Solar Eclipse Photography

Fred Espenak
Adapted from NASA RP 1383 Total Solar Eclipse of 1998 February 26, April 1996, p. 18-19.

Solar eclipses may be easily photographed provided that basic eye safety precautions are followed. Almost any kind of camera with manual controls can be used to capture this rare event. However, a lens with a fairly long focal length is recommended to produce as large an image of the Sun as possible. A standard 50 mm lens yields a minuscule 0.5 mm image, while a 200 mm telephoto or zoom produces a 1.9 mm image. A better choice would be one of the small, compact catadioptic or mirror lenses that have become widely available in the past ten years. The focal length of 500 mm is most common among such mirror lenses and yields a solar image of 4.6 mm. With one solar radius of corona on either side, an eclipse view during totality will cover 9.2 mm. Adding a 2x tele-converter will produce a 1000 mm focal length, which doubles the Sun's size to 9.2 mm. Focal lengths in excess of 1000 mm usually fall within the realm of amateur telescopes. If full disk photography of partial phases on 35 mm format is planned, the focal length of the optics must not exceed 2600 mm. However, since most cameras don't show the full extent of the image in their viewfinders, a more practical limit is about 2000 mm. Longer focal lengths permit photography of only a magnified portion of the Sun's disk. In order to photograph the Sun's corona during totality, the focal length should be no longer than 1500 mm to 1800 mm (for 35 mm equipment). However, a focal length of 1000 mm requires less critical framing and can capture some of the longer coronal streamers. For any particular focal length, the diameter of the Sun's image is approximately equal to the focal length divided by 109 (Table 1).

35mm Eclipse Scale Table


35mm Eclipse Scale Table

A mylar or glass solar filter must be used on the lens throughout the partial phases for both photography and safe viewing. Such filters are most easily obtained through manufacturers and dealers listed in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines. An abbreviated list of solar filter manufactureres is also available online. These filters typically attenuate the Sun's visible and infrared energy by a factor of 100,000. However, the actual filter factor and choice of ISO film speed will play critical roles in determining the correct photographic exposure. A low to medium speed film is recommended (ISO 50 to 100) since the Sun gives off abundant light. The easiest method for determining the correct exposure is accomplished by running a calibration test on the uneclipsed Sun. Shoot a roll of film of the mid-day Sun at a fixed aperture (f/8 to f/16) using every shutter speed between 1/1000 and 1/4 second. After the film is developed, note the best exposures and use them to photograph all the partial phases. The Sun's surface brightness remains constant throughout the eclipse, so no exposure compensation is necessary except for the narrow crescent phases which may require two more stops due to solar limb darkening. Bracketing by several stops may also be necessary if haze or clouds interferes on eclipse day.

Certainly the most spectacular and awe inspiring phase of the eclipse is totality. For a few brief minutes or seconds, the Sun's pearly white corona, red prominences and chromosphere are visible. The great challenge is to obtain a set of photographs which captures some aspect of these fleeting phenomena. The most important point to remember is that during the total phase, all solar filters must be removed! The corona has a surface brightness a million times fainter than the photosphere, so photographs of the corona are made without a filter. Furthermore, it is completely safe to view the totally eclipsed Sun directly with the naked eye. No filters are needed and they will only hinder your view. The average brightness of the corona varies inversely with the distance from the Sun's limb. The inner corona is far brighter than the outer corona. Thus, no one exposure can capture its the full dynamic range. The best strategy is to choose one aperture or f/number and bracket the exposures over a range of shutter speeds (i.e. - 1/1000 down to 1 second). Rehearsing this sequence is highly recommended since great excitement accompanies totality and there is little time to think.

Eclipse Photograpy Table

Exposure times for various combinations of film speeds (ISO), apertures (f/number) and solar features (chromosphere, prominences, inner, middle and outer corona) are summarized in Table 2. The table was developed from eclipse photographs made by Espenak as well as from photographs published in Sky & Telescope. To use the table, first select the ISO film speed in the upper left column. Next, move to the right to the desired aperture or f/number for the chosen ISO. The shutter speeds in that column may be used as starting points for photographing various features and phenomena tabulated in the 'Subject' column at the far left. For example, to photograph prominences using ISO 100 at f/11, the table recommends an exposure of 1/500. Alternatively, you can calculate the recommended shutter speed using the 'Q' factors tabulated along with the exposure formula at the bottom of Table 2. Keep in mind that these exposures are based on a clear sky and a corona of average brightness. You should bracket your exposures one or more stops to take into account the actual sky conditions and the variable nature of these phenomena.

