I know, I know. The image above doesn’t depict an eclipse and that’s mostly because I’ve never photographed one yet. But, I have photographed the sun many times and I like palm trees, so there’s that. :) All jokes aside, on August 21st, 2017, a rare celestial event—the total solar eclipse—will occur over a swath of the United States. The last time a total solar eclipse was visible over the United States was in 1979, one year after I was born, and future events are scheduled in 2024 and 2045, so you can appreciate the mass interest. For many, this could be their last opportunity to see the moon completely block the sun and its light, turning day into night for a short period of time. To help make the most out of this rare and fleeting event, I put together 5 tips for photographing the total solar eclipse.
Tip #1 – Know where you need to be
This is a massive opportunity for photographers to get creative with how this phenomenon is captured, assuming that you are able to get yourself situated within the “Path of Totality“. Fortunately, the path cuts diagonally across the United States, touching 14 states. It will begin just after 9:00AM PDT in my former home state of Oregon, cutting right through my current home state of Nebraska, and depart across South Carolina just after 4:00PM EDT. There are tons of helpful websites offering detailed maps and animations of the projected Path of Totality and you’ll want to do whatever you can to get somewhere on the blue line of the path to ensure maximum viewing time of the total eclipse. I highly recommend Eclipse2017.org and, of course, Wikipedia.org. If you plan on traveling to an area along this path, I highly recommend getting your airfare and lodging booked. Many hotels along the path will surely be totally booked, so prepare accordingly.
[UPDATE:] Several news organizations are already reporting an increase in price fairs to airports within the path of totality. Better get to it!
Tip #2 – Protect Your Eyes
Odds are that you’re taking plenty of precaution to protect your camera lens and sensor to photograph the eclipse. Odds are also that if you’ve heard about the upcoming solar eclipse, you’ve also heard something about the precautions you need to take if you intend of watching it with your own eyes. While there has been more than enough fear mongering over what can happen if you watch the eclipse with your naked eyes (thanks, Internet!), some preparation and protection is highly recommended.
There is minimal danger in viewing the total eclipse with your eyes while the moon is completely silhouetted by the sun, however at all other times as the moon passes across the sun’s path—known as the partial eclipse—you will need to wear special-purpose solar filters. In a lot of cases, they remind me of the old school 3D glasses you’d get at a movie theater or packaged in a cereal box.
In truth, proper eye protection is something that you’ll want to take seriously. The sun’s solar rays are concentrated during the partial eclipse and viewing the event with your naked eyes can result in lasting, if not permanent, damage to your vision. As photographers, maintaining healthy vision is about the most important thing we can do for ourselves, so be sure to pick up a legitimate pair of eclipse glasses. Thanks to this handy viewing guide put together by the American Astronomical Society, we know that there are at least three manufacturers that have certified that their eclipse glasses and hand-held solar viewers meet the ISO 12312-2 international standard for such products: Rainbow Symphony, American Paper Optics, and Thousand Oaks Optical. Do yourselves a favor and order a few pairs of these filtered glasses in advance so that you can enjoy this event to its fullest while also protecting your vision.
Tip #3 – Protect your camera
Now that you’ve taken the necessary steps to protect your precious eyes, it’s time to protect your camera and sensor. Similar to the way you’ll protect your eyes, your camera requires a specific type of filter to be in use during the partial eclipse. Fortunately, there are a number of options for solar eclipse filters and you’ll want to be sure that you have one if you have any hope of photographing this event. It’s important to know that these filters are special-purpose for the solar eclipse. You should not plan on using your existing neutral density filters as they’re not nearly dark enough. Also, don’t plan on stacking two 10-stop filters either because odds are more than likely that you’ll experience some gnarly light bounce or leaks with exposures of such a long duration.
I plan on shooting with two cameras at any given time during this event and have invested in solar eclipse filters by both Formatt-Hitech and Lee Filters. I’m already seeing backorder notices on several of these filters so be sure to get your order in soon if you hope to use it for the eclipse. One point worth noting is that some vendors are not allowing returns of these filters given how limited of a use they are. So if you buy one, expect that this will be one of the only times you’ll end up using it as it’s not quite suitable for normal long exposure photography.
