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How to Photograph a Solar Eclipse

©2008 by Fred Espenak

http://www.mreclipse.com/SEphoto/SEphoto.html

Introduction

Photographing an eclipse of the Sun is fun and easy. However, you will need to use a special
Solar Filter to protect your eyes and your camera.

A solar eclipse occurs whenever the Moon's shadow falls on the Earth. This can only happen
during New Moon when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth. Although there is a
New Moon every 29 1/2 days, there are usually only 2 or 3 solar eclipses each year. That's
because the Moon's orbit is tipped 5 degrees to Earth's so the Moon's shadow misses Earth
during most New Moons. (see: Solar Eclipses For Beginners)

Watching and photographing an eclipse of the Sun is a relaxing activity since it progresses at
a leisurely pace. The eclipse begins as a small notch slowly appears along one edge of the
Sun. During the next hour, the Moon gradually covers more and more of the Sun's bright disk.
If the eclipse is a total one, the last remaining minutes of the partial phases can be quite
dramatic and beautiful. The crescent of the Sun grows thinner as the Moon's shadow
approaches. The abrupt darkness of totallity is stunning and quite unlike you've ever seen.
And the incredible solar corona is simply the most awe-inspiring naked-eye sight in all of
nature. Certainly the most a remarkable sight (see: The Experience of Totality).

Cameras

It wasn't very long ago that film was king while digital cameras were low resolution, high-
priced gizmos. Today, digital cameras are as common as film cameras if not more so. And 6
to 12 megapixel digital cameras offer image quality to rival or even surpass film.

Solar eclipses can be captured easily with both film and digital cameras. The simpler Point
and Shoot cameras have a non-interchangable lens with a single focal length. Better models
are equipt with a 3x or larger zoom lens. The most versatile (and expensive) cameras are the
35mm SLR (single lens reflex) and its digital counterpart the DSLR (digital single lens reflex).
These cameras allow you to replace the kit lens with any number of other lenses from wide
angle to super telephoto. You can even connect an SLR or DSLR directly to a telescope so
that the Sun fills the entire frame. No matter what kind of camera you own, one or more of
the following techniques can be used be used to shoot a solar eclipse.
(click to see larger version)

Lenses and Image Sizes

A solar eclipse may be safely photographed provided that certain precautions are followed.
Almost any kind of camera can be used to capture this rare event; however, a lens with a
fairly long focal length is recommended to produce as large an image of the Sun as
possible. A standard 50mm lens on a 35mm film camera yields a minuscule 0.5mm image,
while a 200mm telephoto or zoom produces a 1.9mm image (see: Field of View & Image Size
Table). A better choice would be one of the small, compact catadioptic or mirror lenses that
have become widely available in the past 20 years. The focal length of 500mm is most
common among such mirror lenses and yields a solar image of 4.6mm.

With one solar radius of corona on either side, an eclipse view during totality will cover
9.2mm. Adding a 2x teleconverter will produce a 1000mm focal length, which doubles the
Sun’s size to 9.2mm. Focal lengths in excess of 1000mm usually fall within the realm of
amateur telescopes.

Most recommendations for 35mm SLRs apply to digital DSLRs as well. The primary difference
is that the imaging chip in most DSLRs is only about 2/3 the area of a 35mm film frame. This
means that the relative size of the Sun’s image appears 1.5 times larger in a DSLR so a shorter
focal length lens can be used to achieve the same angular coverage compared to a SLR.
For example, a 500mm lens on a DSLR produces the same relative image size as a 750mm
lens on a SLR ( Solar Eclipse Image Scale). Another issue to consider is the lag time between
digital frames required to write images to a DSLR's memory card. It is also advisable to turn
off autofocus because it is not reliable under these conditions; focus the camera manually
instead. Preparations must be made for adequate battery power and space on the memory
card.
If full disk photography of partial phases of the eclipse is planned, the focal length of the
optics must not exceed 2500mm on 35mm format (1700mm on digital). Longer focal lengths
permit photography of only a magnified portion of the Sun’s disk. In order to photograph the
Sun’s corona during totality, the focal length should be no longer than about 1500mm
(1000mm on digital); however, a focal length of 1000mm (700mm digital) requires less critical
framing and can capture some of the longer coronal streamers. Figure 19 shows the
apparent size of the Sun (or Moon) and the outer corona in both 35mm film and digital
formats for a range of lens focal lengths. For any particular focal length, the diameter of the
Sun’s image (on 35mm film) is approximately equal to the focal length divided by 109 ( Field
of View & Image Size Table).

