Photographing a Total Solar Eclipse
By Bill Kramer 

The following information is based on my own experiences. Equipment and film will vary and exposure times are only recommendations. If you have any input you'd like to share, it is welcomed.
Corrections and embellishments will be added whenever possible.
Quick jumps within this document:
Basic Camera, Zoom Lens, Small Telescope, Field Telescope,
Practicing, Filters, Interesting Links, Table 1, Table 2, FAQ
 
 

From other web sites:
Building a low cost solar finder for your telescope
Information about photographing lunar eclipses (at MrEclipse.Com)
Solar Eclipse photography by MrEclipse.Com


Rule 1: A total solar eclipse is something that only the eye can behold, and photographing one as seen is simply impossible.

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.

Rule 2: You do not need an expensive camera and telescope to take great eclipse pictures.

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.

Rule 3: Do not use a flash attachment.

The distance to the moon is about 240,000 kilometers and light travels at 300,000 kilometers per second requiring just under 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, if not simply absurd, for eclipse photography.

Rule 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 fevor!

Rule 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 dialation 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 use a tool like Eclipse Timer (TM) from Gordon and Angela Telepun.  Another 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.

Rule 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.
 



Introduction -

Staring with the basic camera we will explore what is involved and the equipment required. It will also comment on the etiquette of eclipse photography involving the more basic equipment, especially in deference to those who selected to bring more exotic devices. A table is presented at the end of the paper that summarizes the various types of equipment configurations and what can be photographed with them. There are always interesting exceptions, these are just the most common applications of photography and creativity should always be explored. Another table lists the various events and what can be used to best photograph it. Once again, exceptions abound for the creative. Photographing a solar eclipse is not only fun and exhilarating, but it provides a memory for you and others who were there that will never fail to bring a chill or a tingle.
 
 

Basic Camera -

A basic camera is one that you would use to take a picture of some friends at a picnic. You do not need a flash attachment on the camera. If you do have one, simply tape over the flash with black electric tape in such a manner so as no light escapes when you take a picture.

Flash photography is absurd and unwelcome during totality!

It is absurd because you must think of what you are trying to light up with the flash. Are you trying to light up the face of the moon? If so, you will need a much more powerful flash! And beside, the reflected light of the earth is already lighting it up (see Earthshine in the longer focal length information below) pretty well.

It is unwelcome because everyone else would like to see the eclipse and the last thing they want is to be blinded by a flash camera. Although no fatalities have ever occurred due to the use of a flash camera during totality, there have been reports of some damaged cameras and very brutal threats. One of the basic rules is - don't use a flash camera during totality. There are better ways to capture the people element.

Totality lasts only a few minutes, but lots of time is spent in preparation. And as totality approaches, the sky and surroundings take on very surreal aspects. This is the best time for a basic camera to be busy capturing your friends and fellow eclipse chasers setting up equipment, getting excited as it nears, strange looking high contrast shadows, pinhole camera effects, the horizon colors, and more.

During totality, increase the exposure time or lower the f/stop (if possible) or use the flash option for automatic cameras (but make sure the flash is covered properly). A small camera, mounted on a tripod, with a "bulb" setting so that it can be held open for a second or two can get some great pictures of the coronal streamers and surrounding bright planets. It can also be used to obtain horizon color changes and group pictures. There is about as much light as a full moon during totality allow you to see the camera settings and other people. The sky near the horizon is bright and gets darker towards the eclipse. Be cautious of that if you want a picture of a person during the eclipse. They will be dark in comparison to the background sky. The best results have been obtained looking down on the observers or with a darker background behind them.
 
 

Zoom Lens -

A basic 35mm camera with interchangeable lenses is the next step up in total solar eclipse photography. A zoom lens with a focal length of 70mm to 200mm can be used to capture beautiful shots of the solar corona and nearby bright planets. For these kinds of pictures, a tripod is a must since the exposure time will be longer than can be comfortably hand-held. In addition, a cable release is also recommended to minimize the vibrations.

