Tips on How to Shoot the Solar Eclipse

August 18, 2017
Tips and Techniques
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For the first time in over 40 years, the path of the moon’s shadow will cross the continental United States in the form of a total solar eclipse. For reference, the best selling camera 40 years ago was the Canon AE-1 and Adorama was still a year away from going into business. A lot has changed! While it’s tempting to want to whip out the camera for some killer pics or video on the day of the event, a total solar eclipse is a tricky beast, and a potentially dangerous one at that. Here’s what you need to know to safely and happily shoot the solar eclipse.

Know Your Phases

There is a reason that you can’t turn on the news or read social media without learning the importance of finding the right glasses to wear during the eclipse. The sun is bright! Looking at it can hurt your eyes, so you need to be careful. If your camera is looking at the eclipse too, it needs to be treated the same way.

If you’re shooting with a smartphone or at a wide angle, your camera’s sensor should be fine. However, aiming a zoom or telephoto lens directly at the sun can cause damage to your sensor, blown-out images and, if you’re looking through a viewfinder, permanent damage to your eye as well. Getting hold of one online is easier said than done at this point as many have sold out, but if you find one, make sure it’s designed to shoot the sun and not just a regular ND filter. Once you get hold of a filter, however, you’re not done.

The total phase of a solar eclipse is when the moon’s shadow has completely covered the sun’s face. When that happens, your image is going to get much darker and you’re going to need to be prepared to take the solar filter off of your camera. The total phase is only going to last a few minutes, and it’s only going to be available to you if you’re shooting in the path of totality, so you’re going to want to be ready when it happens.

Know Your Gear

Let’s get the boring part out of the way. Bring a tripod. It’s obvious, but it had to be said. Moving on!

What’s less obvious is the right focal length to use to capture the eclipse. How big do you want the sun to be in the image? Remember, the eclipse is more than just the total phase, and the Sun’s corona (the beautiful exterior that becomes visible during the total phase) extends well beyond the moon’s shadow. These are all things to keep in mind when shooting.

If you want to capture the corona, Nikon USA recommends full-frame shooters stick to focal lengths of 1400mm or less, with ASP-C shooters going no higher than 900mm. If you want to get as close as possible, corona be damned, you aren’t going to want to go higher than 2000mm full-frame or 1300mm ASP-C.

For exposure, your best bet is to get the gear you want to use and, if you have a solar filter, get your settings right on the days leading up the eclipse and use your camera’s histogram to get the right exposure. While there, practice removing the solar filter and knocking down your exposure bracket, as that’s the most precise way to maintain your image when the total phase occurs. Here’s a handy eclipse exposure guide to get you started.

Solar filters are a must for

Also, shoot RAW if you can! It gives you some flexibility for editing in post. With such a strong contrast of highlights and shadows in an eclipse, RAW settings for whatever camera you use is a must. This is a rare event, you might as well make the most of it!

Finally, if you’re a photographer, keep that shutter speed high. You’re photographing moving subjects with high-contrast lighting, you don’t want any blur. The same goes for videographers, provided it fits within the aesthetic you’re looking for.

Note: No Flash!

Not that anyone would use a flash knowingly anyway, but during an event where the people around you want to see the bright thing in the sky, having your flash go off accidentally could distract everybody’s vision and cause a lot of 40-year grudges you don’t want to be the recipient of.

Cameras

If you’re thinking about renting a camera for the eclipse, you have a lot of good options, but there are a few qualities you’ll want to prioritize. For photographers, a high pixel count, RAW capabilities, and a crop sensor would help ease your burden for finding the perfect lens. For Videographers, high resolution is a must, with RAW capabilities, a crop factor, and good timelapse options being important as well.

With all of that in mind, photographers and videographers could use something like Panasonic GH5. The Micro Four Thirds mount gives you lens flexibility and additional crop factor (it’s a good thing this time!). It also checks the box with RAW, 20.3 MP, photos, 10-bit 4K video, and a price that won’t break the bank.

Another good option might be the new Sony a9. With 24.4 MP, lightning fast shutter speeds, and 4K video, it’s built to kick ass in scenarios like this.

To all of the filmmakers and photographers looking to shoot the eclipse, good luck!

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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