(click to see larger version)

A solar filter must be used on the lens throughout the partial phases for both photography
and safe viewing. Such filters are most easily obtained through manufacturers and dealers
listed in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines. These filters typically attenuate the
Sun’s visible and infrared energy by a factor of 100,000. The actual filter factor and choice of
ISO speed, however, will play critical roles in determining the correct photographic
exposure. Almost any ISO can be used because the Sun gives off abundant light. The easiest
method for determining the correct exposure is accomplished by running a calibration test
on the uneclipsed Sun. Shoot a roll of film of the mid-day Sun at a fixed aperture (f/8 to f/16)
using every shutter speed from 1/1000s to 1/4s. After the film is developed, note the best
exposures and use them to photograph all the partial phases. With a digital camera, the
process is even easier. Just shoot a range of different exposures and use the camera's
histogram display to evaluate the best exposure. The Sun’s surface brightness remains
constant throughout the eclipse, so no exposure compensation is needed except for the
narrow crescent phases, which require two more stops due to solar limb darkening.
Bracketing by several stops is also necessary if haze or clouds interfere on eclipse day.

Certainly the most spectacular and awe-inspiring phase of the eclipse is totality. For a few
brief minutes or seconds, the Sun’s pearly white corona, red prominences, and
chromosphere are visible ( The Experience of Totality). The great challenge is to obtain a set
of photographs that captures these fleeting phenomena. The most important point to
remember is that during the total phase, all solar filters must be removed. The corona has a
surface brightness a million times fainter than the photosphere, so photographs of the corona
are made without a filter. Furthermore, it is completely safe to view the totally eclipsed Sun
directly with the naked eye. No filters are needed, and in fact, they would only hinder the
view. The average brightness of the corona varies inversely with the distance from the Sun’s
limb. The inner corona is far brighter than the outer corona; thus, no single exposure can
capture its full dynamic range. The best strategy is to choose one aperture or f/number and
bracket the exposures over a range of shutter speeds (i.e., 1/1000s to 1s). Rehearsing this
sequence is highly recommended because great excitement accompanies totality and
there is little time to think.
(click to see larger version of table)
Exposure times for various combinations of ISO speeds, apertures (f/number) and solar
features (chromosphere, prominences, inner, middle, and outer corona) are summarized in
the Solar Eclipse Exposure Guide above. This guide was developed from eclipse
photographs made by the author, as well as from photographs published in Sky and
Telescope. To use the guide, first select the ISO speed in the upper left column. Next, move to
the right to the desired aperture or f/number for the chosen ISO. The shutter speeds in that
column may be used as starting points for photographing various features and phenomena
tabulated in the ‘Subject’ column at the far left. For example, to photograph prominences
using ISO 400 at f/16, the table recommends an exposure of 1/1000. Alternatively, the
recommended shutter speed can be calculated using the ‘Q’ factors tabulated along with
the exposure formula at the bottom of the table. Keep in mind that these exposures are
based on a clear sky and a corona of average brightness. The exposures should be
bracketed one or more stops to take into account the actual sky conditions and the variable
nature of these phenomena.

2001 Eclipse Over Zambia


This wide angle eclipse photo used a 28mm lens and tripod.
during the total solar eclipse of 2001 Jun 21.
(click to see more photos)

Point and Shoot Cameras

Point-and-shoot cameras with wide angle lenses are excellent for capturing the quickly
changing light in the seconds before and during totality. Use a tripod or brace the camera
on a wall or fence since slow shutter speeds will be needed. You should also disable or turn
off your camera's electronic flash so that it does not interfere with anyone else's view of the
eclipse.
Another eclipse effect that is easily captured with point-and-shoot cameras should not be
overlooked. Use a straw hat or a kitchen sieve and allow its shadow to fall on a piece of
white cardboard placed several feet away. The small holes act like pinhole cameras and
each one projects its own image of the eclipsed Sun. The effect can also be duplicated by
forming a small aperture with the fingers of one’s hands and watching the ground below. The
pinhole camera effect becomes more prominent with increasing eclipse magnitude.
Virtually any camera can be used to photograph the phenomenon, but automatic cameras
must have their flashes turned off because this would otherwise obliterate the pinhole
images.

