How To Photograph Eclipses

Eclipses, both lunar and solar, are spectacular occurrences in nature to observe. Most viewers are so awestruck that they glue their eyes to the celestial show. Others, however, realize the importance of capturing the moment to relive at any time they desire. Through photography and videography, the rare glimpse of a solar or lunar eclipse can be shared to millions (or, if that is not your wish, you may keep the work to yourself!). How can you make the most of your eclipse photographs? The following tips will help you out.

Solar Eclipses:

  • At any time when the Sun's photosphere (surface) is visible, do not point your camera at the Sun. Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light will damage your lens and sensor. Even with UV filters attached to the front of the lens, damage can still result, though at a slower pace. Therefore, always use ultraviolet light filters if you wish to photograph the sun (you will still be at the risk of damaging your camera, just not as quickly).
  • At the times leading up to totality, when the UV damage risk is still present, look at the ground, not the sky, for unique photo opportunities. More specifically, look at the shadows beneath large trees. Several miniature projections of the eclipse will shine through the gaps between the leaves. This will cause hundreds of crescents to appear on the ground. This is a unique photo opportunity that most people do not consider during solar eclipses.
  • Prepare your camera in burst mode immediately before totality. As soon as the "diamond ring" effect (also referred to as Bailey's beads) begins, hold down your shutter so as not to miss out on the perfect photo of this couple-second long display. Typical DSLR burst modes will capture 3-8 full-resolution photos per second. If the effect lasts 2 to 3 seconds, you will have taken 6 to 24 photos of it.
  • During totality, adjust the shutter speed to accommodate for the significantly lower level of light. Slower shutter speeds will also give a ghostly look to the sun's corona (outer atmosphere; only visible during totality).
  • Take as many photos as possible during totality; depending on your location and the eclipse at hand, it can last mere seconds to as many as about 7 minutes. During the former, I advise setting the camera in burst mode again, to capture plenty of photos in the short time frame. If you are fortunate to witness totality in the length of the latter, then the burst mode will not be necessary. You will be able to focus carefully on capturing a fair amount of different angles at different shutter speeds.
  • If you are fortunate to be in an area where totality will last several minutes, you will have the opportunity to photograph a wide variety of different angles of the scene. Be sure to capture a few photographs of the landscape in which you are in. These can be stitched together using computer software to produce amazing panoramic images. Plus, it is not that often in which you are able to photograph planets and bright stars in the daytime.
  • The time of totality is a time of creativity. You will be amazed at all of the photographic opportunities that await during the few minutes you will have. Plan to be in a location where you will be able to capture juxtapositions. An eclipse looming over a skyline will look apocalyptic. When paired with stunning wildlife, an eclipse will render an image that appears to have been taken during the pre-historic era; the pure innocence of a single organism being overshadowed by the larger forces that keep life in balance.
  • Remember that you will have a second chance of photographing the diamond ring effect (Bailey's beads) at the conclusion of totality. If you are not satisfied with your previous attempts to capture the effect, here's your last shot. Use burst mode again to ensure the outcome of multiple photos. You will find that one photo will stand out as having been taken at the ideal moment in time.
  • Although totality will end quickly, you will still have a good hour, at least, to capture the receding moon. You will not regret taking as many photos now as you can.
  • Bring a backup battery and memory card with you; what a disappointment it would be to have your camera fail on you during the height of the action.

Remember to enjoy yourself. If you feel that photographing the eclipse will take away from your experience of this once-in-a-lifetime event (for most people), then do not attempt it. Viewing the eclipse with your own eyes is a thousand times more rewarding than a picture of the same event (similar copies of which are readily available on the internet). This is not meant to discourage you; I am simply stating that it will be in your best interest to enjoy the experience.

Remember to use proper eye safety while viewing a solar eclipse. Here are instructions for properly viewing a solar eclipse:

Lunar Eclipses:

  • While the danger of damaging your camera with ultraviolet light is not present, as it was with solar eclipses, you are to face several different challenges for photographing lunar eclipses. Your first challenge will be attaining an adequate zoom. Most consumer cameras do not have a zoom range extending long enough to come close to filling the frame with an image of the moon. In fact, some of the most expensive DSLR lenses do not even fulfill this. Do not panic; since the resolution of today's cameras is ever-increasing, optical zoom will become a lesser problem as time progresses. I am speaking, of course, of cropping. Always use your maximum optical zoom before resorting to cropping. This will ensure that you get the most pixels capturing the moon (thus a higher resolution).
  • Another problem you will face is selecting a shutter speed. In order to get a clear image while holding a camera by hand, 1/60 of a second is usually the threshold. Anything slower will blur. This statistic applies to use with steady hands, and at a small focal length. With zoom comes a greater exaggeration of shakiness transferred from your hands. This is why you should use a tripod, where the shutter speed can be seconds to whole minutes long. Of course, you will only need 1/4 of a second or faster to capture the brightness of the moon at a reasonably wide aperture.
  • Choose an aperture that will ensure a crisp in-focus image of the moon. Wider apertures can cause a fuzziness in images when viewed at full resolution. Also, at wider apertures, it is harder to pinpoint what is in focus. Choose an aperture greater than f/5.6 to ensure a high-resolution image.
  • White balance as soon as possible. Use the custom white balance feature in your camera, and adjust to the moon before the eclipse occurs. When you turn your camera back on during the eclipse, the setting should be saved, and you will be capturing colors close to those you are seeing in real life.
  • During totality, you are going to need to use a slower shutter speed. Do not adjust your aperture to compensate for the lost light, as this has a chance of defocusing your image (and any subsequent images).
  • Use your camera's histogram feature. While the chart alone renders your image exposed incorrectly (with a concentration of data in the black end of the spectrum), it is your focus to keep pixels out of the highlights end. One of the biggest mistakes you can make while photographing the moon is overexposing the highlights of the photo, which will take away from the detail of the moon's surface.

Lunar eclipses are significantly easier to view and experience than solar eclipses. They also do not come with the danger of damaging your eyes and camera. The combination of convenience and safety makes a lunar eclipse one of the most spectacular wonders of nature that anybody can enjoy.

Here are instructions for viewing a lunar eclipse:

I hope that you will apply these photographic techniques whenever you are fortunate enough to see either type of eclipse. Have a great time viewing and photographing!