Solar Eclipse Photography and Sound

Photographing an Eclipse is really four completely separate things;
The Big One! July 11 1991, almost six minutes of totality

click to enlarge

The Diamond Ring

1/250 second, F5.6, asa 100

400 mm lens, cropped by about 75% here

click to enlarge

The Full Corona

1/15 second, F5.6, ASA 100

400 mm lens, cropped by about 50% here

Recording the EVENT.

  In the long term view, this is the most satisfying task.  The photos you take of the people, activities and general festival-like atmosphere are the ones you will remember and share.  Your pictures of the sun and corona, they will look just like everyone else's, and they will be technically inferior to shots taken with amazing equipment that you can't afford.  The pictures you take of the event as you experience it are uniquely yours, and do not depend on expensive equipment.  


Me & Irene

Equipment Check

Likewise, the sounds of the eclipse (before, during and after) are an integral part of your memory of the event.  Recording sound was frequently suggested at eclipse warm-up talks, but I don't know anyone else who has actually done it.   For my fifth total eclipse, I finally followed through.  I watched and listened to the eclipse of March 29, 2006 in Salloum Egypt, and recorded sound continuously for 4 1/2 hours as I wandered around the viewing site and the event unfolded.  The recording device was an MP3 player/recorder made by IRiver.  It's about the size of a pack of gum, and has many hours of recording capacity.  I just hung it around my neck while I wandered. That recording (edited down to 50 minutes, 12mb) paired with this gallery of images is a unique memory refresher for the event.

Photographing the SUN.

...During the partial phases before and after totality. don't try it without special filters, specifically designed for that purpose. Otherwise, you will ruin your camera and/or your vision. Suitable filters can be found at reasonable prices in popular Astronomy magazines, such as Sky and Telescope. I use the "Solar Skreen" from Tuthill. The only really good reason to have a direct viewing filter for your camera is to allow you to aim your tripod-mounted camera before totality begins. You can get almost as accurately set up by using the shadow of your camera as a guide.

However, unless you're a complete die hard, don't bother. Photos of the sun before totality are considerably less interesting that photos of the moon. The best you'll get are a few sunspots.

Instead, I recommmend indirect photos, which can include interesting background and human subjects. For example, you can photograph the image of the cresent sun being projected onto a piece of cardboard through a pinhole. You will probably be with a lot of other excited people, with lots of fancier equipment than you. Use them as your subjects. My best before eclipse photos are of a crowd of people surrounding a large telescope, projecting the solar image onto an 8x10 ground glass.

Partial phase with Solar Skreen

Partial Eclipse projected by a hat

Partial Eclipse projected by a small telescope

Photographing the Corona

In general, no special equipment or preparations are needed. Starting from the "Entry Diamond Ring" phase (as the last rays of direct sun disappear) until the "Exit Diamond Ring" phase, you can observe the eclipse directly with your eyes and camera.
If your camera has an onboard flash, make sure it's off! off! off!. You'll make no friends by popping a flash in the eyes of companions who are trying to view the eclipse.
Turn off autofocus and focus at infinity. If you can, lock the focus. If you can't, tape your focus ring so it won't be moved accidentally.
Since you'll be using a long, and therefore slow lense, use your maximum (largest) f-stop, which will probably be in the f5.6 to f11 range.
All sutter speeds will produce interesting results, ranging from 1/500 all the way up to multiple seconds. The longer the time, the more corona. The shorter times show solar prominences. No single exposure will ever look like it does to your eye. This isn't bracketing to find the "right" shutter speed: you will really get very different, interesting photos at each shutter speed.
Overall planning
 I recommend you have your equipment generally ready, but with your lens capped, before totality. *WATCH* the entry diamond ring, then the eclipse itself for at least half the expected time. Then start with longer exposures and work your way down to the vicinity of 1/500 f8 asa 100 for the closing diamond ring. IMMEDIATELY after the closing ring, cover your lenses and avert your eyes.

Use Long Lenses (400-800mm) if you're attempting a sun only shot. The sun is small, 1/2 degree, so unless you use long lenses, your frame won't be satisfactorally filled. If your lense is too long, and you make long exposures for maximum corona, you won't be able to capture the full solar corona in the frame.
 If the sun will be near enough the horizon, there are also interesting possibilities in capturing the sun with other objects visible. The overall lighting during totality is similar to at dusk, with a 360 degree sunset visible all the way around the horizon.

Use slow film (ASA 100 or less). An eclipse is almost completely a B&W event, and if you're interested only in "deep corona" shots, B&W film might be the right choice. But there are enough exceptions that I recommend color film. The only source of color close to the sun is solar prominences, which are red.
I recommend slide film, even if you intend making prints. Non-custom prints are likely to be pretty disappointing.

Film? What Film? (Shooting Digital)

At my most recent Eclipse, everyone was shooting digital.  A few die-hards had film cameras too.  In general, the instructions for film still apply, except you don't have to worry about the lab cutting up your film.   Two points though:
Changing film
You won't have time. Shoot only as much film as you have bodies for. You won't have enough time to reload. You probably won't even have time to change bodies on your lense. See Practice
Other accessories
A right-angle viewing attachment is very handy - dealing with the dazzle factor of the sun, before totality, is very hard. You don't need a full fledged right angle viewer; a spare prism you can hold in front of your regular eyepiece is fine. You MUST use proper filters before totality, right angle viewer or not.

Automatic bracketing is a great time saver, if your camera has the capability.  My Minolta Maxxum has a "bracketing card" that can be set to shoot 7 frames at 1 stop increments.  With this card activated, I can shoot a full range of eclipse exposures while changing the camera settings only once.


Don't go to K-mart or 1-Hour photo. Shoot a normal frame at the beginning of each roll, to help the negative-cutter line up. Have the camera store mark the film for special attention. If you're really paranoid, have them develop only, no slicing and mounting.


Practice shooting eclipse sequences by shooting the full moon. Use a timer. Waste a few rolls of film getting it right. Or practice without film. The eclipse will be TOO SHORT and will not wait for you.  It's particularly important to practice aiming and framing the photos. The edges of the frame will be black, so you won't be able to see where they are.  Instead, you have to practice panning a little each way, until the image starts to clip against the edges of the field, then pan back halfway to put the bright stuff in the approximate center.
An Example
Here the full sequence I shot during the Aug 11, 1999 eclipse, in Turkey, using ASA 100 Fujichrome, A 400MM Lens, Minolta Maxxum and a bracketing card.  The bracketing card was set to shoot a sequence of 7 exposures +- 3 stops from the initial exposure.  The first frame is a "normal" frame to help the film cutter with framing.  The first row and last row capture the leading and trailing "diamond ring" effect..  The middle two rows capture the early-middle and late-middle of the eclipse. I had to adjust exposures, check framing,  and press the shutter only 3 times during the eclipse.  Without the bracketing card, there is no way I could have shot so many frames during this brief eclipse. (Or for that matter, would have wanted to even if possible.  Watching is the main event.).  For the truely serious, try the Umbraphile; a build-it-yourself interface for your Macintosh to control your camera.
click to enlarge


Don't forget to stop and look. I had almost 6 minutes, and it wasn't long, believe me. Most eclipses are much shorter. It will be a tradgedy if you end up with some great shots, but all you can remember is frantically manipulating your camera.

Since photographing this Eclipse in 1991, I've made it a point to schedule vacations around the possibility of viewing another solar eclipse.  I've been lucky so far:  in India in 1996, in the Carribbean in 1998, and in Turkey Aug 11, 1999.  Next stop TBA.

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