Eclipse Photography

The eclipse may be safely photographed provided that the above precautiobns 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. 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 telescope or lens must be 2600 mm or less. Longer focal lengths will only permit photography of a portion of the Sun's disk. Furthermore, 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). For any particular focal length, the diameter of the Sun's image is approximately equal to the focal length divided by 109.

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. 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 since the Sun's surface brightness remains constant throughout the eclipse. The exposure should also be increased by one or two stops for narrow crescent phases to compensate for limb darkening. Bracketing of two or more stops may be necessary if hazy skies or clouds interfere 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 capture 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.

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 17. 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 17. Keep in mind that these exposures are based on a clear sky and an average corona. 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 (right in southern 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. 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. During the eclipse, the ground under nearby shade trees is covered with small images of the crescent Sun. The gaps between the tree leaves act like pinhole cameras and each one projects its own tiny image of the Sun. The effect can 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 more information on eclipse photography, observations and eye safety, see Further Reading in the Bibliography.

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