Preparation is key if you want to photograph a solar eclipse. You may only get to witness this event a handful of times in a lifetime, so it’s important to be armed with good equipment and a solid understanding of composition before the sun disappears. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know in order to capture brilliant eclipse pictures. But first, it’s worth going over what actually happens during this natural phenomenon.
When the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, those on the ground witness one of the most spectacular and rare sights in astronomy: a solar eclipse. This is a coincidence of cosmic proportions – the sun is 400 times larger than our moon, but also 400 times further away. If the sun was larger or the moon was further away, the phenomenon wouldn’t happen.
If you’re stood in the path of totality (where the moon’s shadow falls on the Earth) the sun appears completely blacked out. The temperature drops, birdsong is interrupted and the Earth itself appears to be still for a moment as it plunges into darkness. People travel across the world for a glimpse of a solar eclipse – a true bucket list experience – but how do you practice photographing an event you may only witness once in a lifetime? With the right gear, setup and practice, you can be confident that you will come away from the experience having captured epic photographs.
Looking for more tips on capturing the night sky? We also have in-depth articles on things like how to photograph the ISS, along with plenty of more general guidance on astrophotography for beginners.
The types of solar eclipses
The total solar eclipse is the most spectacular kind of eclipse, where the moon perfectly obscures the sun for a few minutes. The path of totality across the Earth’s surface is only a few hundred kilometres at most, and on average there is only one total solar eclipse every 18 months.
An annular solar eclipse is when the moon is further away from Earth, and therefore does not fully obscure the sun leaving a bright ring visible.
A hybrid solar eclipse is the rarest type of solar eclipse, occurring when an eclipse changes between total and annular during the eclipse itself. Just five more will happen in the 21st century, the next being in 2023.
A partial solar eclipse is the most commonly seen, where only a part of the sun is obscured by the moon. Total solar eclipses, when viewed outside the path of totality, will appear as partial eclipses.
The first thing to be aware of is that there are dangers associated with viewing a solar eclipse. Never look directly at the sun with the naked eye, especially through additional optics such as your best telescope or binoculars. At best you will burn your retina; at worst you can suffer instant and irreversible blindness. Always wear solar viewing glasses, in fact the only time it is safe to remove them for observing the sun is during the brief period of totality.
The same film used for solar viewing glasses is also available as a solar filter for your lens from specialist retailers. Solar film is the equivalent of 20 stops of neutral density, greatly reducing the amount of light getting through. Pointing a telephoto lens at the sun without some sort of protection for your gear is a very bad idea. A telephoto lens magnifies the intensity of sunlight, and in extreme cases can melt your sensor!
In 2017, photographer Sean MacDonald sacrificed a Canon DSLR to prove this point. With a 400mm lens pointing directly at the sun and unfiltered, the camera began smoking within seconds.
When and where to see a solar eclipse
Solar eclipses are a rare phenomenon; a total solar eclipse even more so. Unless you’re lucky enough to live in the path of totality, you’ll need to travel to a suitable viewing location. Given their predictable nature, various websites and apps can help you find and map the path of solar eclipses such as TimeAndDate, NASA, and Wikipedia.
Upcoming total solar eclipses
4 December 2021
The next total solar eclipse is scheduled for December. However this will only make landfall in Antarctica.
20 April 2023
It’s a couple of years away, but this hybrid solar eclipse will be seen in eastern Indonesia and East Timor with just over a minute of totality.
8 April 2024
Another April eclipse, the path of totality for this one will run across north America, from northern Mexico, through Texas and the midwest US and end over eastern Canada. Weather permitting, many large cities will see totality including Dallas, Montreal, Cleveland and Austin.
12 August 2026
Europe is next treated to a total eclipse in 2026, which will be visible from Greenland, Iceland and Spain. Weather permitting, several large cities will see totality including Reykjavik, Bilbao, Zaragoza and Palma. Most of western Europe will experience a partial eclipse.
