Photographing the Solar Eclipse

Solar Eclipse Sequence KAC1blog
Total eclipse of the sun photographed in Iceland in 2015.  This sequence was photographed with a 300mm lens fitted with a 10-stop ND filter to block the light to the sun.

August 21, 2017 there will be a total eclipse of the sun.  Most people in the United States will be able to see this event.  Several million lucky people will be right under the eclipse as it moves diagonally across the US from Oregon to Georgia.

Photographing the eclipse is going to be a challenge.  I photographed the total eclipse of the sun that passed over Iceland in March 2015.  Now is a good chance to share my experience from that event.

Repost from March 2015:

A few years ago I read a news report about a total eclipse of the sun on March 20, 2015.  I’ve never had the opportunity to photograph solar eclipse.  Why not build a photo tour around the eclipse?

Strabo Photo Tour Collection has coordinated my photo tours for years so I contacted the owner, Jacque Steedle, with the idea.  The eclipse would go pretty close to Iceland, one of Strabo’s premiere destinations.  We both liked the idea and thought it would be fun to also offer opportunities to photograph the northern lights as well as landscapes of Iceland in the winter.

Our group arrived in Iceland on March 13th and the weather leading up to March 20th was been horrible.  Our flight to Iceland was cancelled due to high winds.  Then we had rain, sleet, snow, and more high winds.  Clouds covered the skies most of the time.

On the evening of March 19th we had clear skies for a bit.  We briefly saw the aurora borealis but then the clouds moved back in.  The weather forecast for the morning looked good as we headed off to bed.

March 20th dawned clear, crisp, and cold.  There was not a cloud in the sky when I opened the curtains in my hotel room.  The wind was still.  Could the photo gods really have given us such a treasure?

The group ate breakfast and then we grouped together to review all our camera settings.  Einar Matthiasson, our guide in Iceland, agreed with me that we stay on the hotel grounds and shoot from the small hill in a hay field.  That hill gave us a view of Hekla, one of the most famous volcanoes in Iceland.

Einar had researched the angle of the eclipse and placed two large sticks on the ground in front of our group.  Those of us shooting time lapse with wide-angle lenses used the sticks to make sure we had the entire arch of the sun in our frames.

At around 8:30 a.m. it was time to get into position.  We put our eclipse glasses and started photographing.

Details and Equipment:

  • Planning is essential.  We had all the equipment assembled and ready to go an hour before the eclipse began.
  • Focus on infinity and turn off auto focus.
  • Turn off image stabilization.
  • Manual exposure at f/4.5 during totality worked well.  When the sun was brighter f/16 helped cut some the light.
  • Spot meter with a focus point on the sun gave an accurate reading most of the time.
  • Shutter speed stayed between 1/5000 and 1/8000 for most of the eclipse.
  • Exposure compensation was needed when the sun was big.
  • A sturdy tripod is a must.
  • A programmable shutter release like the Vello Shutterboss II or the Canon TC80N3 was perfect for the time lapse.

Lessons Learning the Hard Way:

  • Buy a 10-stop ND filter for all the cameras.  I didn’t have one for my small camera shooting the time lapse or for my telephoto lens.  (Stupid me!!)   I had to hold the 10-stop ND in front of my telephoto lens for most of the shoot.
  • Don’t kick the tripod if you’re planning to layer a sequence of images.
  • Use a programmable shutter release to get a precise sequence of images.  Shooting here and there is okay but the precision of a regular interval is better.
  • The sun is big in the frame if you use a telephoto lens.  The sun is small in the frame if you use a wide-angle lens.
  • Two heads are better than one.  Have a buddy who knows what they are doing.  Work as a team.  Temporary moments of insanity are possible during the eclipse.
Solar Eclipse Sequence KAC2blog
Total eclipse of the sun photographed in Iceland in 2015.  This sequence was photographed with a 300mm lens and 10-stop ND filter to block the light to the sun.

 

Here’s a time lapse of the eclipse.  I did not use a 10-stop ND filter on this camera so the sun is not totally in darkness.  This is a good example of what you will see with your “eclipse” glasses on.

Totality, by the way, is when the airplane circles the sun.  Yes, an airplane full of people circled around the sun at totality so they were in all our photos.