When shooting still images or video of a solar eclipse, one rule is paramount: special-purpose solar filters must always remain on cameras and telescopes during the partial phases. Only during totality is it safe to remove them (see our Eye Safety section). Filters should fit snugly over the front of all camera lenses and telescopes, but not so tight that they’re difficult to remove quickly at the start of totality.
Here are four things to keep in mind while reading this article:
- The suggestions offered here are intended mainly for digital camera users; some comments won’t apply if you’re shooting with film or recording on tape.
- Comments about shooting totality apply only if you’re within the path of the Moon’s umbra, or dark inner shadow. On August 21, 2017, this path is only about 70 miles wide but stretches from the Oregon coast to the South Carolina coast. Outside the path, you’ll have only a partial eclipse.
- This article doesn’t specifically address taking eclipse photos through a telescope, though some of the tips concerning telephoto lenses apply equally to telescopes; see the links at the end if you plan to shoot through a telescope, which is really not something you should try unless you have prior experience.
- You should practice before August 21, 2017, by shooting the uneclipsed Sun (filters on, of course) in the days or weeks leading up to the eclipse.
If you simply want to shoot scenics and don’t care about eclipse close-ups, then a point-and-shoot camera will work for you. If it has a decent zoom lens, some manual control, and image stabilization, you can take snapshots that record the progress of the partial phases, landscape scenes showing the dropping light level during the final minutes before totality, the 360° horizon glow visible during totality, and even totality itself.
Before pointing your camera at the Sun at any time other than during totality, remember to put a special-purpose solar filter over the camera lens (and over the viewfinder if the camera lacks through-the-lens viewing).
For close-up images of the eclipsed Sun, you’ll need a digital single-lens-reflex (DSLR) or mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera (ILC) with a telephoto lens, or a point-and-shoot camera with a high-power zoom lens.
A normal (50-mm) or wide-angle (35-mm to 17-mm fisheye) lens will take in the overall scene but will not capture coronal detail during totality, because the eclipsed Sun’s image size will be tiny. To show a moderately large eclipsed Sun and outer corona, you need a lens with a focal length of at least 300 mm. (All focal lengths in this article are 35-mm equivalents; if you’re not sure how to convert your lens’s focal length to its 35-mm equivalent, check your owner’s manual or the manufacturer’s website.) For close-ups of Baily’s Beads, the diamond ring, the chromosphere, prominences, and the inner corona, a 1,000-mm telephoto (or longer) is recommended. That’s the realm of telescopes; again, we don’t cover that kind of imaging here, as it’s recommended only for those with experience.
Software developer Xavier Jubier has posted his Shutter Speed Calculator for Solar Eclipses online. Among other features, it illustrates the image size of the Sun for various combinations of camera model, sensor size, and focal length.
While you’re practicing shooting the Sun to see how much of your camera’s frame it will fill, also test exposures for the partial phases. Place your camera in manual mode, set the aperture, shoot a range of different exposures (using a solar filter, of course), and see which one produces the most pleasing results.
You can then use that setting throughout most of the partial phases of the eclipse.
During the thin-crescent phases shortly before and after totality, you might want to increase the exposure by as much as one f-stop, since the solar limb (edge) is a little fainter than the center of the disk. If haze or clouds interfere on eclipse day, you may need to bracket by several f-stops (or switch to auto mode) to get a decent exposure.
Photographing totality is a different matter altogether and is something you can’t practice beforehand (though you can shoot the full Moon as a brightness test, because it’s about as bright as the Sun’s inner corona). For specific suggestions on this topic, see “Shooting Totality” below.
While you’re testing exposures, also experiment with your camera’s ISO setting. DSLR’s often show no noise until the ISO is set above 400; point-and-shoot digitals aren’t as good. Before the eclipse, make sure you preset your ISO rating; don’t let your camera (via its “auto ISO” function) do it for you.
Here are some tried-and-true combinations of ISO and f-stop that eclipse photographers have been using for many years: ISO 100, f/4; ISO 200, f/5.6; or ISO 400, f/8. With these settings, a crystal-clear sky, and a special-purpose solar filter over your camera lens, you'll probably find an exposure time between 1,4000 and 1/1,000 second appropriate for use during the partial phases of the solar eclipse. For a very thin crescent, and/or if you're under haze or thin clouds, you'll need to increase the exposure time by a factor of two or more.