The one exception for using a solar eclipse filter is if you find yourself within the path of totality. If you are within that path, for the 2-2.5 minutes of the totality, you will want to remove any filter and expose accordingly, as if you were photographing at night (which it effectively will be).
Tip #4 – Prepare the right camera gear
This will be my first attempt at photographing a total solar eclipse and I’m extremely excited for the opportunity. I’ve spent a good deal of time researching the sort of gear I should plan on taking and you need to do the same. I’ll be using both of my Sony a7R II cameras to photograph the partial eclipse and my Sony a7S II to handle the total eclipse. Each camera will have a Sony Remote Commander cable connected, allowing me to trip the shutter without touching the body. There are several compositions and composites that I have in mind and at least one of them will require a very long lens. It is commonly recommended to have a lens that can reach at least 300mm, if not longer. I currently have an order in at B&H Photo for the Sony FE 100-400mm f/4-5.6 GM super telephoto lens and if all goes well, I should have it in time for this event. If not, I plan on using my Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM telephoto lens with my Sony FE 2x Teleconverter.
If you do not currently own a telephoto lens, it would be wise to consider renting one. Much like the solar eclipse filters, availability of these lenses may be tight, so plan accordingly! To handle the weight of the heavier telephoto lenses, I plan on using my wonderful gimbal head made by Really Right Stuff.
Speaking of Really Right Stuff, I’ll be using both of my tripods made by them. The beefier TVC-34L sticks and BH-55 ball head will handle the telephoto duties with ease while the travel-sized TQC-14 sticks and BH-30 ball head will be used with my ultra wide Zeiss Batis 2.8/18mm lens.
Finally, probably the most critical piece of gear for this event will be my filter holder. It’ll be important to act very fast during the actual total eclipse and one of the reasons why I enjoy the Wine Country Camera filter system so much is because it is so easy to remove and replace filters. I’ll have both of my solar eclipse filters already loaded in their respective filter vaults, so it won’t require any effort to get them in place or out of the way.
This shoot will be very different that most any you’ve been on and you should plan to pack the appropriate gear for it.
Tip #5 – Prepare for the event itself
At the top of this article under the first tip, I went into detail about the projected path of the total solar eclipse. But aside from looking at the map itself, do you know exactly where you want to be during the event? Rest assured that virtually every populated area within the path of totality will be jammed with people. Expect even more people at popular touristed areas. While this may offer plenty of unique photo opportunities (there is nothing like photographing hordes of people wearing paper glasses while staring at the sun), odds are that at least one person will trip their camera’s flash and ruin a shot. It’s just bound to happen. So, make sure you know exactly where you plan on being and what your intended compositions will be. Get there early to stake out your space. If you’re like me and Nicole, we’re going to be scouting out areas in the middle-of-nowhere Nebraska this week to ensure a quiet, remote, and unobstructed shooting experience.
If you want to really immerse yourself in this event, look into whether there are any presentations being offered in your neighborhood. For example, our local camera store, Rockbrook Camera, is offering a Solar Eclipse Photography Seminar that Nicole and I will attend. I’m sure that many other local stores and schools will be offering similar events. Not only can these events help prepare you for the eclipse, they’re also a really great way to rally with likeminded photographers.
Bonus Tip #6 – Have fun!
Listen, I completely get it. This a very rare event and you only have between 2 and 2.5 minutes to nail whatever photos of the total solar eclipse you hope to get. It’s high pressure and it’s easy to let the stress get to you to the point where you aren’t able to enjoy things. I say nuts to that! It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get that Nat Geo cover shot and rest assured that the internet will be flooded with thousands of eclipse photos for days and weeks following the event. So do what you need to do to get prepared but don’t forget to budget some time to simply enjoy the solar eclipse with your own [protected] eyes.
I hope these tips help you get the most out of your total solar eclipse shooting experience. If you have your own tips or questions, leave them in the comments below!