Sunday, September 3, 2017

Photographing the Total Solar Eclipse in 2024 - Best Tips Learned from 2017

Want Stunning Shots of the Next Total Solar Eclipse?

Follow these tips April 8, 2024 that I learned from The Great American Eclipse of 2017.

This photo of the 2017 Solar Eclipse below was a pleasant 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 - Nikon d300 with Nikkor 70-300 f/4-5.6  (f11 at 1/5 sec.) Natural colors


Best Tips for Photographing the 2024 Solar Eclipse

1.  Location, location, location: nothing is more important

  • Avoiding overcast skies.  Consider the general weather conditions of your chosen location. Some places have a much lower chance of clouds or rain in April.  San Antonio, TX gets just 3 days of rain in April, while Paducha, KY gets 8.  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! Weather is your biggest challenge.  Be ready to get up on eclipse day and drive 200 miles if need be.  Folks who drove from Charleston to Gaston, SC that morning exchanged total overcast for one of the best viewing conditions in the country in 2017.
  • Get in the path of totality. Do not settle for a partial eclipse.  A 99% eclipse is Zero percent like being in the path of totality.  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.   Drive the few extra miles.  For best results, get near the center line of the path. 
  • Think Texas.  For 2024, think central to south Texas for starters, west of San Antonio.  It's likely to be dry and clear in April. You'll get a very generous 4+minutes of totality there.
  • And, check out this Texas two-for:
From  Six months separate them.  West of San Antonio a likely first choice.  Book early.

  • Book your hotel many months in advance.  I recommend choosing modest accommodations so you're not so tempted to stay put if clouds become a factor. Arrive the night before so you don't get stuck on the highway and can scope out a place to set up.  If you have to travel that morning to find clear skies traffic shouldn't be a problem.  Most people will just stay put.  But if you're reading this, you are not most people.  You want amazing shots!
  • Choose a spot with a toilet nearby.  You don't want the call of nature to hit right at the wrong time.  And from the onset of the eclipse to the end of totality is about 90 minutes.  In 2017 we found a "lovely" little strip shopping center with a Wendy's.  It really was perfect.  And within 2 hours a couple hundred new friends had joined us, just 1 mile from the center of the path in Gaston.  You might want a pop up canopy and definitely bring a cooler.
A 99% eclipse is Zero % like being in the path of totality. Don't settle for a partial eclipse.  Make the short drive to get 100%.

2. 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(s) and bracketing with your camera, lens and tripod.  Don't skip this.  It will take at least a couple of sessions to get it right for your gear.

Solar Filter:  I used a 4"x4" solar filter film and an old oversized UV filter to make my own at a cost of about $10 US.  This allowed me to just slip it on and off the Nikkor 300mm lens.  But you can buy screw on solar filters to fit your lens or inexpensive slip-on solar filters by Astromania.  Do not use negative film or other "home brew" methods for filters.  And never point your camera at the sun w/o the filter (except during the totality).

Practice Steps: 
  1. Shoot at a time of day that matches when the solar eclipse will occur in your viewing area.  If it will be at noon, then do your practice around noon.  Look up times and places at sites such as this one.  For south Texas, the totality will start around 6:30pm.  But the onset of the eclipse will start about an hour earlier.
  2. Use Aperture Priority.  Don't use full Auto or Program.  You will examine which aperture for your chosen lens is sharpest in the following steps and set your camera to Aperture mode/priority.  All your shots will be at that aperture (see why below). Aperture and controlling vibration will determine the sharpness of your shots in this case. 
  3. Put your solar filter on before you point your lens at the sun.
  4. Set your zoom to what focal length you will be shooting at for the eclipse.  Probably the max.  I set mine to the max of 300mm, then tested for the sharpest aperture at that focal length.
  5. Try ISO 200 or 400 but no higher (dark areas get noise very easily in these shots).  I settled on 400.
  6.  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 to find the "sweet spot" for both exposure and the sharpest aperture (step 7).
  7. Then evaluate the photos at 100% zoom on your computer to see which is sharpest and closest to the exposure you want.  Most of the time you will have some Sun spots, little black dots on the sun, which should appear very sharp and detailed in the right combo of settings.  Note the sharpest f-stop and best exposure. That will be the "center" exposure of your bracketing for the sun before and after totality.  For me, f11 was best at max zoom.  f8 was OK, but f16 was a significantly more blurry.
  8. If all shots are blurry, you have a vibration issue, not a shutter speed issue.  Check your tripod, or upgrade to a rock solid one.  See more on vibration reduction in the "Essentials" below. 
  9. Consider practice shooting the Annular Eclipse six months earlier on Oct. 14, 2023.  You won't get totality (which is amazing!) but you will get a cool site and real practice for the total eclipse April 8, 2024.  Both will cross through Texas.   If you can just do one, skip the annular.