The outer corona is not as bright as the inner corona and prominences. Using a reasonably fast film such as 400 ASA color slide film, the texture of the coronal streamers can be seen clearly with exposures ranging from ½ second to 5 seconds. Shorter exposures will show only the inner corona and specs where the prominences are located. It is best to leave those kinds of shots to even longer focal length lens configurations.

Because the object being photographed is not very bright, the use of focal length doubling lens systems and other extensions that simulate longer lenses are not recommended. The focal length ratio of the lens system (calculated by dividing the size of the objective lens into the focal length of the lens) should not be greater than 6. Thus a lens system capable of f5.6 is suitable however one at f8 as its fastest setting may be more difficult to work. The reason higher F/L values are not desirable is that longer exposures must be used. Since totality is only a few minutes at best, and spirits are running high during those precious moments, faster exposures are generally preferred so that you can get more exposures in (thereby increasing the chance of a "good" one) and enjoy some of the time observing the event itself.

Note that the f/6 or better rule of thumb applies to camera/lens systems and does not apply to small telescopes with cameras attached.

As the focal length of the lens system increases, the need for a more stable platform also increases. A sturdy tripod on solid land starts to become a must if you hope to capture the details of outer corona. Stability of the platform is critical, as some exposures may be 5 to 10 seconds in duration.

If shooting from a moving platform, such as a ship, timing is everything. For longer exposures wait until the ship's roll is at or near a peak. As the ship rolls it will follow a basic sine wave pattern. This means that the rate of movement will be the least when the roll is at its greatest or lowest points. Center the picture on one roll, then snap it on the next. Do note that most ships will remain moving during the eclipse itself to attempt to minimize wind across the deck and to make use of the stabilizers. When that is the case, you can no longer time the roll of the ship and will have to work with shorter exposures. The other problem with this technique is that you will spend more time watching the camera and less time enjoying the eclipse itself.
 
 

Spotting or small telescopes -

Small telescopes with an aperture of 5" or less make perfect tools for viewing and photographing the solar eclipse. Because eclipses only occur over a relatively small area of land, one must often travel great distances to view it. Thus small, portable telescopes with good field tripods that weighs about 25 pounds (and can be carried on airplanes and in cars with minimal difficulties) are the best.

When using a small telescope with a camera, a good mount is essential to get good photographs and to enjoy the experience overall. There have been many cases where the tripod was forfeited to allow for packing something else only the render the telescope useless or frustrating to use during the eclipse. You can gamble that you will find a table or some other platform to set up on but in my experience that is not recommended as you will most likely miss out on viewing the eclipse itself.

Another essential piece of equipment is a cable release to minimize vibration while taking an exposure. Most small telescopes have an effective focal length of 500mm to 2000mm making them very long zoom lens cameras. The slightest movement will result in vibration and during a picture that will blur the image. Thus a cable release and strong tripod are just as important to the success of the photography as the optics themselves.

During totality a small telescope will yield fantastic views and photographs of the inner corona, prominences, and chromosphere. You can see great detail in the prominences and short exposures will yield beautiful pictures of this phenomenon. Using fast film such as ASA 400 or higher, exposure times should range 1/500 to ½ second in time. Longer exposures to reveal the outer coronal structures are possible but not as pretty and tracking starts to become a problem as the Earth's motion is greatly amplified by the magnification.

When preparing to bring a small telescope for photography purposes, be sure to figure out some way to get in some observing with a moderate power eyepiece as well. My favorite magnification for viewing an eclipse is at 40x to 50x. At that power one can see the corona and prominences all at once and a great amount of detail is visible that you cannot see with binoculars and the naked eye. You will not have much time for this luxury and sharing it is almost impossible except during very long eclipses of 4 or more minutes. Of course, if you plan to do that, don't plan to take any pictures with it too.

Larger field telescopes -

Taking a telescope of 5" aperture or more to an eclipse can be difficult but the views and photographs can be very worthwhile. Larger telescopes tend to have longer effective focal lengths and as a result may not show the entire ring of the moon. These are best suited for looking at the chromosphere and prominences or to attempt to see stars behind the corona.