For any combination of f-stop, ISO rating, altitude of the Sun in the sky, and elevation of the observer above sea level, Xavier Jubier's Shutter Speed Calculator for Solar Eclipses suggests an exposure time for each phase of the eclipse. Don't rely exclusively on a tool like this — use it as a starting point. As noted above, test your setup on the uneclipsed Sun well in advance, and on eclipse day, bracket your exposures.
Focus Is Critical
Don’t leave the job of focusing to your camera’s autofocus system. Manual focus is the way to go, and most telephoto lenses provide this option. As soon as you’re set up at your eclipse-viewing location, attach the solar filter to the camera’s lens, aim at the Sun, and focus. Take a couple of test shots to ensure that the solar limb looks sharp.
Once the lens is focused, secure it by sticking a strip of masking tape to the lens’s focus ring. If you’re using a zoom lens, lock it to your preferred focal length with tape as well, since it can “self adjust” without warning — particularly if the camera and lens are pointed high in the sky. At the same time, make sure your solar filter can be easily removed when totality strikes, without affecting the focus or the zoom.
Keep It Steady
Even though you’ll likely be shooting the partial phases at reasonably fast shutter speeds, there’s nothing like a solid tripod to keep your optical system steady and ready for totality (when exposure times will be longer). The tripod is particularly important if you’re using a camera with a long-focal-length lens, which may be heavy and unwieldy.
Many cameras or the lenses that attach to them possess image-stabilization (IS) systems. They’re useful for normal or wide-angle photography, but image stabilization can help only so much when shooting the eclipsed Sun with a telephoto lens. The combination of IS and a tripod will ensure that your images are as sharp as possible. Two things image stabilization will do is let you use a lighter-weight tripod than you might otherwise and help reduce vibrations caused by a breeze.
Obviously this section applies only if you're in the path of totality. To find out whether your home or any other specific location lies within this path, see Xavier Jubier's Google Map, which supports zooming in to street level. If you don't already live within the path of totality, we strongly recommend that you travel there if you can. As described elsewhere on this site, the difference between a total solar eclipse and a partial one is quite literally the difference between night and day!
While the total phase of a solar eclipse always seems to pass quickly, there are sights and events within totality whose passage is even more fleeting. The diamond ring fades (or brightens) within seconds, and the red chromosphere and prominences usually aren’t visible for much longer. The challenge of imaging totality is capturing these sights during their brief appearance. Fortunately, the corona is visible throughout totality, and just about any exposure will record some part of the Sun’s pearly outer atmosphere.
But you won’t get any pictures of the total phase if you don’t remove the solar filter from your camera at the beginning of totality! If you forget, all you’ll record is blackness.
Rapid changes occur during second and third contacts, the beginning and end of totality, respectively. At these times, you don’t want to be fumbling with your camera’s settings. Instead, decide in advance on the f-stop/shutter-speed combination you want for both contacts and set your camera accordingly before the onset of each diamond ring.
The Sun’s atmosphere varies tremendously in brightness. The inner corona shines as bright as the full Moon; the outer corona is less than 100th as bright (in other words, it’s quite dim). One exposure cannot capture this wide dynamic range. That’s why eclipse photographers shoot a sequence of exposures (using a fixed f-stop) that range from very short ones to very long ones. This gives you the best chance of capturing all aspects of the solar atmosphere.
At the short end (1/1,000 second or less), only the innermost corona clinging to the solar limb appears. At the long end (1/10 second or longer if you can hold sufficiently steady), the inner corona is burned out, but the faint tendrils of the outer corona show up nicely. There is no single correct exposure for totality, so your best bet, at any f-stop, is to shoot a sequence spanning the full range from the short exposure you used for the partial phases to the longest exposure you can manage without blurring (perhaps a few tenths of a second).
If you do manage to capture a series of totality exposures, you can turn them into a thing of beauty using a computer. There’s image-processing software that allows you to rotate/align individual frames to match and create seamlessly blended stacks of short, medium, and long exposures to achieve amazing results. The lovely image at the beginning of this article is a composite of 13 telephoto shots with exposures ranging from 1/1,600 to 1/13 second at ISO 640 and f/10.
One thing you do not want to do is spend all of totality looking at the Sun through your camera’s viewfinder and/ or wasting time adjusting your camera’s settings. So here’s a sequence you might consider:
- A minute or so before second contact, adjust your f-stop and shutter speed to be ready for second contact.
