Eclipse photography for beginners

So you're not an expert photographer. Maybe it's your first eclipse and you want to have some photo's as a memento. What do you do? We've all marvelled at the inspirational images of Miloslav Druckmueller, Fred Espenak and others. Should you try to take your own pictures or just borrow the work of the experts?

I suggest you do a little of each. Eclipse photography is both very easy and very difficult. Very easy because, providing you take off the lens cap and solar filter, almost any exposure will show some sort of image of the corona. This is because the corona spans an enormous brightness range. It is this brightness range that make it so difficult to get superb results. High quality close up photography of the corona is a significant technical challenge. Here are three simple photographic projects that don't require anything more than a digital camera, film camera or videocam and will leave you most of the time to just enjoy the eclipse.

The big problem is that solar corona contains a great variation in intensity from the inner corona to the outer corona. The brightness ratio from the inner to outer corona is about 13 photographic stops or 8000 : 1. But a typical digital sensor or film can only record a brightness ratio of about 100:1. Some would argue much less. Your eyes can adjust and adapt to an enormous range of intensities. So you can see it but you can't capture it on film or digital camera very easily.

Project 1.   Wide Angle Landscape/Atmospheric Shot

Equipment : film camera, digital compact or digital SLR
Take the widest-angle lens you have. Set the camera on a tripod. Set the camera to auto mode. Set the compensation control to -1eV.  Best results if you set the camera to Av mode and set the aperture to f5.6. Set the ISO to the lowest setting ISO100 or 200 depending on the camera.

Compose on a tripod so that the Sun, the sea and a big swathe of sky feature prominently in the frame.   

Gobi Desert, August 1st 2008. The Sun is only 14o above the horizon. Taken with a 35mm film camera with an 18mm lens (equivalent to a DSLR with a 12mm lens).  Taken at Jinta near Jiayuguan, Gansu Province.  In this shot taken at totality, the Sun was 14o high in the sky but in the west in the late afternoon. For observers in Cairns, the Sun will be at a similar altitude in the east early in the morning during the November 2012 eclipse.




 Compact Digital

 Film SLR

 ISO 200
Exposure Aperture auto
Aperture Value f 5.6
Autofocus off
Noise reduction ON
Compensation set to -1eV



ISO lowest value
Auto exposure
Autofocus off if possible
Compensation set to -1eV if camera has compensation function

ISO 200
Exposure Aperture auto
Aperture Value f 5.6
Autofocus off
Compensation set to -1eV

Project 2.   Handycam

I've seen many videos of total eclipses, some taken with very expensive video cameras. I've seen few taken in close up that looked any good. Imaging the corona with zoom will take a lot of time and effort and in my opinion isn't worth it. The problem is that most video camera, even very exensive ones can't cope with the huge range of brightness. 

But here's an easy project that will leave you free to enjoy the eclipse and give you a good chance of success. Most video cameras do an excellent job of recording a very wide field view of an eclipse. 

If you can afford to, buy a screw on 0.5x wide-angle adaptor for an even better result. If not just set the lens to it's widest angle setting. 

Set the camera to manual focus, focus on infinity. 

Exposure to Auto. 

Set the camera on a tripod. 

Set the video camera low to the ground on a tripod behind you then it records you, your reactions during the eclipse and the shadows moving across the sky. 

Once again the foreground will be dark and your figure will be in silhouette so don't waste too much of the frame with the foreground. The horizon line should just be a thin strip along the ground. Filling the frame with the sky will assist the camera's exposure system to expose the sky correctly. In Cairns, the Sun will be low in the eastern sky and the shadow will approach from the west. You could point the camera to the west away from the eclipsed Sun to capture the approaching shadow then swing the camera around to the east during totality. 

You might like to show some short clips before the eclipse and during the partial phases. To shoot the partial phases, you can buy an extra pair of eclipse shades, cut them in half and tape one to the camera as a make do solar filter. Just remember to bring the tape with you. Over the years, I've found it wastes a lot of time if you go shopping around for mundane things like tape or glue. Much easier to bring it with you.

Start the continuous movie of totality about two minutes before the event. With an ultrawide angle lens, you won't need a solar filter. Enjoy the eclipse and the camera will do all the work for you. Don't forget to talk about your experience during the eclipse so that it gets onto the sound track.


Project 3.   Handheld Telephoto shot

So you've got a DSLR and a common 70-200mm f4 zoom lens but you don't want to bring a tripod. Relax!  You can still take some perfectly good handheld snap shots.

As I've said several times so far, the corona has a wide brightness range. Eclipse photographers typically shoot one exposure at every shutter speed from 1/4000 to 4 or even 8 seconds. But these many exposures are taken to apply a special technique called stitching to the pictures later where all those exposures are combined. An exposure of 1/250s at f4 at ISO 200 will give you a pretty decent shot of totality. If I had to take just one exposure to show totality this would be the exposure. 

If your DSLR is a Sony, Pentax or Olympus you're in luck. Your camera has built-in image stabilization that works really well with any lens fitted to the camera and the image will be very steady and sharp. If it's a Canon or Nikon, then handheld at this shutter speed you'll get an acceptable image but it might be a little soft unless you have one of their special image stabilized lenses. To fix this, I've recommended a higher ISO for Canon / Nikon and a corresponding faster shutter speed to fix the defficiencies of Canon & Nikon camera bodies. The high ISO may result in more noise but it is probably the best compromise.


 ISO 100  1/2000s f4

 ISO 100 1/125s f4

  ISO 100 1/8s f4

Three single exposures of the corona. The quoted exposure values are what you would use for an f4 200mm lens rather than the actual exposures because these were originally taken with a 600mm lens at f8. The exposures quoted below will result in an image similar to the middle image above albeit with 1/3 the image size. Basically an all round pleasing result. Note that these images have been greatly reduced in size from the original 10MPx files.

 Settings (Pentax, Olympus, Sony)

200mm telephoto lens
ISO 200
Exposure manual
1/125s f5.6
lens 200mm
Image stabilizer ON
Autofocus might need to be turned off and manual focus used.

 Settings (Canon, Nikon)

200mm telephoto lens
ISO 400
Exposure manual
1/500s f4
lens 200mm
Image stabilizer : Not available unless you have an image stabilized lens.
Autofocus might need to be turned off and manual focus used.



Grab a photo or two using one of these methods, then put down the camera and make sure you take the time to enjoy looking at natures great spectacle.


Joe Cali







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