4 Tips for Shooting a Great Solar Eclipse
by Eric Leslie
Simply having the chance see a solar eclipse is something really special. I got to see and photography my first shot 5/20/2012 at age 33 and it was worth the wait. Frankly I got lucky, the path the eclipse took when right over northern California where I live. Shooting an eclipse is tough challenge because the sun is VERY bright, much brighter than you realize. To help you out, here are a few tips that will help you get great results.
1. Invest in some Neutral Density (ND) Filters What type of shot you're going for when you shoot the eclipse will determine how much strength you need. To get really clean and well defined lines around the sun and moon, you need block 12-14 stops of light. The eclipse I saw was an Annular Eclipse which leaves a small ring of sun visible around the moon. So many were using this much filter to create time lapse movies or to composite the sun's path into a single image so you can see the moon move across the sun in a single image. The biggest ND filter you can buy is a 10-stop. The Lee Big-Stopper is the best 1o-stop on the market, but it's hard to get your hands on one. Hi-tech's PROSTOP 10-stop comes in a close second and it's easier to get.
2. Pickup a pair of eclipse glasses The whole eclipse process takes several hours from start to finish so you'll be looking at the sun, a lot! That aside, you can't really see any detail with your naked eye. Even sunglasses are not dark enough, so you'll need some eclipse glasses. You can also use welding glasses which you might already have around or can buy at your local hardware store. Go get some glasses so you can simply enjoy the experience.
3. Setup your camera Our goal in choosing our settings is to restrict as much light as possible from reaching your sensor. This has all got be set manually because the camera will have no clue what to do on its own. I would start with the smallest aperture (biggest number) your lens can achieve. Set the shutter speed as fast as it will go, 1/4000th or 1/8000th if you camera body can achieve that. Set your ISO as low as it will go, usually 100. Take a shot and see how the exposure looks on the histogram. Are the highlights clipping on the right hand side? This will take some experimentation because factors like the sun's altitude and the point in the eclipse (how much of the sun is blocked) will affect your exposure. If you are finding the shot is underexposed, then I would manipulate the aperture first because the smaller apertures create more diffraction causing less sharp images.
4. Putting it all together Ok, so you nailed the exposure on the sun, what are you left with. You are left with a perfectly exposed sun and the rest of the scene is completely black. If you were using a long telephoto lens filling the frame with eclipse, then you might consider yourself done. In my case I put in some sweat to hike into a unique place away from the crowds. So I wanted to include some context and use a wider focal length. I've found the sun is about 12 stop brighter than the sky so a traditional HDR is pretty much out of the question.
What I ended up doing here was to treat this like two separate photos. The landscape was a blend of three different exposures created using layer masks in Photoshop CS6. During that process I decided to leave the rays from the over-exposed sun and all the lens flare. That's how it felt when I was there, even when the sun was fully eclipsed, it was very bright and I wanted to convey that feeling I had. Last I took the shot of the sun exposed properly and composited it on top of the over exposed sun.
Ultimately, it depends on what kind of look you're going for. Here I went for a shot that depicted the experience I had. You can go the other route and create a more scientific shot that clearly depicts the Moon crossing in front of the Sun. The key point when shooting an eclipse is to be prepared with knowledge and experiment with different settings. We very rarely try to shoot the sun without over-exposing it, so these settings are foreign.
How many of you have had the chance to shoot an eclipse? Feel free to share links to your shots in the comments.