, let it focus, hold the button halfway down then point it at the Sun and take the photo.
If all else fails, take plenty of shots and some of them may come out! But with my over-riding caveat – don’t miss out on actually seeing the eclipse.
Unless you are experienced, it’s better to let the camera expose automatically when using a longish zoom. But with small or moderate zoom the image will consist of a small bright area in the centre of a much larger dark frame, which will fool the camera into overexposing. So if you have an exposure over-ride, which is usually an adjustment of 1 or 2 stops, set it to underexpose by 1 or 2 stops. For totally manual exposures, consult some of the websites below, particularly MrEclipse.com .
Remember: during the partial phases you’ll be imaging with a very dense filter which will just show the Sun as a smallish partial disc of normal ‘daytime’ brightness; during totality the corona, which is basically all you’ll be imaging, is about as bright as the nearly full Moon
You can buy Neutral Density (ND) filters for DSLRs, but the Sun is so bright that you’ll probably need to stack several dense filters on top of each other – if you’re in this category, test before you leave home.
For other cameras, you’ll need to make your own filters. One of the best options is Baader Astrosolar aluminised plastic optical grade film, which comes in both visual and photographic grades. For this purpose, choose the latter. An internet search will reveal your nearest supplier. Allow about $20 - $25 for an A4 sheet. This is enough to make several filters, so if you know anyone else going, you can split the cost with them.
Follow the instructions which come with each A4 sheet to make your own filter. This may take half a day to do properly, and then you’ll want to test it, so do it well before you depart. Most of the cameras in classes 3, 4 and 6 have lenses that retract into the body after about 30 secs without use, so as a first step measure the outer diameter of the lens barrel as accurately as you can while it’s out and do a rough fit for that, then try it and adjust it as necessary.
Make sure that it’s a tight fit that won’t fly or blow off!
For viewing with binoculars, you’ll need the denser visual grade – details of that are given in another section.
TRIPODS & CLAMPS
If using more than a moderate zoom or telephoto you’ll need to have the camera steady on a tripod. These vary from large heavy professional models to tiny ones that fit in your pocket or a handbag. The latter will do for all but Bridge and DSLRs, but they are so low that you’ll have to set them on something at waist height or higher or else you won’t be able to see the viewfinder (unless it’s a tiltable one). There may not be anything suitable for this at the site, so you’ll be taking a chance if this is all you have. Other options are clamps which you can secure to something such as a partly open car window or a thin rail, but again there may not be anything suitable at the site.
The best and safest compromise may be a lightweight medium height tripod, but if it’s windy you may need to shield it somehow. Or bring a 1 litre water bottle and a piece of string. Tie the bottle from the top of the tripod legs so that it’s almost touching the ground – the weight will help steady the tripod.
Remember, the Sun keeps moving across the sky! For series of photos, you’ll have to keep re-pointing the camera, especially if using zoom, to keep the Sun in the frame. And with the filter on the camera, you won’t see ANYTHING in the viewfinder except the Sun itself. Unless you have a tall tripod, it may be difficult to even aim the camera with a long zoom to get the Sun in the frame – so practice pointing it at the Sun, on a tripod, with max zoom, and the solar filter on. You may be surprised at how hard it is!
Or you can buy a special battery powered astronomical equatorial ‘drive platform’ which fits on top of your tripod and will keep your camera tracking the Sun accurately for 20-30 mts at a time: certainly long enough to cover the critical period from just before to just after totality.
Once you have your camera, tripod and extra lenses if any, and your filter(s) made, practice all aspects of finding the Sun, imaging at various focal lengths, checking that focus is sharp and there’s been no vibration even when the image is enlarged fully. Do this while the Sun is about 20 degrees above the horizon which is what it will be during totality.
ALSO PRACTICE using it in very dim light, e.g. full moonlight, to simulate totality. If you find you need a torch to see the camera settings, take a small one and cover the lens with red or deep orange translucent plastic so that no bright white light is emitted – particularly not LED light! Certain sweet wrappers are fine for this!