- When everyone starts screaming “diamond ring!” take the solar filter off your camera and start shooting. Keep firing until the brilliant diamond is gone, the corona emerges, and you’re enveloped in the darkness of the Moon’s shadow.
- Next, have a quick look around — at the corona, the sky, the horizon, and your fellow eclipse observers.
- Now concentrate on shooting the corona. Run through your exposure sequence from short to long at a fixed f-stop.
- Reset your camera so you’re ready to shoot at third contact.
- Now…look up and enjoy the show! The vast range of coronal brightness, the beautiful detail within the corona, and the delicate shading of the sky down to the colors on the horizon are something only your eye can take in. No matter how good your photographs, they won’t do justice to the real thing. So make sure you take the time to see totality with your own eyes.
- You’ll have a little warning before the arrival of third contact. The edge of the corona opposite where the Sun vanished starts to brighten, red prominences may rise, and an arc of red light (the chromosphere) appears from behind the dark lunar limb. Third contact is imminent — so start shooting. As soon as the diamond ring becomes bright and the corona begins to fade, reattach the solar filter to your camera. Totality is over.
If you’ve never experienced totality before, don’t attempt a complex photographic sequence. If you feel you must try to capture the event, execute steps 1 and 2, then skip straight to step 6. If you remember, start shooting again (step 7) when you see third contact approaching.
Odds and Ends
- Make sure your camera’s flash is turned off. Flashes are an annoyance and, if nothing else, spoil the mood of the spectacle. If you use a point-and-shoot camera, and you’re not sure you can turn the flash off, put a piece of black tape over the flash for extra security.
- Most cameras have optical and digital zooms. Turn off the digital zoom; it’s basically useless.
- Shoot at the highest image-quality setting your camera supports.
- Use a remote control or cable release to avoid “camera shake.” This is probably an optional extra that didn’t come with your camera, so pick up one (and test it) before eclipse day.
- Bring extra batteries, and insert fresh ones before first contact (that is, before the beginning of the partial eclipse). If you’re using rechargeable batteries, charge them fully before the eclipse begins, and have a spare set, also fully charged, that you can insert shortly before totality.
- Bring an extra memory card, insert it prior to the start of the eclipse, and then remove it (and lock it, if possible) after the eclipse has ended.
- If you’re in the path of totality, bring a flashlight. It can get dark enough during totality that you won’t be able to see your camera settings without one!
Today’s digital camcorders offer excellent picture quality and reasonable sound, and most are quite compact and convenient to carry. There is much whooping and hollering when totality strikes, and it’s always entertaining to watch and listen to the playback after the event. Indeed, many eclipse veterans will tell you that the best part of any total-solar-eclipse video is the audio!
The same rules that apply to still photography apply to camcorder imagery, especially the one about taking care to attach a proper solar filter to your camcorder’s lens if you’re shooting the partial phases. Most camcorders have an optical zoom, so experiment before the eclipse to determine the optimum image size of the solar disk (ignore the digital-zoom option).
During the partial phases, shoot three- to five-second clips of the Sun every four to five minutes to produce a time-lapse sequence that will compress the multi-hour event into minutes. You’ll want to let the camcorder run during all of totality — but don’t forget to take the solar filter off at second contact and to replace it at third.
Another option is to set your camcorder to record a wide-field view of your observing site. If you start recording 10 minutes before the onset of totality, you’ll capture the changing light levels, the approaching or receding lunar shadow (depending on whether the camcorder is aimed west or east, respectively), the horizon glow at totality, and the reactions of people around you. Combined with the audio track, it’ll likely be one of the most engrossing pieces of video you’ll ever shoot.
During the past few years, pocket camcorders have become ubiquitous. They’re found in everything from compact versions of regular camcorders to video-capable cell phones. While they’re great for sharing videos over the Web or posting on blogs, the image quality and available features leave much to be desired when it comes to eclipse videography.
Another option is to use your DSLR or other high-end camera to record high-quality video and audio. If you want to go this route, make sure you decide, in advance, whether you want to shoot stills or video, and then follow the appropriate tips given elsewhere. Do not change your mind at the last minute! Reconfiguring your camera with totality bearing down on you makes it likely you’ll end up with no images or video at all.
Technology to the Rescue!
What if you don’t have big-time camera gear, or you just want to enjoy the eclipse but still want a photographic memento of the event? Forget everything you just read! Well, not everything (especially not the details about using solar filters), but a lot of it! Here’s why.
