How to Take a Picture of the Solar Eclipse - TravelQuest International
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Taking Pictures of The Eclipse Safely

Eclipse Travel Guide

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A partial or total solar eclipse is coming to your neighborhood. Of course, you want to watch it, but you might also wonder if you can take a picture of it. You can, but you must be very careful. Looking at the everyday Sun is dangerous. A partial or total solar eclipse is blindingly bright and can damage your eyes as well as your camera.

A Significant Danger

Improper solar eclipse viewing can result in what’s known as solar eclipse blindness. Even a brief exposure of the eye’s retina (the thin layer of tissue lining the back of the eye) to the Sun’s intense light will result in damage to the eye’s light-sensitive rod and cone cells. The outcome is a loss of vision that may be either temporary or permanent, depending on the severity of the damage. While your eye is being injured, you won’t feel anything, because the retina lacks pain receptors. And the visual effects are typically not noticeable until hours after the damage is done.

The danger level is much higher once cameras are involved. Cameras bring light to a focus, which can result in faster and more significant eye damage. There is danger for the camera itself. Damage to both camera optics and electronics, due to intense, unfiltered sunlight, has been known to occur during a solar eclipse. Since you’re pointing the camera at the Sun, your eyes are also looking sunward, raising the potential of eye injury.

What type of camera and lens should you use? A DSLR, combined with a telephoto lens, is definitely the way to go. The longer the lens, the larger the image of the Sun. Using a wide-angle lens is pointless, as the solar image will be tiny, verging on invisible. That’s also the problem with smartphone cameras. Even utilizing the camera’s optical zoom function (its digital zoom function is useless here), the eclipsed Sun will likely appear to be very small.

capture a total solar eclipse
To capture a fine shot such as this—the partially eclipsed Sun setting behind a distant, tree-lined ridge—you need a long lens on a DSLR camera with a safe solar filter attached to the front of the lens (Photo by Judy Anderson/TQ).

How to Take a Picture of the Solar Eclipse

Safety First

To photograph the annular solar eclipse safely, you need to protect your gear as well as your eyes. Do not attach polarizing or neutral density filters to your camera’s lens. They will dim the Sun to some degree but not nearly enough to protect your eyes or camera. Just because the Sun appears dim doesn’t mean it is safe for your eyes or camera.

For proper protection to photograph a solar eclipse, you’ll need to purchase safe solar-filter material. Baader AstroSolar Safety Film OD 5.0. (OD means Optical Density) is good for both visual and photographic needs. Do not use Baader AstroSolar Safety Film OD 3.8—it is not recommended. Safety Film OD 3.8 is solely for photographic use, and at some point, you’ll probably look at the Sun through your camera’s viewfinder. There is no price difference; stick to OD 5.0.

The American Astronomical Society has a web page titled “Reputable Vendors of Solar Filters & Viewers.” Toward the bottom of the page is a section called “Solar Filters for Telescopes, Binoculars & Camera Lenses.” Here you’ll find a list of companies, many of whom sell sheets of Baader AstroSolar Safety Film OD 5.0 to help you view a partial or total solar eclipse.

Baader AstroSolar Safety Film OD 5.0, available in 8x10 sheets, is easy to use to create homemade solar filters for cameras, binoculars, and telescopes (Photo by Baader Planetarium).
Baader AstroSolar Safety Film OD 5.0, available in 8x10 sheets, is easy to use to create homemade solar filters for cameras, binoculars, and telescopes (Photo by Baader Planetarium).
An easy solar filter: Baader AstroSolar Safety Film OD 5.0 over a camera lens and held in place with elastic bands (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ).
An easy solar filter: Baader AstroSolar Safety Film OD 5.0 over a camera lens and held in place with elastic bands (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ).

Solar Filters for Cameras

The Baader Safety Film comes in 8×10 sheets. Handle it with care, because scratches, holes, or tears in the Safety Film have the potential to render it unsafe to use. The material is flexible and easy to cut, making it ideal for building a solar filter for your camera lens. The Baader Planetarium, creators of the AstroSolar Safety Film, have a web page explaining how to construct (a rather fancy) filter for your camera, telescope, or spotting scope. While the page is aimed at telescope users, simply replace the word ‘telescope’ with ‘camera lens’ when following the instructions.

Most solar eclipse chasers who use the AstroSolar Safety Film rarely bother with anything so fancy, and you don’t need to, either. Instead, cut a piece of AstroSolar Film that is significantly larger than the diameter of your camera lens. Carefully stretch it over the lens, making sure not to tear it. Hold the Film in place with two elastic bands. Yes, the Film will wrinkle, but that’s not a problem.

What do the ‘pros’ use to shoot a partial solar eclipse? Many use specialty filters that thread directly onto the front of their camera lens. Thousand Oaks Optical is one solar-filter vendor. Thousand Oaks uses their own safe SolarLite polymer filter material, which is also found in their filters for telescopes.

Final Safety Thoughts

Regardless of what camera/lens combination you use to image the partial solar eclipse, remember that the filter always attaches to the front, or Sun-pointing side, of your lens. Never point an unfiltered camera at the Sun with its live view or electronic viewfinder activated. That’s a good way to potentially damage the camera’s sensors and electronics. If your camera has an old-fashioned optical viewfinder (maybe it’s a point-and-shoot), and it doesn’t have through-the-lens viewing, make sure you cover the viewfinder with the AstroSolar Safety Film. If you’re using a smartphone, tape a piece of AstroSolar Film over the front of its camera lens before pointing it sunward.

Well before solar eclipse day, test your camera and filter combination. Ensure the filter will stay on the front of the lens—you don’t want it popping off while it’s pointed at the Sun. Try different exposures to see which one is best. If you’re using a smartphone, see if the image size is large enough to make photography worthwhile. But above all, when looking at and/or photographing the Sun, eclipsed or not, think safety first. Your eyes are irreplaceable.

Header image by Rick Fienberg/TQ

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