Another interesting way to photograph the eclipse is to record its various phases all on one frame. This is accomplished by using a stationary camera capable of making multiple exposures (check the camera instruction manual). Since the Sun moves through the sky at the rate of 15 degrees per hour, it slowly drifts through the field of view of any camera equipped with a normal focal length lens (i.e. - 35 to 50 mm). If the camera is oriented so that the Sun drifts along the frame's diagonal, it will take over three hours for the Sun to cross the field of a 50 mm lens. The proper camera orientation can be determined through trial and error several days before the eclipse. This will also insure that no trees or buildings obscure the camera's view during the eclipse. The Sun should be positioned along the eastern (left in the northern hemisphere) edge or corner of the viewfinder shortly before the eclipse begins. Exposures are then made throughout the eclipse at ~five minute intervals. The camera must remain perfectly rigid during this period and may be clamped to a wall or fence post since tripods are easily bumped. If you're in the path of totality, you'll want to remove the solar filter during the total phase and take a long exposure (~1 second) in order to record the corona in your sequence. The final photograph will consist of a string of Suns, each showing a different phase of the eclipse.

Finally, an eclipse effect that is easily captured with point-and-shoot or automatic cameras should not be overlooked. Use a kitchen sieve or colander and allow its shadow to fall on a piece of white card-board placed several feet away. The holes in the utensil act like pinhole cameras and each one projects its own image of the Sun. The effect can also be duplicated by forming a small aperture with one's hands and watching the ground below. The pinhole camera effect becomes more prominent with increasing eclipse magnitude. Virtually any camera can be used to photograph the phenomenon, but automatic cameras must have their flashes turned off since this would otherwise obliterate the pinhole images.

For those who choose to photograph the 1998 eclipse from one of the many cruise ships in the path, some special comments are in order. Shipboard photography puts certain limits on the focal length and shutter speeds that can be used. It's difficult to make specific recommendations since it depends on the stability of the ship as well as wave heights encountered on eclipse day. Certainly telescopes with focal lengths of 1000 mm or more can be ruled out since their small fields of view would require the ship to remain virtually motionless during totality, and this is rather unlikely even given calm seas. A 500 mm lens might be a safe upper limit in focal length. Film choice could be determined on eclipse day by viewing the Sun through the camera lens and noting the image motion due to the rolling sea. If it's a calm day, you might try an ISO 100 film. For rougher seas, ISO 400 or more might be a better choice. Shutter speeds as slow as 1/8 or 1/4 may be tried if the conditions warrant it. Otherwise, stick with a 1/15 or 1/30 and shoot a sequence through 1/1000 second. It might be good insurance to bring a wider 200 mm lens just in case the seas are rougher than expected. As worst case scenario, Espenak photographed the 1984 total eclipse aboard a 95 foot yacht in seas of 3 feet. He had to hold on with one hand and point his 350 mm lens with the other! Even at that short focal length, it was difficult to keep the Sun in the field. However, any of the major cruise ships in the Caribbean will offer a far more stable platform than this.

Much more information on eclipse photography appears in Chapter 14 of Totality - Eclipses of the Sun.


References

Allen, D., and Allen, C., Eclipse, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1987. Astrophotography Basics, Kodak Customer Service Pamphlet P150, Eastman Kodak, Rochester, 1988.

Espenak, F., "Total Eclipse of the Sun," Petersen's PhotoGraphic, June 1991, p. 32.

Harris, J., and Talcott, R., Chasing the Shadow, Kalmbach Pub., Waukesha, 1994.

Littmann, M., Willcox, K., and Espenak, F. Totality - Eclipses of the Sun, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.

Lowenthal, J., The Hidden Sun: Solar Eclipses and Astrophotography, Avon, New York, 1984.

Pasachoff, J. M., and Covington, M., Cambridge Guide to Eclipse Photography, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 1993.

Reynolds, M. D. and Sweetsir, R. A., Observe Eclipses, Astronomical League, Washington, DC, 1995.

Sherrod, P. C., A Complete Manual of Amateur Astronomy, Prentice-Hall, 1981.

Solar Eclipse Observing and Photography

2005 July 19