How to Photograph the Total Solar Eclipse August 2017

How to Photograph the Total Solar Eclipse August 2017
August 14, 2017 Frits Habermann

PicMonkey CEO Frits Habermann is an accomplished landscape photographer who’s traveled far and wide to capture seriously amazing things. We asked him to share his expert photography know-how with us, so that we (and you!) can get great shots of the upcoming solar eclipse.


Unless you’ve begged off social media, avoided a newspaper, shunned The Weather Channel, or been living under a rock, you may have heard that there will be a solar eclipse Monday, August 21, 2017 (that’s soon!). You may have thought to go outside and experience it, watch it through binoculars or a telescope, or—more ambitiously—try to take a photograph. Here are some considerations for viewing and photographing the solar eclipse, for you to ponder before you make the trek to the path of totality.

What is a solar eclipse?

Learn how to take your own photo of a solar eclipse, like this one.

Every so often the various wobbles of the earth and moon’s orbits—around each other and around the sun—result in the moon getting in between the sun and earth. Because the moon is just far enough from earth, it appears to be roughly the same size as the sun in the sky, so the moon will completely cover the sun if you’re in the right spot. A little to the right or left, and it’ll only partially cover the sun. That “little to the right or left” is about 35 miles left or right from the center, or a full band that’s 70 miles wide, called the path of totality.

The path of totality is not a new tarot spread—it’s the full shadow of the moon on the earth, where the sun will be completed occluded, and it moves with the rotation of the earth. NASA has a video that shows the path of the moon’s shadow for the event, and Vox’s video does a nice job of explaining total solar eclipses (and why they’re so exciting).

Where to see the total solar eclipse

A map of the United States showing the path of totality for the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse.

Source: NASA.

The path of totality will start in the US on the coast of Oregon, dip down across the center of the US, and leave the east coast from South Carolina. The full eclipse will last about 2-3 hours from start to finish. If you are toward the center of the path, full occlusion will last about 2 ½ minutes. At the edge, it will last for roughly 30 seconds. Obviously, you’ll want clear skies and to know when the moon is passing above you. For example, the eclipse begins on the west coast a little after 10 a.m. PST. I would love to watch it from the Oregon coast, but would hate to have a marine layer spoil the party. Therefore, I will be north of Bend, Oregon, on the east side of the cascades. This leaves me the opportunity to drive east and hunt for clearer skies.

People viewing an eclipse while wearing eclipse glasses.

NASA has some maps with times of the totality for various regions of the US. And in case it wasn’t obvious, unless the sun is totally occluded, don’t look directly at the sun. Buy a pair of solar eclipse glasses, which are way cheaper than eye surgery. You can take them off when the sun is completely covered by the moon, and put them on again as the full occlusion begins to cease.

How to photograph the solar eclipse

You don’t want to miss out on witnessing an amazing total solar eclipse because you were fiddling with a bunch of camera equipment and missed your 30-second window. Here are some pointers to make sure you’re set up for success:

  • Don’t look directly at the sun without special solar glasses.
  • Focus ahead of time (you only have 30 seconds to 2 minutes of totality).
  • Bracket.
  • Use a long lens (600-1000mm).
  • Use a solar filter on longer lenses.
  • Use a cropped sensor camera or sensor to get 1.5x.
  • Track the sun and moon with your tripod head (they will be moving).
  • Don’t use your solar filter or glasses during totality.

We’ll take a deeper dive into each of these below, and cover how to shoot the eclipse with your mobile phone.

WARNING: You MUST use a filter for both your lens and your eyes if you are shooting the partial eclipse. A direct shot of the sun, even if only partially covered, will burn a hole in your retina or damage your camera. Only when the moon fully covers the sun do you remove the filter from your lens and glasses from your eyes. Then, put them back on as the moon slowly recedes off of the sun again.

Shooting with your mobile phone

You can use your mobile phone to photograph the eclipse, but let’s think about what you’re seeing. How big will the sun be? That’s a trick question! It’ll be as big as a full moon. If you’ve ever taken a picture of the full moon with your cell phone, you’ve likely been disappointed in its small size and lack of detail. The difference in brightness between your dark surroundings and the moon’s surface (which is essentially daylight) likely tricked your camera into exposing for the dark, and “blowing out” the moon.

The first trick to use to fix this is to tap on the moon while you’re taking the picture, so that the camera exposes for it. But the land will be totally dark then, so you’ll have a small white circle in a field of black. You can zoom in on the moon—most phone cameras have at least a 3-4x zoom. But unless you’re a skilled surgeon, the zoomed-in camera will pick up much more movement of your hand as you hold the phone, and the moon will likely look blurry. This can be resolved by using a small phone tripod to steady the camera while shooting. All of this can work with the eclipse: Shoot with your phone on a small tripod (Gorillapods are great), turn off your flash, zoom in, and ensure you tap on the sun’s corona for proper exposure. You can also use a compact camera with the same philosophy. And last, but certainly not least, consider taking a video. Just put your phone on the tripod, anticipate the movement on the sun and moon into the scene, and hit record.