2006 Total Solar Eclipse


A composite image reveals subtle structure in the outer corona.
(click to see more photos)

More on Solar Eclipse Photography

For more on solar eclipse photography, see Chapter 12, Totality - Eclipses of the Sun.

Chapter 12, Solar Eclipse Photography


Totality - Eclipses of the Sun (2nd Edition)

o Introduction
o The Right Film
o The Right Solar Filters
o The Right Cameras and Lenses
o Image Size Vs. Focal Length
o Super Telephotos and Telescopes
o Telescope Clock Drives and Polar Alignment
o Camera Tripods
o Cable Releases and Right Angle Finders
o Photographing the Partial Eclipse
o Photographing the Total Eclipse
o Solar Eclipse Exposure Table
o The Global Positioning System and Time Signals
o Tape Recorders
o Photographing Pinhole Crescents
o Field of View and Size of the Sun for Various Focal Lengths
o Landscape Eclipse Photography
o Multiple Exposure Sequences
o Eclipse Photography from Sea
o Video Photography of Eclipses
o Some Final Words
o Checklist for Solar Eclipse Photography

Future Solar Eclipses

To plan your eclipse photography, you'll need to know when upcoming solar eclipses will
occur and the contact times of the partial and total phases. This information is available at
Solar Eclipse Preview: 2011-2030.

The last total solar eclipse visible from the continental U.S.A. occured on Feb. 26, 1979. A total
solar eclipse was visible from Hawaii and Mexico on July 11, 1991. The next two total solar
eclipses visible from the U.S.A. occur on Aug. 21, 2017 and Apr. 8, 2024.

1999 Total Solar Eclipse Sequence


This sequence encompasses the entire eclipse from start to finish.
(click to see more photos)

Eclipse References
 Astrophotography Basics, Kodak Customer Service Pamphlet P150, Eastman Kodak,
Rochester, 1988.
 Harrington, P., Eclipse! The What, Where, When, Why, and How Guide to Watching Solar
& Lunar Eclipses, John Wiley & Sons, 1997.
 Pasachoff, J. M., and Covington, M., Cambridge Guide to Eclipse Photography,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 1993.
 Reynolds, M. D. and Sweetsir, R. A., Observe Eclipses, Astronomical League,
Washington, DC, 1995.
 Sherrod, P. C., A Complete Manual of Amateur Astronomy, Prentice-Hall, 1981.

Solar Eclipse Predictions


 Solar Eclipse Preview: 2011-2030
 Eclipses During 2014 Observer's Handbook 2014
 Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses: 2000 BCE to AD 3000 CE
 Solar Eclipses of Historical Interest

Solar Eclipse Photographs


 Solar Eclipses: Photograph Index
 Solar Eclipse Galleries: 1970 - 1984 | 1990 - 1994 | 1995 - 1999
 1991 Total Solar Eclipse: Gallery A | Gallery B
 1998 Total Solar Eclipse: Gallery A | Gallery B
 1999 Total Solar Eclipse: Gallery A | Gallery B | Gallery C | Gallery D
 2001 Total Solar Eclipse: Gallery A | Gallery B
 2005 Total Solar Eclipse: Gallery A | Gallery B
 2005 Annular Solar Eclipse: Gallery A | Gallery B
 2006 Total Solar Eclipse: Gallery A | Gallery B | Gallery C | Gallery D | Gallery E
 2012 Annular Solar Eclipse: Gallery A

Solar Eclipses and Eye Safety


 Observing Solar Eclipses Safely - Totality
 Solar Eclipses and Eye Safety - Ralph Chou
 Solar Eclipses and Eye Safety - Fred Espenak
 Sources for Solar Filters - Totality

Other Links
 Solar Eclipses For Beginners
 Lunar Eclipses For Beginners
 How to Photograph a Lunar Eclipse
 Index to Eclipse and Astronomy Photographs
 MrEcipse's Picks - recommendations on cameras, tripods, telescopes, and more