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How to Photograph a Solar Eclipse

It’s time to gear up for the solar eclipse. The path of totality will cross the entire North American continent on August 21, 2017.

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2015 Solar Eclipse: Svalbard, Norway

How do you prepare to photograph an event that lasts only a few minutes?

We asked two veteran photographers to share their top tips for documenting the biggest astronomical event America has seen in years.

Stan Honda has been a professional photographer for 36 years and has photographed events all over the world, including eclipses.

Photographer Babak Tafreshi fell in love with astronomy and the night sky when he was 13. His first eclipse lasted only 14-seconds in 1995 along the border of Iran and Afghanistan. “I had a long list of tasks for totality, but when it arrived I was just a caveman shivering at the power of nature. I only clicked the shutter once.” Babak photographs celestial and astronomical events around the world.

Related: Solar Eclipse 101

RESEARCH LOCATIONS

Stan Honda: I use the NASA Eclipse page to see where the eclipse is visible and the local times. For solar eclipses, they superimpose the path on a Google map, so you can see pretty accurately where the best viewing places will be.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is good for determining the compass setting and altitude of the sun/moon.

Stellarium is a free planetarium program that helps to figure out how wide a focal length you need for the wide angle time-lapse images. Stellarium allows you to see an altitude/azimuth grid on the sky to see where things are. Both programs are helpful in figuring out how high the sun/moon will be from the horizon and ultimately what terrestrial features you can photograph with the eclipse.

Weather is a big consideration, so I’ll check the National Weather Service daily and use their data for forecasts a few days out. I will use the Clear Sky Chart with the weather forecast to make a more accurate assessment the day before the eclipse.

Using that information, you still have to scout out the location to see how things will move in relation to the environment.

Babak Tafreshi: I will look for places near the beginning or the end of the path where totality happens after sunrise or before sunset. I might aim for telescopic images, then somewhere less windy with reliable weather is ideal. Wide-field imaging allow you to rush out of bad weather even an hour before eclipse (traffic dependent), but with the telescope set-up this is not doable.

GEAR UP

Babak Tafreshi: I bring both a wide field and fast telephoto lens. For decent closeup images, I use a minimum 400mm telephoto (o 200mm + 2X extender) or a small telescope. I like ambient light and prefer not to use flash.

And a proper solar filter for partial phases, either a glass Thousand Oaks filter or Baader Planetarium Solar Film. Prior to the eclipse, I make sure the filters do not create strong flares.

GET CREATIVE

Stan Honda: Showing a landscape or skyline puts the eclipse into a more human perspective—you see the eclipse in relation to familiar things.

There will be lots of photos of just the sun during totality and the corona taken through telephoto lenses or telescopes. I think the more interesting pictures will be of the eclipsed sun and the surrounding environment, wherever you happen to be. It is bright enough so you can use a wide angle lens to shoot move around or show other objects in your field of view with the sun in the background during totality.

SPEAKING OF CREATIVE ... HOW DO YOU MAKE A TIME-LAPSE?

Stan Honda: I shot a time-lapse series of the sun and moon moving across the sky with the wide-angle lens and a custom-made filter holder. Then, with the telephoto lens, I concentrated on getting just the sun in the frame.

Both lenses had Thousand Oaks Optical solar filters made of black polymer taped to the front of the lens for the beginning partial phase of the eclipse. Seconds before totality, I pulled off the filters from both lenses and shot the total phase without filters. As the moon moved off the face of the sun, I put the filters back on and shot the ending partial phase.

I set remote shutter release intervalometers to trigger the shutter every minute during the eclipse for both cameras. It was 2 degrees Fahrenheit as the eclipse started, so many heavy layers of clothing for me and several batteries for each camera were required.

Solar Eclipse 101 A total solar eclipse happens somewhere on Earth once every year or two. What is an eclipse? Learn more about how solar eclipses happen, the four types of eclipses, and how to view the sun safely if you're within the path of totality.

Eclipse map adapted with permission: https://www.exploratorium.edu/eclipse

DON'T HAVE A LOT OF GEAR? USE YOUR SMARTPHONE

Babak Tafreshi: Focus is the main challenge during totality since the light wouldn't be enough for autofocusing. Try to find apps that control the camera focus and set it manually at infinity. Some smartphone cameras make a few seconds of exposure for night imaging but they need to be installed on tripod or a platform. Instead of spending the entire two minutes playing with your smartphone, enjoy the eclipse!

Stan Honda: If you can adjust the camera to under-expose the picture by -1 or -1.5 exposure values, that might help the exposure. Set the ISO manually to a low number like 200 or 400. The entire sky will be dark, except for the solar corona. The cameraphone might think it is night and try to adjust the exposure and the sun and corona could be washed out. If the adjustment is made, a better picture might come out. This is just a guess. It’s hard to actually figure out how much compensation is needed, since we don’t have a practice eclipse to help.

LEARN FROM OUR MISTAKES

Babak Tafreshi: I forgot to remove the solar filter covering my lens in time to capture the totality. The filter is required for the partial phases but a few seconds before totality it should be removed in order to capture the Diamond Ring effect, the solar corona and prominences, or to reveal the landscape and sky colors if it’s a wide-field image.

Stan Honda: The very first lunar eclipse I photographed, I tried to fit several moons in one frame of film and misaligned some of them because I moved the tripod slightly. I won’t do that again, especially since digital photography makes assembling composite images easier.


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