Planning your Solar Eclipse Photoshoot

June 14, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Step 1 - Learn what time the Eclipse will begin

The Solar Eclipse will take place on August 21st in the US.  While the Total Eclipse will only be visible in a narrow band across the country, virtually everyone should be able to see a partial eclipse.  Use this interactive website to see what time the eclipse will occur at your location.  You can choose any location using the search bar.  Try typing in your address or zip code to see what the eclipse will look like from your house.  For an even more detailed look, you can click the map icon and select your exact location.  The map also shows exactly where the Total Eclipse will pass over.  Use this map to plan a schedule for the day.

The image below shows the time frame for my location.  I want to have my camera gear setup and ready by 9:45am.  I can then fine tune my composition and make sure my camera settings are correct.  The eclipse will begin for me at 10:07am.

Eclipse graphThe Total Eclipse will begin at 11:37 for my location


Step 2 - Determine Sun's Location

If you are staying home to see the eclipse, you should already know where the sun will be.  However, if you are traveling to a new location for the solar eclipse, you should learn exactly where the sun will be.  I am planning to head into the Wyoming wilderness for my photoshoot.  I will explain how I planned out my location.

After using the map mentioned in Step 1, I knew exactly what time the eclipse would happen.  With that information, I need to know where the sun will be in the sky, during the eclipse.  For that, I used Stellarium.  Stellarium is a free desktop application I use for planning my Milky Way photos.  You can also download it on your smartphone.

Since I will be in the remote wilderness, I need exact coordinates.  I used Google Maps to place a pin and find the Latitude and Longitude.  I then took those coordinates and plugged them into Stellarium's Location window.  However, if you are near a major city this should be easier.  You can click on the map inside Stellarium, roughly near your location.  Start typing your city name, it should pop up.

Google Maps ScreenshotGoogle Maps Coordinates

Stellarium ScreenshotUse the Location Window to manually adjust your Latitude and Longitude

Next, I changed the date in Stellarium to August 21, and the time to the Total Eclipse.  Remember, you can find all the eclipse times in Step 1.  Once you have the proper date, time, and location, you should see the solar eclipse in Stellarium.   

WARNING: Stellarium uses your computer's local time, regardless of which time zone your destination is in.  I live in Ohio, Eastern Time Zone.  Wyoming is in the Mountain Time Zone.  (A -2 hour difference)  Therefore, Stellarium was two hours off.  According to Stellarium, the eclipse would occur at 1:37.  It was not factoring in the difference from Eastern to Mountain time.  The eclipse actually occurs at 11:37 Mountain time.  This is why I had you look up your location on the map in Step 1, so you know the correct time for your destination.  Make sure to set the time in Stellarium to account for your time zone difference.

Now that you know where the sun will be in the sky during the eclipse, you can plan around it.

Sun locationSun location in Wyoming

Let's say you are in Grand Teton National Park.  The sun will be high in the Southeastern sky.  If you are too close to a mountain peak, you may not be able to see the sun.  Use Google Earth to zoom into your ideal location.  You can use the compass in the lower right to verify you are facing southeast.  This should help you plan a landscape photo, if you want to go that route.

Google Earth ScreenshotLooking Southeast in Google Earth


Step 3 - Pick your Lens


Option 1 - Telephoto.  I will be using a Tamron 150-600mm, which should allow me to get the sun fairly large in the frame.  Keep in mind, the sun is roughly the size of the moon, as we see it from Earth.  Therefore, you will need a high-power zoom to capture the eclipse in detail.  The photo below is how large the sun should look at 600mm on a Full Frame camera.  If you are using a Crop Sensor camera, the sun will appear a bit larger.  Click here to see an the difference between Full Frame and Crop Sensor at 600mm

600mm Moon600mm Full Frame example


Option 2 - Wide Angle.  Once the moon covers the entire sun, and the Total Eclipse begins, the landscape will be plunged into darkness.  This can be an interesting time to use a wide-angle lens.  You can capture a surreal landscape as well as the eclipse.  Keep in mind, the sun will be a small speck in the overall composition.  The image below shows the eclipse at 14mm on a Full Frame camera.



Step 4 - Safety

The intense sunlight will damage your eyes, lens, and camera if not properly protected.  You will need a special Solar Filter attached to the front of your lens to protect from the damaging rays.  You also need special sunglasses to protect your eyes.  You can find them on B&H.  

I recommend using these solar filters from Thousand Oaks.  These filters will screw onto the front of your lens, you just need to order the correct filter thread size.  If you are unsure what filter thread you need, look at your lens.  You should see a marking like this ⌀67mm somewhere on it.  Or you can Google search for your lens, it should also tell you the filter thread size.  Be sure to order these as soon as possible, as they may take up to 3 weeks to ship out!