Late-model cameras and lenses allow you to do things that weren’t possible before and that render some of the tried-and-true traditional advice moot. For example, thanks to image stabilization, you can handhold a camera with a modest telephoto lens and achieve sharp images with exposures as slow as 1/15 second. And thanks to reasonably noise-free high-ISO performance, you can use ISO settings of 1,600, 3,200, or even higher. This means those 1/15-second exposures can capture the middle to outer corona.
Thanks to sophisticated autofocus capabilities, you can even get away with no manual focus capability. Instead it’s possible to autofocus on the eclipsed Sun using the arc where the Moon’s silhouette is ringed by the bright corona. However, first you have to tell your camera to autofocus using only the center spot, not the whole array of spots.
And then there's your smartphone. The cameras on the latest models can produce better results than dedicated point-and-shoot cameras did just a few years ago. You can buy auxiliary lenses that strap on to your phone to enable high-magnification telephoto or superwide-angle shots, adapters that let you connect your smartphone camera to a telescope eyepiece, and apps that give you control over shutter speed, aperture (f-stop), and sensitivity (ISO rating). And, of course, modern smartphones can capture not only still images, but also video and audio.
Remember to place a solar filter over your phone’s camera lens if you plan to snap pictures of the partially eclipsed Sun, or over the front of your telescope if you plan to shoot the partial phases with your phone attached to the eyepiece.
The main challenge with using smartphone cameras for astronomical photography is that they tend to overexpose bright objects (e.g., the Moon or the inner solar corona) and have trouble focusing on dim objects (e.g., almost everything else in the sky). Zooming in to make the subject bigger often helps. If your smartphone camera has an HDR (high dynamic range) feature, turn it on and hold your phone very steady — use a tripod if possible. In HDR mode your phone’s camera will automatically take several images in rapid succession with different exposures; with any luck, one of them will be pretty good, or you can combine several to get a composite that’s reasonably well exposed across the entire frame.
Patricia Reiff, science lead at the Rice Space Institute and a veteran eclipse chaser, offers the following recommendation for would-be smartphone eclipse photographers: Choose video mode — not still-image mode — and prop your camera (or use a tripod) so that it faces northwest toward your observing group. Record video (and audio!) from a minute or two before totality begins to a minute or two after it ends. If you’re lucky you’ll capture one of the most dramatic effects of a total solar eclipse: the Moon’s dark shadow racing toward you and washing over you at more than 1,000 miles per hour. Once that happens, look up, and WHAM! there’s the totally eclipsed Sun! Recording the visual and voice reactions of your friends and family throughout totality is priceless. Other eclipse-watchers will take better pictures of the eclipse, but they won’t capture your reaction!
A little preparation goes a long way. Always perform at least one dry run with all your gear before eclipse day. This is critical because, depending on your location, you might not be able to pick up forgotten equipment or replace gear that you discover doesn’t work once you start shooting.
However you decide to photograph the upcoming total solar eclipse, remember to actually look at the eclipse! Don’t spend all your time gazing at totality through your camera’s viewfinder. No image, still or video, can compare with the experience of the real thing.
More Articles About Solar-Eclipse Imaging & Video
- "Smartphone Photography of the Eclipse" (Sten Odenwald, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)
- "How to Photograph a Solar Eclipse" (Fred Espenak, MrEclipse.com; includes table of ISO settings, f-stops, and exposures)
- "Photographing the Eclipse! Do You Really Want to Do It?" (Dan McGlaun, Eclipse2017.org)
- "Photographing Solar Eclipses" (Bill Kramer, Eclipse-Chasers.com)
- "Imaging a Solar Eclipse" (Edwin Aguirre, Sky & Telescope)
- "Tips for Imaging a Solar Eclipse" (Roger W. Sinnott & Alan M. MacRobert, Sky & Telescope)
Here's an entire book on the subject by a renowned astrophotographer:
- How to Photograph the Solar Eclipse: A Guide to Capturing the 2017 Total Eclipse of the Sun (Alan Dyer, Amazing Sky)
Here's a handy online tool to help you choose your camera settings:
- Shutter Speed Calculator for Solar Eclipses (Xavier Jubier)
Here are some of the most remarkable images ever captured of total solar eclipses:
- Eclipse Photography Home Page (Miloslav Druckmüller)
Our Apps & Software page includes links to programs that can automate your eclipse imaging:
And, in case you missed the links above, here are two sources of solar eclipse videos:
Some of this information is adapted from material provided to its travelers by solar-eclipse-tour operator TravelQuest International.