Sunday, September 3, 2017

Photographing the Total Solar Eclipse in 2024 - Tips I Learned from 2017 - Diamond Ring

Want Stunning Shots of the Next Total Solar Eclipse?

Follow these tips in 2024 that I learned from The Great American Eclipse of 2017.

This photo of the 2017 Solar Eclipse below was a total surprise!  I'd never shot the sun before.  Yet it was the result of following these straightforward tips, practice, and some luck.

Total Solar Eclipse 2017 -Diamond Ring - Nikkor 70-300 f/4-5.6 - Natural colors


1.  Location, location, location!  
  • Weather is your biggest challenge.  Stay mobile!
  • Do not settle for a partial eclipse.  A 99% eclipse is Zero percent like being in the path of totality.  Drive the extra miles.  For best result, get near the center line of the path.  Nearly everyone in my home town where the eclipse was over 90%, said, "Uh,, sort of."  That wasn't the response just a hundred miles south, in the path.  There almost were no words.  Everyone was amazed and literally couldn't find words to describe it because there was nothing anyone had seen to compare it to.  Being in the 99% area is like having someone open the exit door in the middle of a movie.  And you won't be able to take off your dark eclipse glasses as you can during the totality if you are in the path.  Rant ended.
  • 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" and "stability."  This is an astronomical event and small differences matter..  Visit Clear Sky.
  • Stay mobile so you can find good weather last minute 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 fancy 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. 
            In Gaston, SC we totally lucked out by having one of the driest, clearest, most atmospherically stable conditions probably all summer.  We were joined last minute by a dozens of people drove hundreds of miles last minute to join us.  It turned out we had some of the very best conditions anywhere in the US.  That was just pure luck!  But because they were mobile, they joined our luck.
          We had considered staying in Charleston on the coast, but realized we would only have one direction to move if weather turned bad.  And we didn't want the conflict of a cool setting vs. picking up and driving a couple hours last minute if need be.
  • Book your hotel many months in advance.  I recommend choosing modest accommodations so you're not so tempted to stay put.
  • Choose a spot with a toilet nearby.  You don't want the call of nature to hit right at the wrong time.  In 2017 we found a "lovely" little strip shopping center with a Wendy's.  Actually it was perfect.  And within 2 hours a couple hundred new friends had joined us, just 1 mile from the center of the path. 
A 99% eclipse is Zero % like being in the path of totality. Don't settle for a partial eclipse.  It's nothing like being in the path.  Make the short drive, even if just to watch it and take a few snaps with your smart phone.
solar eclipse corona & prominences
Solar Eclipse Corona and Prominences - Nikkor 70-300 f/4-5.6

2.  Practice, practice, practice your shooting!  The Nikon's tip site for the Eclipse was fantastic.  But it's best advice was to get the solar filter way in advance and practice shooting the sun on a non-eclipse day and bracketing with your camera, lens and tripod. 

Fred Espenak recommends setting the aperture between f/8 and f/16, then shooting a very wide range of exposure times from 1/4000 to 1/30.  Then evaluate to see which is sharpest and closest to the exposure you want.

Each lens has an aperture setting at which it is sharpest for a given focal length.  So if you plan to shoot at 300mm, try f/8, f/11, and f/16 to see which is consistently sharper.

Take your filter, lens and camera out days before and practice shooting the sun at approximately the same time of day as the eclipse.

And above all, take the following steps....

3.  Don't treat the eclipse like a normal subject.

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/remote release and use it.  Otherwise you will get a blurry mess.  Shooting astronomical objects reveals even tiny motion blur that is masked in normal photos.  The details in the Sun's corona will be blurred.  Background stars will appear streaked or as a double image.
  • 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.  And using Lightroom's dehaze tool can help as well.
  • The sun 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 days 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, solid ground, remote release, and do the Exposure Delay or mirror lock. 

    At one point, just before totality, a car drove up 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 in 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.  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. It was no contest in terms of sharpness.  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, but it's doubtful that fast than 400 is necessary.  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. 

    You're on a tripod so VR shouldn't be necessary and can actually be a problem.  Test it with and without to find the sharpest!
  • Shoot a lot!  I shot about 400 exposures of the eclipse.  But the one that surprised me the most is the one at the top.  This was partly a fluke of timing.  I got lucky:  As the auto-bracket was +3 or 4 the sun was coming out of totality and the second Diamond Ring was appearing.  I just kept firing since I didn't need to look through the view finder.  Why not?  I'm glad I did.

    The result was this amazing shot, made better by the bargain Nikkor lens having a more modest optical coating. I've seen thousands of shots of the Diamond Ring but none like this one. 

    Practice, preparation, tons of shots and some luck.  I hope April 8, 2024 you get some great shots too!

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 99% 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.
total solar eclipse 2017 phases
Follow my tips and with a little luck you can create images like the above in 2024.

Below - solar prominences (flares).  While not commercial quality, not bad for a plain old DSLR and a cheap 70-300mm zoom
Solar eclipse close up prominences flares
Not bad for an old Nikon DSLR and $110 Nikkor 70-300mm zoom

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