I recently received my threaded filter, it took about 4 weeks to actually get the filter from when I ordered it.   I had originally thought the filter would be some sort of glass.  In reality, it's a weird mylar / polymer material.  I was not expecting that.  Frankly, you might be better off buying a sheet of the material and taping it over your lens.  It would be a lot cheaper.  Here's a link to a sheet of specialized mylar / polymer material to place over the front of your lens.  This will have the same effect as the threaded filters.

solar filterThreaded Solar Filter

Do not try to photograph the eclipse without these special filters.  Also, don't use any ND filters or polarizers.  The solar filter is all you need.


Step 5 - Practice Before the Eclipse

Once you have your solar filter, you can safely photograph the sun.  I would recommend practicing with different lenses and camera settings to get comfortable first.  You can now see exactly how large the sun is going to look in your photo.  This will allow you to see how much zoom you want ahead of time.

This is the time to learn all of your camera settings.  Try different White Balances and see what looks best with your solar filter.  If you are still new to photography, or your camera, make sure you get comfortable with all the buttons and dials.  You need to know how to quickly change your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.  If you don't know what these settings do, read my Beginner's Guide to Photography.

Practice your camera settings on a normal sunny day.  Attach the solar filter, and zoom in on the sun.  I would start at f/5.6, 1/200sec and ISO 100.  I took the sun photo below using those settings.  It's surprising how much light the solar filter blocks!  When you look through the viewfinder the sun will be very faint.  Remember, you absolutely need to use a proper solar filter to photograph the sun!


With that being said, if you put this solar film over a wide angle lens (14mm for example), the scene will be too dark to photograph.  You won't be able to take a normal landscape picture.  If you plan to do a landscape photo with the solar eclipse, I would wait until the Total Eclipse stage, which is safe to photograph without a filter. 

Keep in mind, the sun will stay the same brightness during the partial eclipse.  You shouldn't need to adjust your settings once you have a good exposure.  However, once the Total Eclipse begins, you must take off your Solar Filter and adjust your camera settings.

While you are practicing, write down your Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO once you have a properly exposed photo of the sun.  You can save it in your phone's notes, and use that as a starting point during the actual eclipse.

Make sure to look at your histogram, it will tell you if the highlights are being clipped.  If you notice a large spike on the right side of the histogram, you are losing the detail in the sun.  You need to adjust your settings to capture less light.  (faster shutter speed or smaller aperture)  The image below shows a blown-out sky, and you can see the histogram has a large spike on the right.  Most cameras have the option to see the Histogram on your Playback screen, read your manual if you are unsure how to enable this feature.

Clipped HighlightsClipped Highlights

You should also have a stable tripod that can easily hold your camera setup.  You don't want to have to worry about hand-holding a big lens during a solar eclipse.  Also, make sure you can easily maneuver the tripod up, down, left and right.  

See if your camera has an intervalometer.  Most DSLR's have this function built in; you should be able to find it in your camera's photo shooting menu.  Visit the LonelySpeck website to see if your camera has an intervalometer.  This feature will allow the camera to automatically start taking photos, while you sit back and enjoy the view.  Simply specify how many photos you want to take, and how long the interval should be.  You can set the interval to any combination of seconds or minutes.  For example, you can set the interval to 20 seconds.  The camera will now take 1 photo every 20 seconds.


Photographing the Solar Eclipse

Once you have your location planned out, the lens you want to use, the solar filter, and your solar sunglasses, you should be ready to go.  

Make sure your camera is set to RAW, you will want the increased flexibility of a RAW file for these photos.  You may wish to shoot in RAW+JPEG, if you normally only shoot in JPEG.

As the moon starts to move across the sun, start taking test shots.  Put the camera into Manual Mode and Manual Focus.  Look back at your notes you made during practice, and adjust the settings.  Make sure everything looks good  (exposure, sharpness, white balance).  Once the images start looking good, you can turn on the Intervalometer and let the camera take photos on its own, while you enjoy the view.  

CAUTION:  If the camera is left on Auto-Focus while using the Intervalometer, it will try to auto-focus every time it takes a photo.  It's possible this will cause you to lose sharp focus.  I recommend putting the lens to Manual Focus so that you know it is sharp.  Just triple-check the photo is actually sharp (zoom in all the way).

Right before the Total Eclipse begins, within a few seconds, you should remove your solar filter.  You can safely photograph the sun in this stage without it.  This stage will only last around 2 minutes, if you are in the direct path of the eclipse.  As soon as the Total Eclipse is over, you must put on the solar filter again.

To learn how long the different phases of the eclipse will last, check out this interactive Google Map.  You can click anywhere on the map to get detailed information on the duration of the Total Eclipse and partial eclipse.  Look for 'Duration of Totality' to see how long the Total Eclipse will last.


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