Photographing Solar Eclipses
Author: Bill Kramer
Last update: 3 JUL 2014 BK
Top Ten Rules for Solar Eclipse Photography
1: A total solar eclipse is something that only the eye can behold.
This is why most first time eclipse chasers are instructed to forget about taking pictures and just sit back and relax. I know my response to that during my first eclipse was - "yeah right". Perhaps it was because I was a teenager, or because I was then, and am today, an avid astro-photographer. Either way, the result was that I plunged into taking eclipse pictures with little to no information on how to even get started. The purpose of this writing is to introduce the eclipse chaser (both novice and experienced) in what I know about taking solar eclipse photographs. You may already know more about this subject than I do, or spot a mistake in my writings; in which case I'd welcome your input for making this information more complete.
2: You can get great pictures with any camera.
There are lots of things to photograph during a total solar eclipse that will help you remember and cherish the event in the future. You do not need an expensive camera nor do you need a telescope or long telephoto lens to capture some fantastic views of the eclipse that will bring chills down your spine and provide a stimulus for never ending stories to share with others.
3: Do not use a flash attachment.
Flashes are intended to light up the forground of a picture. When taking an image of a total solar eclipse the nearest forground object is the moon. The distance to the moon is about 380,000 kilometers and light travels at 300,000 kilometers per second requiring just over two seconds for the round trip. You will have to flash, then wait two seconds to expose the film. Thus the timing simply won't work for your camera if your intent is to light up the darker side of the moon during totality. Plus the number of lumens (brightness) required would blind most people nearby and most likely cause a problem (for you, once they recover and find you). Consequently, flash bulbs and other flash attachments are highly discouraged during totality. They will not be needed during the other phases of the eclipse because the sun will still be bright.
4: Remove your filter during totality.
During totality you must remove the solar filter in order to get something on your film. From the time you can first look at the total phase (2nd contact) until the final diamond ring (3rd contact) you do not need the solar filter. Now this may sound trite for veteran astrophotographers, but it goes hand in had with a simple notion. Try not to panic! The solar eclipse is awesome to behold and as a result one will sometimes go into a frenzy. This is not good - especially if you are attempting to operate more than one device during the eclipse. So something to memorize as a basic rule is to remember to remove your filter. Hey, maybe even look through the eyepiece and refocus too! If this happens to you, don't worry, you got eclipse fever!
5: Planning and Timing are important.
A common problem encountered by eclipse photographers is to either forget to look or miss a great photo opportunity. Due to the relatively short time in which you have to photograph the eclipse it is not uncommon to loose track. This time dilation and shrinkage is a natural human response to the spectacle. Before the eclipse everything seems to move in slow motion as you await totality. I have heard of photographers use up complete rolls of film between 1st contact and 2nd contact and then not have any loaded for totality itself! You should try to plan ahead and then have some way to keep track of your timing. One of the best ways to accomplish the timing aspects is to pre-record your timing using a tape player. And like flash cameras, don't disturb others. Play the audible so that only you hear it or use an ear piece.
6: Don't forget to look!
Develop a plan ahead of time and discuss it with other eclipse photographers. Most may tell you that you need to budget some time to just look at the eclipse. It is amazing to see. I know of several eclipse chasers who have missed seeing the eclipse because they were too busy taking pictures. Instead you should try to focus you attention to view the eclipse - look for streamers, polar brushes, helmut structures, prominences, and so forth.
7: Good eclipse photographs require practice.
Using a telescope or telephoto lens requires some practice. While the total eclipse is taking place is not the time to learn about the features of your equipment. Practice by taking pictures of the moon. Lunar photography is both rewarding and challenging. Plus the practice will allow you to check out your gear before learning about a missing component while half a world away from home.
8. Charge your batteries the night before.
Finding out that the power will run out is a problem with digital cameras and video systems. Make sure you top off your batteries the night before and have a spare available as a back up if possible. Once first contact takes place you have about an hour before totality. It is easy to exhaust the first battery going into totality as time will seem magically slowed due to the high anticipation anxiety.
9. If something breaks don't waste time fixing it.
The timing of a total solar eclipse is so tight that if you experience a malfunction just sit back and enjoy the show. Then plan to go to another eclipse and try again. You don't want to waste the few minutes/seconds of totality trying to repair a piece of equipment, no matter how simple the repair may seem. Simple tasks will seem complicated in most cases.
10. Manual settings are superior to automatic.
With the exception of a wide angle view of the landscape, sky, and total eclipse; automatic focus and exposures might not produce good results for a total solar eclipse. The amount of light is not enough for some automatic cameras. As you zoom in the focus will go in and out. The best results are often obtained with manual settings. Even when using a computer to control the camera you will want to focus manually.