Follow these tips in 2024 that I learned from The Great American Eclipse of 2017.
This Shot of the Solar Eclipse Was a Total Surprise! But the result of following these tips, having never done this before.
|Total Solar Eclipse 2017 -Diamond Ring - Nikkor 70-300 f/4-5.6 - Natural colors|
1. Location, location, location! Follow these guidelines if you want to have the best chance at photographic a solar eclipse:
- Consider the general weather conditions of your chosen location. Some places have a much lower chance of clouds or rain. Weather sites can give you the skinny. Research not just rain but typical atmospheric "clarity". Visit Clear Sky.
- Book your hotel and choose your location many months in advance. We booked our modest room 9 months out. Why modest? See the next point...
- Stay mobile so you can find good weather if need be! Does the location allow you to drive a couple hundred miles either way last minute to find good viewing conditions? If you book a resort you may be tempted to stay put. Modest and mobile is the key. Commit to it ahead of time and prepare (everyone in your party) to bug out if need be.
- Do not settle for a partial eclipse. A 95% eclipse is 0% like being in the path of totality. Drive the extra miles. For best result, get near the center line of the path.
- Choose a spot with a toilet nearby. We found a lovely little strip shopping center with a Wendy's. Actually it was perfect. And within 2 hours a hundred friends had joined us just 1 mile from the center of the path. You don't want the call of nature to hit right at the wrong time.
A 95% eclipse is 0% like being in the path of totality
|Solar Eclipse Corona and Prominences - Nikkor 70-300 f/4-5.6|
- Don't book a fancy resort or you will be tempted to just stay even if the weather turns foul
I've done commercial photography but this is a very different subject:
- The light changes every couple seconds
- Your auto exposure is worthless! You will need to know what the optimal "center" exposure for the sun is at the time of day the eclipse will occur. Of course this setting only applies BEFORE or after the totality hits. The settings will be different once the totality occurs, as the moon is in front of the sun. But again, your auto exposure won't work because it's still a bright objected surrounded by blackness. And the light continues to shift during the totality. Of course during totality you remove the special solar filter. And you can also look with the naked eye at that time.
- You need to set auto-bracketing with very wide exposure latitudes and practice until it is second nature and mindless. You get maybe 2.5 minutes of totality and can't waste time digging in a manual. (And it's a very emotional experience. Some have been so amazed they forgot to shoot or they were so distracted they messed up. And you want your eyes on the eclipse, not your camera.) Choose 1 full f-stop between bracket exposures. I use 9 exposures, -4 to +4 and the "center" shot.
- You must get a cable release and use it. Otherwise you will get a blurry mess.
- Lock your mirror up or choose the "Exposure Delay" setting (Nikon) which allows a short 1/2 second or so delay after the mirror flips up before the exposure is taken. This allows vibrations to die. How important is this? In the photo above do you see the tiny white dot to the upper left? That's the star Rigel. The tiny vibrations from mirror slap would make that a blurry mess! But practice and testing helped me discover this ahead of time. And I have a very, very steady tripod by the way. For Nikon the Exposure Delay is the way to go vs. mirror lock. And it works with auto-bracketing perfectly. Every time I pressed the cable release the Nikon clicked off 9 shots each 1 f stop apart (-4 to +4 and the "center" exposure I chose) and each was delayed a half second to allow the mirror slap to die.
- You need to try to shoot RAW. Subscribe to Adobe for LightRoom even if you drop it after you process your shots. It's only about $10 a month. And it's miles and miles ahead of trying to use Photoshop for RAW. Far easier (very easy!) and more effective. RAW gives you a couple more f-stops of adjustment which can save a great shot.
- The sun also moves. In 30 seconds it is well out of center on a 300mm lens on a DX camera. And you will have to adjust in both vertical and horizontal directions since the sun makes an arc through the sky. Practice that weeks and days before as you shoot test shots of the sun with your approved solar filter.
- And you don't get a retake. The totality lasts only about 2.5 minutes and honestly you are likely to be emotionally blown away--so practice until everything becomes automatic.
- Control Vibrations. At 300mm on a DX or 450mm on a full frame DSLR even the slightest vibrations such as the mirror slapping up, will blur your shots. You absolutely need a very steady tripod, cable release, and do the Exposure Delay or mirror lock. At one point, just before totality, a teen drove up in a car with one of those giant bass thumper speakers. He was 100 feet or more away and it was shaking everyone's cameras. You could see it just looking through the viewfinder! We had to go over and ask him to turn it down. I practiced in my studio using a bright light reflecting off a small round plastic object to create some pinpoint reflections. I was amazed viewing at 100% crop just how used we get to small motion and vibration blur. The mirror slap would make a pinpoint light look like a hyphen vs. a period.
- Lens: recommend minimum 300mm on a DX and 450mm on a full frame DSLR. I found even the very modest Nikkor 70-300 f/4-5.6G ($169 at B&H Photo) did a great job, largely because I tested well ahead of time to find the optimal f-stop for sharpness and locked it there! Was plenty sharp at 300mm despite what you might read. See for yourself above. Higher megapixel count won't improve the vibration factor. So shooting 200mm but cropping a 24MP image will still reveal all the nastiness of even slight vibrations.
- Practice all the settings until it is automatic. The one thing I could not practice was the sudden cooling effect of the sun going into totality. My lens cooled rapidly and the focus, which had been locked to pretty much infinity, suddenly went blurry in about 10 seconds! It was a cheap no frills Nikon 70-300mm lens ($110 refurb from B&H) and had no manual focus ring. I had used the auto focus to lock in on the edge of the sun then locked it. But now I had to find the switch, turn it to auto, desperately try to get it to find the eclipsed sun and lock on. After about 4 attempts it did and I relocked it. But I lost about 15 seconds. And had I not been very familiar with the controls I would have missed the most visually stunning part by far. And that brings me to the last point:
- Practice with different f-stops ahead of time and lock the sharpest one in. In your test shots of the sun take note of how sharp the sun spots are. Assuming you are doing all the vibration control above shutter speeds of 1/15 or faster will work and you will see major differences in sharpness in a subject like the sun depending on your f-stop. Astronomical objects need pin point precision sharpness for best results--unlike many normal subjects. Find the sharpest f-stop for your lens. Set it to that and don't change it. Repeat: use aperture priority. Don't let another site tell you otherwise. I tested both. No contest. Let your auto-bracket adjust shutter speed alone. Not ISO or aperture.
- Use a low to moderate ISO avoid grain. I used ISO 400 to avoid any grain on my older Nikon. Newer cameras get better grain performance at higher ISO's than that. The reason to avoid grain is in case you have to boost exposure post production.
- Try your lens with and without vibration reduction. Believe it or not sometimes the VR can actually make things worse zoomed in at 300-450mm because the motor shakes the camera and creates blur.
The flare and corona on the top image above are all natural colors. Rigel appears as a tiny white dot in the upper left. The diamond ring flares beautifully in this very modest ($110 open box) lens.
Settings for the first image at top:
1/5 second exposure at f/11 at 300mm on a Nikkor 70-300 f/4-5.6G. Shot in RAW. No solar filter during the totality of course. It's safe to look at the sun directly during totality too. Another reason not to settle for 95% eclipse.
See and download my full sized solar eclipse images at Shutterstock and iStock.
Here is a composite I made of the phases of the total solar eclipse of 2017.
Below - solar prominences (flares). While not commercial quality, not bad for a plain old DSLR and a cheap 70-300mm zoom
|Not bad for an old Nikon DSLR and $110 Nikkor 70-300mm zoom|