2 August 2027
The path of totality for this 2027 eclipse travels across north Africa and the Middle East before terminating over the Indian Ocean. Egypt will see the longest period of totality, up to 6 minutes 22 seconds near the city of Luxor making this the second longest solar eclipse of the century. Given the climate, time of day and exceptional length of totality this is likely to be the most favourable viewing position for any solar eclipse in this decade.
22 July 2028
The final total solar eclipse of the decade will occur in 2028, when Australia and New Zealand will witness an eclipse with a maximum totality of over 5 minutes. This eclipse will be notable for passing over Sydney.
You will need:
- A DSLR or mirrorless camera with full manual control.
- A super telephoto lens – at least 200mm, but the longer, the better.
- A sufficiently strong solar filter to prevent damage to your gear during the capture.
- The sturdiest tripod you can afford. When shooting in low light, a stable tripod is required, but this is even more important when shooting at a long focal length because the motion of the slightest vibration or gust of wind is multiplied. Invest or borrow the strongest tripod you can manage – it needs to be solid as a rock.
- Shutter release. This can be a cable plugged into your camera or a remote control that allows you to capture images without physically touching your camera. For the sharpest possible image, this is an important gadget to have in your arsenal.
- Eclipse glasses are essential for looking at the sun with the naked eye.
- Take several spares – at least one extra fully charged battery and an empty SD card. Maybe several! It would be heartbreaking to go to the effort and expense of the trip of a lifetime only to be let down by some inexpensive gear.
Choosing a filter
There are several manufacturers offering specialist solar filters, such as Thousand Oaks Optical, Seymour Solar and Baader. These typically comprise a screw-in thread for the front of your lens, and a protective sheet of film. Solar filters are specifically designed for this task and will block UV and IR light beyond the visible spectrum – if in any doubt, opt for one of these.
Some manufacturers of regular camera filters such as Kase, Lee, Formatt Hitech and Nisi make neutral density filters of sufficient strength that they can be used for solar photography as well as other long exposure photography. Look for 16-stop, 18-stop or 20-stop neutral density filters. Weaker strength neutral density filters will be available such as a 4-stop or an 8-stop but these will not offer enough protection – you must only consider filters of 16-stop and above.
In order to find the correct size filter for your lens, look for the thread notation which is usually displayed on the front or side of your lens, sometimes next to the Ø symbol. For example, 82mm or Ø82 means that your lens requires a filter with a diameter of 82 millimetres.
Choosing a lens
You will need a substantial focal length to get a close-up of the solar eclipse. The most common telephoto lenses tend to top out at 200mm or 300mm, very respectable focal lengths but still you’re wasting precious pixels on empty space. Consider investing or renting a lens with a longer focal length for your mission. You could also look at a teleconverter, which is a secondary lens that fits between your lens and the camera body to magnify the centre of your image. These typically come in factors of 1.4x, 1.5x or 2x magnification. For example, a 70-300mm lens with a 2x teleconverter offers a maximum focal length of 600mm.
Here is how a selection of different focal lengths look on the Nikon D850, a full frame DSLR camera.
It may seem tempting to go for the closest, most extreme crop. However, you risk cutting off the sun’s corona and you’ll find yourself having to adjust your composition constantly – it will surprise you just how quickly the sun will move through the frame. You will find that something between 400mm and 800mm is the best choice for the shot – striking a balance between filling your frame and not having to recompose your shot as often.
Clean your gear
Photographing strong light means any specks of dust will be seen on your image. Invest some time and money cleaning your equipment before your trip. You should probably clean your camera sensor too, if you’re uncertain how to do this, find out if your local camera shop offers a professional cleaning service.
Get there early
You will have established well ahead of time where you need to be and when. Arrive with plenty of time to set up, checking there is nothing obscuring your view.