Why Aperture Mode?

Each lens has an aperture setting at which it is sharpest for a given focal length.  So if you plan to shoot at your lenses maximum zoom, say 300mm, try f/8, f/11, and f/16 at that focal length.  Then compare at 100% on your computer to see which is consistently sharper with fine details such as sun spots. 

Fast shutter speed is not a factor in sharpness when shooting the sun/eclipse.  You will be on a tripod, using a remote shutter release, and the sun moves slowly.  So 1/60, or even 1/30, is plenty fast.  The shot at the top was at 1/5 second!

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

I've done commercial photography but this is a very different subject:
 Photographically, it's two very different stages.  
1) Stage One:  As the moon is beginning to cross the face of the sun it will photograph exactly like the sun on any normal day.  This is true right up to the last 60-30 seconds or so before totality.   My EV for this first stage ranged from -3 to -5 on these shots, reflecting the fact the image was mostly black space with an orange ball at the center.  Your Auto setting won't know what to do with that!  It will try to average the shot to 50%--and way over expose it (The image below is cropped considerably.) 
The moon is just barely hitting the upper right rim of the sun

EV -5 for this "last sliver" before totality.  ISO 400, f11, 1/200

2) Stage Two:  Suddenly it will begin to darken rapidly and go into the totality where the corona is visible. You must take off your solar filter at that point (and your eclipse sun glasses).  It's safe to look at the sun at that point.  In Texas 2024 you'll have over 4 minutes.
  • During totality, the light changes every couple seconds.  You will have to shoot LOTS of exposures with very wide bracketing to get some decent ones.  Use auto-bracketing (see below) to shoot sets with Exposure Comp of 0, -1, and +1.  Do this over and over during totality. 
  • HDR-ish - My EV for the totality varied widely, from -7.3 to 1.33.  This was intentional.  Details of the sun's corona (atmosphere) and the solar flares require lower exposures.  But to capture the outer edges of the corona require a higher exposure.  There is no one setting to show both the extent of the corona from the sun and the feathery detail within it. 
  • The Corona and Prominences photo below is an HDR like combo of an EV -7.3 for corona and prominence details with a + 1.3 for the outer edges of the corona.  I blended them in Photoshop.  The dot to the upper left is Rigel.

solar eclipse corona & prominences
Solar Eclipse Corona and Prominences - Nikkor 70-300 f/4-5.6  (Combines two images, one at EV -7.3 and one at +1.3)
The outer edges of the corona were captured at ISO 400 f/11 at 1/2 second (EV 1.3) but the inner detail and solar prominences were shot at ISO 400 f/11 at 1/400 (EV -7.3), and the two images combined.  That's 8 2/3 stops variation to capture it all!

Of course during totality you remove the special solar filter. And you can also look with the naked eye at that time.
  • The sun moves!  In 30 seconds it is well out of center on a 300mm lens on a DX camera (or 450mm on a full frame). 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.
  • You don't get a retake.  The totality lasts only about 4 minutes and honestly you are likely to be emotionally blown away--so practice until everything becomes automatic.   One professional photographer said he was so overcome with emotion he forgot to shoot during totality.  Practice (and the "essentials" below) will help you not miss direct observation and enjoyment, while still getting great shots.  The period of totality is like nothing you have ever seen before.  There literally were no words to describe it in the crowd in 2017.  You couldn't say, "Well, it's like...."  And later trying to explain it to friends who got 90% eclipse back home was pointless.  Their experience was nothing like ours. 
  • Don't forget to have someone capture the overall experience with video.  I set up my iPhone on a clip holder in time lapse mode (2 hours in 27seconds), pointed back at our 10x10 canopy and my camera rig and the parking lot full of new friends, while my wife took a number of video clips, then just let it roll during the totality.  On the time lapse it was cool seeing the shadow hit distant clouds and make them disappear for a couple seconds.  Your smart phone won't get great shots of the sun during totality, so stick to wide shots that include people's reactions.  Great fun!  If you do want a video camera that will get excellent shots, consider the Nikon p900.  It's 2000mm zoom is truly amazing.  You can get one for around $350 on eBay.  Or by 2024 get the p1000 (4k) for probably about the same.  Sony RX10 III is also a bit higher quality contender for both super zoom video and stills.