An f/10 8" Schmidt Cassegrain has an effective focal length of 80" or 2,000mm. This is about the maximum size that can be used to photograph the entire lunar disk and still see some of the surrounding solar atmospheres. Anything larger and you may find yourself spending most of the time with your binoculars instead!

"Light buckets" are not practical for a total solar eclipse. The corona is very bright and you will most likely not be interested in deep space objects during the eclipse itself. Very large apertures will only diminish the quality of the view and unless you are engaged in scientific studies requiring such optics (such as flash spectra or detecting gravitational effects of starlight near the solar disk) the expense of bring them along is not worth the view. A smaller telescope will still be best. It will provide a stunning view and be much easier to transport to the eclipse site.

The 1991 total solar eclipse path crossed over some of the largest telescopes in the world located in Hawaii. There was a documentary showing the preparations and other scientific work the observatory astronomers were engaged in at the time. My favorite scene from this documentary is when the astronomers all run out of the control booth during totality to view the eclipse through a 3.5" Questar telescope.
 
 

Practicing -

The best way to prepare for photographing a total solar eclipse is to practice taking pictures of the moon during various phases.

Remember that the solar eclipse happens "around" the moon and that the corona will extend two to five times the lunar diameter. Don't worry if your 200mm-lens system does not reveal lots of lunar detail. The moon's surface is very bright by comparison.

The amount of light you will have to work with is about the same as during a new moon meaning that you should have little to no trouble reading the exposure settings on your camera. As you look through the lens, the brightness will be closer to that of a quarter moon or less.

Practice longer exposures and get a feel for the movement of the moon during these exposures during the crescent phase when you can see the Earthshine on the entire surface of the moon.

The partial phases of the eclipse can be photographed using a solar filter if you have a longer lens or telescope. The amount of light will lesson during the eclipse thus you can find the proper exposure ranges for your configuration by taking a range of pictures from noontime to near sunset or with variable cloudiness. If you have a telescope, the right exposure should also show sunspots.

It is important to have a strategy in mind when getting ready to photograph the eclipse. The best rule of thumb is to keep it simple since there is simply too much to see and experience all at once. You can practice your strategy using the moon and having a good watch to count down the time remaining. My simple strategy is to start with faster exposures around 2nd contact then increase the exposures during the eclipse and finish with fast exposures again as we go into 3rd contact. This strategy is based on the effective focal length of the Questar telescope and the fact that it does a great job with the prominences. I've not always followed the strategy myself since it is easy to get flustered and involved in the eclipse event itself. As a consolation I've always felt that if I get one good photograph it was worth dragging the camera and tripod along!

Use a stop watch and observe how long the eclipse will really last.  As you watch the second hand tick away you will that plenty of time exists to both view the eclipse as well as take pictures.  Even if there is less than a minute of totality!  A product like EclipseTimer helps a lot if you have a portable computer or Pocket PC with you.
 
 

Filters -

Solar filters reduce the amount of light coming into a telescope or camera lens by a great deal and what works for the naked eye may not work very well for the camera. Remember that a lens is gathering more light and focusing it thus it is very important to get a solar filter matched to your telescope. Homemade filter systems consisting of welder filter glass or some other filter system should be tested carefully as one mistake can mean that you don't see the total eclipse!

Hydrogen -Alpha filters are interesting during the partial phases as they can reveal surface texture and give you an advance peek at the prominences. During totality they are virtually useless unless you are interested in scientific studies involving just that emission. O-III and other deep sky filters are for nighttime and don't show anything interesting either, although I will confess that I've never tried them during an eclipse. There just isn't enough time for such things!

The best way to view the partial phases safely is with a projection system. A simple projection system can be constructed by holding a pair of binoculars about one to two feet away from the floor or a light colored background such as a beach towel. A flat surface is best. Focus or move the binoculars until the solar disk is focused, there will be two of them on the ground or projection screen. A picture of this sort is a great reminder of the fever that is building as totality approaches. You can get people and the eclipse all in one shot with a regular camera using regular outdoor settings.

