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Top Tips for Capturing a Solar Eclipse on Camera

  • February 15, 2024
  • 6 min read
Top Tips for Capturing a Solar Eclipse on Camera

The sun and the moon are about the same apparent size of half a degree of arc, and solar eclipses occur when the new moon passes in front of the sun, casting a shadow over the narrow path across the earth where the two align. The shadow is always there, but because the earth’s orbit around the sun, and the moon’s around the earth are not precisely in the same plane, the shadow usually passes above or below the earth, so eclipses don’t happen every new moon, only about once a year. The moon’s orbit around the earth and the earth’s around the sun are elliptical, so the relative size of the sun and moon vary somewhat. When the moon appears smaller than the solar disc, which happened last October, the moon’s shadow doesn’t reach the earth and the result is an annular or “ring of fire” eclipse. When the moon appears larger, as it will on the 8th April, the eclipse is total. The duration of totality at the centre of the April solar eclipse’s path will be about four minutes. As the moon moves relative to the sun, the point on the earth where the sun is hidden moves eastward at hundreds of miles per hour. The April solar eclipse’s path starts in the early morning in the South Pacific, makes landfall near Mazatlán, Mexico, and passes over Newfoundland to the Atlantic Ocean but doesn’t reach London, although a partial eclipse will be visible from the west coast of Ireland just before sunset.

It’s never too early to start preparing for the April solar eclipse’s spectacle—deciding where to go and what equipment to take. Websites like timeanddate.com give you the eclipse path and timings, as well as the likelihood of clear skies. First-timers should head for the centre of the path of totality to experience the longest total eclipse duration.

There is no “correct” list of equipment to take other than eclipse glasses. They’re cheap so buy more than you need and expect to lend them to others who left it too late or thought they could do without them. Sunglasses are not a substitute!!

If you’re a serious wildlife or sports photographer, you already have most of the gear you need to take high-quality photos of all stages of the April solar eclipse’s progression. Two additional necessities are a right-angle eyepiece so you can comfortably centre the sun in the viewfinder without damaging your eyes, and a solar filter so you don’t destroy your camera sensor before the main event. A typical solar filter passes only about 0.001% of the sun’s light and can be obtained from specialist astronomy and photo equipment suppliers. Buy one now and practice using it at home. Get to know what settings give good colour and focus and resolve sunspots, and use these during the partial eclipse period.

Photography by Christopher Skelt

If you’re a casual photographer with a modest DSLR or mirrorless camera, or a high-end point-and-shoot with manual exposure control, you can still get results worth keeping and sharing. When my tripod and long telephoto lens went astray on the way to the 2017 eclipse, I used a half-frame DSLR with the lens zoomed to 135 mm to take this photo showing solar prominences and the inner corona at 1/200 second, F16, and ISO 1600. There is no optimum setting as longer exposures show more corona but wash out the prominences. If your equipment is up to it, plan to take a range of exposures and stack them using HDR processing. Record raw format photos to maximise your post-processing options.

Don’t underestimate your smartphone’s abilities, particularly for wide-angle shots showing the sky during totality. If you’re comfortable controlling a camera’s exposure settings, use an app like NightCap Camera to control your smartphone’s camera exposure, ISO setting, and white balance.

Look through your eclipse glasses for “first contact” when the moon starts to encroach on the solar disc at precisely the expected time, and watch it slowly progress towards totality about an hour and fifteen minutes later. If you don’t have a solar filter, don’t try to photograph any of this. As the eclipse nears totality, the light dims, colours desaturate, and shadows sharpen. If you’re near trees, look for crescents of light on the ground where the sun shines through the gaps in the foliage. If you’re at a high vantage point, you may be able to see the moon’s shadow approaching.

The last few seconds before the solar disc disappears behind the moon and the corona appears is known as the diamond ring—a transient flash of light on the edge of the solar disc in the centre of the emerging corona. It’s the signal that you can safely remove your eclipse glasses. You’ll see that the lunar disc (the “dark side of the moon”) isn’t black like most photos but a shimmering grey. You’re seeing earthshine—the reflection of the earth’s light on the lunar surface. This is the effect that accompanies the lunar crescent for a few days on either side of the new moon. Totality typically lasts a few minutes so relax and look around. Observe the sky’s colours near the horizon—like sunrise and sunset, but not quite. Capture this with wide-angle smartphone photos.

Photo by Christopher Skelt

A second diamond ring marks the end of totality and, because you’re expecting it and your eyes are accustomed to the light, a chance to capture the elusive Baily’s beads where the sun’s light shines between the mountains on the periphery of the lunar disc as it emerges. Put your eclipse glasses back on to watch the very narrow crescent widen and sunlight and life return to normal, knowing that you’ve just experienced one of nature’s greatest performances.

Useful Websites:

  • 10 Pack of Solar Eclipse Glasses: Amazon UK
  • One of several excellent resources for eclipse path and timing, and much more: Time and Date
    Guidance for equipment, exposures, etc.: Photographing Space
    The best tripod head for serious eclipse chasers, that enables micro adjustments to follow the eclipse across the sky: Manfrotto
    Right-angle viewfinders: Photographer’s Resource
    Optical class solar filter. Mylar sheet is cheaper but make sure you don’t puncture it: Rother Valley Optics

By Christopher Skelt

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