Taking a video of the eclipse itself is not recommended for a first attempt – there’s just so much to do in keeping the camera tracking, removing and refitting filters, checking focus etc. Instead, you can point the video camera with a wide angle setting at the crowd at the site with the audio on and just record the change in the light, the excitement and activity building as totality approaches, and then the whoops and yells and cries and exclamations as people see totality for the first time!
CLOTHING, including gloves. The temperature just after sunrise will be low, and there may be a wind-chill factor too. The temperature will drop again during the eclipse, and may be near freezing close to and during totality. Exposed fingers will get very cold, as will binoculars, camera bodies, lenses and tripods. Fingerless mitts, or even better gloves with just the fingertips exposed, will allow you to manipulate camera controls. And a pocket handwarmer activated just before First Contact will help. And if you have to go inside the school for a while, any optical surfaces such as camera lens or binoculars will rapidly get covered with condensation! Leave them outside if it is safe to do so. It would be a good idea to have all your equipment properly marked with your name and telephone number.
VIEWING vs IMAGING: Remember, for viewing during the partial stages, you MUST wear your eclipse glasses. But for setting up and pointing your camera you’ll have to take them off. And as totality approaches it will be so dark that you won’t be able to see your camera’s controls. So you’ll need a torch. Then you’ll want a final look at the Sun – now where are your eclipse glasses???? This is where it all starts to get a bit hectic, and mistakes can be made. All the more reason to just concentrate on the spectacle now rapidly unfolding which is about to blow your mind.
THE PHOTOGRAPHIC ECLIPSE SEQUENCE - WHAT TO DO.
FIRST: RESPECT other people’s viewing and imaging efforts. As the Sun will be fairly low down, especially during the initial stages, you don’t want one person standing in front of another directly in line with the Sun, whether for imaging or viewing. Spread out, and then stay in your place. It is NOT nice to suddenly stand up or walk in front of someone just as they are trying to get their best shots!
* Make out a checklist: what to bring, and what to do.
* Make and bring a pinhole projection card & screen, if you want to do this.
* Fully Charge camera / phone the night before.
* Plenty of room on your memory card? – and bring a spare
* Tripod or clamp?
* Choose your spot at the site & ‘mark it’!
* NOW: Switch off or cover flash!
* Preliminary scene-setting shots?
* Prepare for first contact – this needs a good telephoto + a filter
* Progressive partial phases - needs a good telephoto + a filter, or image projection by binocs or monocular
* Later Partial phases - needs a good telephoto + a filter, or image projection by binocs or monocular, or by pinhole screen
* TIME – remember, totality will only last for 2m 25s. Or about 2m 50s from the first to last Bailie’s Beads. That time will zip by far quicker than you think.
* At the first sign of Balie’s Beads take the FILTER OFF!
* TRANSITION STAGES – From 99% eclipse through Bailie’s Beads and Diamond Ring: needs a good telephoto. No filter.
* TOTALITY – If you really have to image it!
* For the Chromosphere, Inner Corona & Prominences – a good long zoom, and automatic exposure will probably be OK.
* For the Outer Corona – this is fainter, and needs longer exposure. But if using a long telephoto / zoom, any exposure longer than about 5 secs will show some blurring because of the motion of the Sun across the sky. To avoid this you need to set your ISO to a high level – at least 1600, or hope that your camera’s auto settings will do it for you, though it may not!
My advice is, don’t waste time fiddling with camera controls in very dim light, with cold fingers, to try to alter things like ISO or exposure settings – you’ll miss most of the eclipse itself! No filter.
* TRANSITION STAGES 2 - From Diamond Ring through Bailie’s Beads to 99% eclipse: needs a good telephoto. No filter.
* FILTERS BACK ON.
* Second Partial stages: As for first partial phases, in reverse; use filter. And put on your eclipse glasses too, if you want to look at it.
Then – celebrate!
These websites might also be useful
Terry Moseley, 2015