Shooting with a DSLR camera

A better result can be had with a DSLR and a long lens—something longer than 200mm, and preferably in the 600mm-1000mm range. Anything larger, and you’ll be zoomed in farther than the corona of the sun. Indeed, larger lenses are essentially telescopes, and a small telescope with a camera attached is also a great option (just be sure to use a solar filter). I will be using my Nikon D810 and the Nikon 600mm f4. I know this will do well, because I shot the moon in Namibia with this setup at the following size:

Photographing the moon: all the tips!

Nikon D810, 600mm Moon in Namibia. What we see in the Northern Hemisphere as the “top” of the moon is at the “bottom” of the moon in Namibia, making it appear upside down.

This tells me I will get the full sun in the frame, with a bit left over for the corona. I will also need a tripod—that lens weighs about 15 lbs, and unless you’re shooting at a very high shutter speed, it’s difficult to hold and get a sharp picture. That will be true for any long lens, even a lighter 200mm lens. The moon and sun will be moving, and when the full eclipse is happening, it will be dark out. So you will benefit from a tripod that you can easily track the moon with, and ensure a sharp picture when potentially at a low shutter speed (1-2 seconds).

Another trick for DSLR folks is to take advantage of a cropped sensor. My D810 is a full-frame camera that has a sensor size of 24 x 36mm. Some mid-range DSLRs are “crop sensors,” which have a size of 16 x 24mm (for Nikons). If I put the 200mm on the crop sensor, it will be 1.5x bigger than the full-frame sensor, but have fewer pixels. Because this is a fairly dark picture, the pixel count likely won’t bother me, and I’d rather get the closer view. Most full-frame cameras also have a crop-sensor mode that will get you the same effect, and using that on my D810 with a 600mm likely gives me a 900mm equivalent.

Okay, enough technical gobbledygook.

What to shoot as a foreground

The answer here is: not much. With a long lens, the only thing in your frame will be the eclipse and the corona. That will be epic! And you’ll get really cool jets coming off the edge of the sun that you can only see during a full eclipse.

The other option for a foreground involves going wider to include a tree or mountain, but note that the eclipse will be super small in your picture. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—there are some nice shots out there like this (check out Fred Espenak’s site, MrEclipse.com, for great examples of this kind of shot. You’ll also find a lot of details about photographing the eclipse, and info about the eclipse itself.)

Note that you’ll likely see a few stars that you would normally see during civil twilight, but the real star of the show (haha) is the sun, so the corona and its jets are likely the more interesting focus for your composition.

How to focus your camera

To avoid a lot of scrambling while the eclipse is happening, take your camera out ahead of time and focus clearly on something way out on the horizon, at infinity. Mark that using some tape, and when the eclipse happens, rotate the focus on your lens to that mark. Alternatively, you can tape down your focus ring and not move it. You could just move the focus ring to infinity, but most lenses have a miniscule “play” that is slightly less than fully dialed to infinity for sharpness.

How to expose your eclipse shot

The sun will be going through a massive shift in brightness during the event. If the sun is not fully eclipsed (i.e. the moon doesn’t completely cover the sun), you will need a solar filter for your long lens. You won’t need one for your phone camera, because the sun will be small on it. A solar filter is about a 15-stop filter, and the good ones will give a beautiful orange tone to the sun.

The key for exposing during the eclipse will be bracketing. Set your camera in aperture mode at f8, f11, or f16. Dial in your focus, and ensure your ISO is at an optimum level. My D810 and 600mm are optimal at ISO 64 and f8. With the solar filter on, my camera’s exposure meter will tell me a particular shutter speed (perhaps 1/1000 sec). I will likely bracket five shots just to make sure I have everything. A bracket is simply under and over exposing to ensure one of the five shots works out okay. I will likely set each bracket step to be .7 of a stop, and my camera will automatically take pictures at 1/640th sec, 1/800th sec, 1/1000th sec, 1/1250th sec, and 1/1600th sec. But these shutter speeds will be massively reduced during the full eclipse, likely more in the 1-2 second range or slower.

The solar eclipse will be the first total eclipse across the continental US since 1979, and the next one won’t be until 2024. So if you have the time and are in range of totality, take the kids and some extra time to see this rare event! And don’t forget to show us your eclipse photos on social media, with #picmonkey.

 

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Frits Habermann
Frits is PicMonkey’s chief executive monkey, with a long history building software in the graphic and gaming space. Frits lives and breathes nature photography, finding deep meditation in the outdoors and drinking in anything mother nature has to offer; from walks over active lava fields, to doorless helicopter flights over remote landscapes, to immersion into a den of feeding grizzly bears, he’s capable of running away from them all.