Level your tripod
You will be recomposing your frame every few minutes so ensure your tripod is positioned somewhere stable, level, and ideally as far away from other people as possible. The last thing you want is a clumsy eclipse observer bumping into your tripod in the dark.
Fit your solar filter
Before composing your shot, remove the lens cap and fit your solar filter.
Compose your shot
Use your camera’s screen to line up your image. Do not use the optical viewfinder. You can always crop later, so it isn’t critical to have the sun in the centre of the frame, plus it is in constant motion.
Getting sharp and accurate focus is of critical importance, but you cannot always rely on autofocus to do this correctly. Take a test shot and zoom in using your camera’s screen to ensure it is sharp. If not, switch to manual focus and adjust incrementally, taking a series of test shots until you’re happy.
Once you are absolutely confident that your lens is in focus, switch to manual focus and do not touch the focus ring again. It’s a good idea to carry a small roll of tape to tightly secure the ring to the barrel so even if you accidentally brush the focus ring with your fingers, it remains in place.
Dial in your settings
For most of a total solar eclipse – and for the duration of an annular or partial eclipse – your settings will remain unchanged.
- Make sure VR/IS is turned off. Vibration reduction or image stabilisation is not required while on a tripod. In fact, leaving it turned on will certainly result in a poorer image because your lens will be hunting for motion that isn’t there.
- Use aperture priority mode. Here you select an aperture to remain fixed throughout your shoot. Experiment beforehand to establish where your lens is sharpest and has least chromatic aberration. Somewhere between f/5.6 and f/8 is the sweet spot on many lenses.
- Choose an appropriate ISO. Too low and the shutter speed required will be too long. Too high and you’re introducing unnecessary noise. You should be aiming for a base exposure between 1/100s and 1/500s depending on focal length.
- Shoot raw. This allows you to capture greater dynamic range and provides more data to play with during the editing process.
- Choose spot metering as your metering mode because your entire frame is going to be dark apart from the sun. Meter on the sun before the event begins.
- You may wish to bracket your exposures. This is a technique where you take a sequence of images in quick succession, some correctly exposed, some overexposed and some underexposed. Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras have this feature built in to take between 3 and 9 images with various increments of exposure. If some cloud obscures your view you will lose some light, but by bracketing your exposures you should still come away with a well exposed image in the sequence. As you’re shooting in aperture priority with a fixed ISO, your camera will compensate by increasing and decreasing the shutter speed for the other frames in the sequence.
As the eclipse progresses, the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor will gradually decrease, meaning you may need to increase your ISO as totality approaches.
Totality begins and ends with the “diamond ring” effect. Once the diamond ring has gone, the magical moment of totality has arrived. The world around you has been plunged into darkness, but this also means some quick changes are required to continue shooting.
- Remove your solar filter. It is not needed during totality. You can remove your solar glasses too.
- Adjust your ISO. You should now be able to return to a lower ISO while the filter is off.
- Bracket your shots if you weren’t already. There is a vast dynamic range in the sun’s corona, meaning that by taking rapid-fire shots with different exposures, later you can choose the one that looks best. This isn’t the time to experiment, so use technology to make things easier for you.
Nothing else needs to be changed at this point. Do not adjust your focus or aperture.
Practice makes perfect
The techniques mentioned above can be difficult to master, and you don’t want to waste precious time during the eclipse on trial and error. However, there are other ways you can hone your telephoto methods to perfection long before the big day.
Shoot the moon
You won’t need a solar filter for this because the moon is many orders of magnitude dimmer than the sun. However the principles are the same. You can use this exercise to determine the focal length that works for you and you will get valuable experience of how quickly the moon moves through frame when shooting at a long focal length.
If you need some guidance, we have a piece that goes into detail on how to photograph the moon. Once you’re confident capturing a full moon on its own, why not try some other shots such as:
- Other moon phases – a crescent moon is comparable in brightness to the sun’s corona during totality
- Juxtaposing the moon with a foreground element
- Capturing the moon at moonrise/moonset