Interesting Links about Eclipse Photography

Ever wanted to just enjoy the eclipse and let a computer do all the work for you?  Visit the following web site http://balder.prohosting.com/stouch/UMBRAPHILE.html for more information about a Macintosh Freeware application and details for the camera interface.  This is really great!

To make wonderful representations of solar eclipses requires that you combine multiple photographs into a composite. Here are a couple of neat web sites that talk about this process - http://www.mreclipse.com/SEgallery/SEcomp.html, http://www.wendycarlos.com/eclipse.html.
 
 

Table 1: By Equipment
 
Equipment What to photograph Settings
Basic Camera Equipment setup and preparations Normal camera operation, normal film.
  Pinhole camera effects and strange shadows Normal camera operation, normal film.
  Projections of the eclipse by telescopes Normal camera operation, normal film.
  Horizon just before, during, and after totality Flash setting, but no flash before totality, flash "okay" afterwards. Use very fast film (ASA 1000 or better).
  People during totality Use flash setting, but make sure flash is not present, burned out, or covered completely with dark tape. Most of the pictures will not come out too well unless you use very fast speed film (ASA 1000) and a stationary platform is highly recommended.
  People after totality Normal camera operation, normal film.
  Receding shadow, no foreground objects Flash setting, but no flash - faster film (ASA 400 or better)
  Receding shadow with objects in foreground Flash setting, be ready to defend yourself with peace offerings and only do this AFTER totality! Fast film (ASA 400) and fleet feet recommended.
35mm Camera, Tripod, Cable release Corona and Planets 2-20 second exposure, f5.6 or faster.
  People during totality Fast film, same settings as taking a picture of a group under the light of a full moon. Background sky towards horizon is well lit, foreground objects will tend to be dark.
     
35mm Camera, wide angle lens (28mm or less), tripod, cable release Sky, planets, corona, and horizon - all at once. 1-30 second exposure depending on film speed and what you are after. Corona and planets will require longer exposure and will over expose bright horizon.
  Approaching or receding shadow Use fast film and short exposures. Shows best when light cloud cover highlights the shadow more.
     
35mm Camera, zoom lens (70-200mm), tripod, cable release Coronal streamers ½ to 5-second exposures will yield nice views of the coronal streamers. Longer exposures may tend to overexpose most of the corona.
  Diamond rings ¼ to 1-second exposures
  Inner corona 1/60 to ½ second exposures
     
35mm Camera, medium lens (400-800mm), tripod, cable release Inner corona 1/60 to 1 second
  Diamond ring 1/125 to ½ second
  Large prominences 1/500 to 1/125 second
     
Camera, long lens (1000mm or more), tripod, cable release Diamond ring 1/250 to ¼ second
  Prominences 1/1000 to 1/125 second
  Chromosphere 1/500 to 1/125 second
  Inner corona 1/8 to ½ second
     
Camera, telescope, tripod, cable release Diamond ring 1/250 to 1/8 second
  Prominences 1/1000 to 1/125 second - ASA 400 film
  Inner corona 1/60 to 1 second

 
 