4.  Follow These Essentials 

a.  You need to set AUTO-BRACKETING with very wide exposure latitudes, and practice until it is second nature and mindless.  You get maybe 4 minutes of totality and can't waste time digging in a manual.
  • Choose 1 full f-stop between bracket exposures.  I used 9 exposures, -4 to +4 of the "center" exposure that I had noted during my practice runs (see Practice section above).
  • During the totality, I took about 150 bracketed exposures to get about a dozen excellent shots.   

  • During Totality you need an even wider range of exposures than the pre-totality shots.  I alternated sets of 9 auto-bracketed shots at Exposure Compensations of 0, then -1, then +1.  

  • This was so automatic due to practice that I never felt like I was missing using my own eyes to watch the eclipse.  

b.  About every 30 seconds, I repositioned the camera since the sun moves.  Practice this as well beforehand so it's second nature.  If you are shooting at higher than 300mm DX (450mm full frame) then consider getting an inexpensive equatorial wedge attachment for your tripod.  Then you only have to adjust left to right, and not up and down as well.  You will have to make more frequent adjustments at higher zooms.

c.  BAD VIBRATIONS:  You must tame them!
  • How important is vibration reduction?  It's crucial in astronomical photography.  In the photo at top 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.
  • I practiced in my studio using a bright light reflecting off a small shiny 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 alone would make a pinpoint light look like a hyphen vs. a period.
  • Shooting astronomical objects reveals even tiny motion blur that is masked in normal photos.  The details in the Sun's corona will be blurred.  Sun spots and stars will appear streaked or as a double image.
  • Bad Vibes:  At one point in 2017, just before totality, a car drove up with 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.
    • You absolutely need:
                     A very steady tripod
                     Solid ground
                     Remote/cable shutter release
                     And Exposure Delay or mirror lock if you use a DSLR, vs. a mirrorless
    • VR won't help. It's not designed for these tiny, higher frequency vibrations, only handheld camera shake.  In fact, it can introduce vibration.  I was skeptical when I first read this tip.  But trial and error verified than in many cases it actually produced slightly blurry images.  And it never produced sharper ones.  Your on a tripod with a remote release after all.

    Follow these vibration busting tips:
    • You must get a cable/remote release and use it.  Otherwise you will get a blurry mess.  Pressing my shutter button by hand almost always caused blur, despite a steady tripod and light hand. I used an MC-30a Remote Trigger Release for Nikon.  I was advised not to use a wireless remote on this occasion as there could be dozens of other users in the same area.  I advise the same.
    • 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 mirror slap vibrations to die.  On the Nikon, exposure delay works with auto-bracketing perfectly.   
    • If you are shooting on a mirrorless camera you don't need to worry about mirror lock or exposure delay.

    d.  Shoot RAW.  This adds 2-3 stops of exposure control you would not otherwise have.  That can save a shot.
    • Subscribe to Adobe for LightRoom Classic 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.  
    • Lightroom CC claims to have the same tools/features as Lightroom Classic, but they are the same in name only.  But that's another blog post.  Use Classic (pro).
    e.  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!  It 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.
    f.  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 and 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 now eclipsed sun and lock on.  After about 4 attempts it did and I re-locked 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:  

    g.  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.  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.   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. 
    • 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.

    Follow these tips, book your room way in advance and practice!  Good luck!

    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

    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.  ISO 400 f11 at 1/400 second

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