Table 2: By Item of Interest
 
Type of Picture What you'll need Setup
People before and after eclipse Basic Camera Normal or fast film. Fast film has a rating of ASA 400 or higher.
People during eclipse Basic Camera on tripod Very Fast film (NO FLASHES!) longer exposures will blur movements of people.
Horizon Basic Camera Normal or fast film (NO FLASHES) Evening exposure settings, 1/125 to 1/60 second.
Sky colors Basic Camera Normal or fast film (NO FLASHES) Evening exposures, tripod strongly recommended for longer exposures. Range is 1/125 to 1 second exposure.
Planets and corona together Basic Camera on tripod Fast film (NO FLASHES) longer exposures of 2 or more seconds. Practice setup by taking picture of moon near a bright star to get a feel for it.
All sky picture - showing everything from coronal streamers to horizon Wide angle lens (fish eye) or reflector. Tripod for camera rig. Several seconds are needed to capture the depth of colors and brightness possible.
Partial Phases Longer lens or telescope with solar filter. Filter density will dictate camera settings. Practice by taking a picture of the full sun around noon and another set when you have a clear sunset. That will be the range of brightness for the partial phases.
Projections of partial phases Telescope or binoculars shining on light colored background, camera. Normal outdoor pictures.
Sunspot occultation Telescope with solar filter. See partial phases above.
Pinhole camera effects Regular camera Keep your eyes open! They appear everywhere!
Strange shadows Regular camera There are many kinds of strange shadows that appear near 2nd and 3rd contact. Shadow bands are the most difficult to photograph, let alone see in the first place. The ethereal effect of the eclipse is very difficult to catch on film.
Diamond ring Longer lens/telescope and camera Faster exposure, but not as fast as used for just prominences, you want some corona to shine too!
Baileys Beads Telescope and camera Faster exposure as used for prominences.
Chromosphere Telescope and camera Faster exposure as used for prominences.
Prominences Telescope and camera Fastest exposures. At ASA 400 with a 1500mm f/16 a 1/1000-second exposure still shows some of them. Best from 1/500 on up though. They are bright and quite prominent.
Inner corona Longer lens and camera As exposure time increases, the prominences will wash out and more and more of the corona will be visible. Inner corona shows nice structures from 1/125 to 1 second depending on focal length.
Outer corona Not so long of a lens and camera Mid range lens of 200mm to 400mm will serve nicely for this purpose with exposures ranging from 1 second to 10 seconds.
Coronal streamers 200mm lens and camera Exposures will range from 2 to 20 seconds.
Shadow bands Good luck! Good luck!
Earthshine Longer lens and camera telescope. Long exposure, greatly overexpose corona and prominences to get a picture of the earthshine on the moon.

 
 

Common questions regarding photography terms:

 What is fast film?

The speed of a film is a relative measure of how quickly the emulsion will capture an image. Film speed is rated in terms of ASA with higher numbers being faster. Generally, the fastest films have larger grains in the emulsion and will result in a grainy look when enlarged. Consequently they are not recommended for this type of photography. Color film with an ASA rating of 400 to 1000 is considered fast film for these purposes. Slower color films have an ASA rating of 200 or lower and are only recommended for normal outdoor pictures of the people or sky pictures showing the colors of the horizon. Avoid multi-speed film since the variable brightness of the eclipse will result in pictures that do not show increasing details as the exposure is varied.
 
 

What is the f/ratio?

The f/ratio is the ratio of the focal length of the lens and the objective or opening of the lens. As a camera's f/ratio is adjusted, a diaphragm is enlarged or closed to the desired amount. For example, when using a 200mm lens (that is, the focal length is 200mm in length) a setting of f/4 means that the effective lens size is 50mm in diameter. A setting of f/8 therefor means that the lens is only 25mm in diameter.
 
 

What films are recommended?

Filmmakers keep changing their offerings but I tend to favor Kodak and Fuji film products. The ASA 400 speed film has yielded the best results however we have also used faster film. When using a telescope, the 400 speed has a nice balance of light gathering and graininess. The faster films appeared grainier. But technology of film keeps improving and what works best today may be old hat in a few days. Anybody else remember Tri-X?
 
 

What features should the camera have?

The ability to hold the exposure open to the time you set. Automatic exposure cameras are virtually useless under the dramatic lighting conditions of an eclipse.
 
 

What is a cable release?

A tube that is attached to the camera that has a push button on the other end and in some cases, a locking screw as well. Cable releases are used to minimize the vibration one exerts on the camera assembly when squeezing the shutter release button. For precision photography and longer exposures it is an absolute must.
 
 

What is a tripod?

Device to hold a camera and telescope or lens configuration steady while you shake like a maniac during the eclipse.
 
 

How much equipment can I bring with me?

How much you can bring with you depends on how much you can carry and how much the airlines may be willing to carry for you. Most often, eclipse chasing requires travel to remote locations. That will most often be the delimiting factor. As a rule of thumb, you want to be able to carry it all yourself in one load in case a hike is involved - or you like walking back and forth a lot.