How not to photograph an eclipse

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It’s actually quite rare we get a) an eclipse visible from tropical latitudes and b) a solar one that happens during daytime. I personally have actually never seen an eclipse despite both trying and having some background training as an astrophysicist many moons ago; the last time was stymied by heavy cloud around sunset, and basically landed up indistinguishable from a normal sunset (albeit a few minutes earlier). So the event of the 26th of December was something I was rather looking forward to when I found out both a) and b) would be satisfied, and weather patterns of late have tended towards relatively clear days up to early afternoon. So how did it go?

The image speaks for itself – not very well. Not only was there significant cloud cover during the peak 20 minutes of eclipse, but from my latitude it appears we were slightly too high to see a full overlap or annulus, much less sufficient contrast for the spectacular coronal flares I’ve seen in other images (I’m guessing due to relative brightness there must be some dynamic range stacking going on). In fact, it didn’t look that different to a moon shining through clouds, but with a bit more clarity and a slightly strange shape due to the relative sizes of the celestial bodies.

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The clouds were only absent in the early phase, and right at the end (at which point the sun was at best 30% occluded). The above image is from the early phase of the eclipse and about the best I managed in terms of showing solar structure – look carefully and there are some sunspots and large surface structures visible, and daylight WB reveals a slight yellowish tinge to the sun. Note: this kind of exposure is the type of thing that results in scorched sensors. I was running a 4-14 stop STC variable ND filter, with the early phase image above having the full 14 stops engaged and yet still requiring base ISO, 1/2000s and f8! Needless to say: looking at any sort of solar event with the naked eye is a really stupid thing to do.

At this point, I run out of resolution and come to several conclusions – some of which I hope others will find useful:

  1. The opening image was shot at 340mm (70-200/4 VR plus 1.7x TC), and the most reach I had. If you want the type of shot in the second image, plus coronal flares etc. then you’re looking at 1000-1500mm easy – there is no simple way to get here other than perhaps a telescope, or fast tele and stacked converters. Or I suppose you could consider using something with very high angular pixel density, FX glass and cropping (24MP DX, 60MP FX). Don’t bother with that 3000mm Nikon hyper zoom small sensor thingy – the optics are going to be mush, and you won’t be able to tell if that’s a lens flare or a solar flare. On the combination I used, flare and CA were both non issues.
  2. However, 340mm might be adequate if you choose to put some context in. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t do this in the wider image: well, 1.15pm in the tropics has the sun pretty much at its zenith; it’s nearly impossible to put in any sort of context as the camera is virtually pointing straight up. Any possible foreground is too separated from the event unless you use a very wide lens, and then the eclipse itself doesn’t really resolve – I don’t see how you’d make a recognisable sun disc without a supertele. I suppose you could stand at the base of a very tall building or landmark, but that’s not terribly interesting. The foreground would also be close enough that even at 340mm and f16 there would be an obvious difference in foreground and sun sharpness – not to mention some serious diffraction losses.
  3. With some planning it would be possible to find a location where the eclipse is part of the landscape and is what makes the ghostly light; I imagine something like this over a city during daytime but looking like night (i.e. with none of the street lights running) might be quite interesting. Else it’s not so easy to distinguish from a moonlit scene unless you start compositing in the various phases of the eclipse.

Really differentiating your eclipse image from all of the others out there isn’t easy, because the relative position of your main subject to camera is effectively fixed. You can’t easily change vantage point during the event as it’s over pretty quickly, and the whole thing is at the mercy of the weather – in a lot of ways, it feels a bit like astrophotography. All in all – fun to try at least once, but in hindsight probably much better experienced being mentally present and firsthand than photographed. MT

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Comments

  1. During the eclipse a few years ago over North America, I was able to capture solar prominences with a Sigma 150-600mm at 600mm on an 18MP Canon crop-sensor camera (and a fair bit of cropping), but only during the totality/diamond ring phase of the eclipse since they have much lower surface brightness than the rest of the sun’s surface.

    Also, this recent eclipse was an annular eclipse only, there was no ‘full overlap’ anywhere on Earth — that is a function of the moon’s position relative to the Earth and Sun, not your position on the surface of the Earth.

    • We didn’t even get the annulus – which personally I think is a bit more interesting than a full eclipse because there’s no mistaking a ring shaped sun for anything else 🙂

  2. Why didn’t use solar filter? You can buy cheap filter sheets (lookup Baader solar filter) and make DIY holder in front of the lens. That is the right way to shoot Sun compared to stacked ND filters. I shot eclipse in 2017 in USA and my most interesting picture was a composite of eclipse progression against natural background. I tried to remain as faithful as possible regarding background and Sun’s position. The result is https://flic.kr/p/Y9hPq8
    The tele picture of Eclipsed Sun like this https://flic.kr/p/XM9qCH is boring because everyone has it. Unless you get corona etc that requires special equipment I guess.

    • I forgot to add that I liked your points about making eclipse picture interesting. Sadly most of the “interesting” looking pictures I see on the web are done by compositing in a bad way (not being faithful about the size of the disk and relative location wrt background).

    • Not going to buy one to use once. And the sun was at zenith so impossible to do a progression without tiny foreground and unrecognizable eclipse shape…I did also say this was how *not* to do it 🤣

      • The solar filter can be reused for scientific curiosity pictures. When sun spots are present in big numbers then it is fun to see how they move or change over days. I am also planning to shoot ISS crossing in front of Sun.

        • It just seems to be a very high level ND (16-18 stops plus UVIR cut)…or am I missing something?

          • I guess couple of factors favor special solar filters over ND filters. On top of the list will be safety. One is tempted to look through stacked ND filter (or use OVF instead of LV) and that can be catastrophic for eyes. Since ratina doesn’t have pain detectors, one doesn’t feel the damage. It is permanent damage btw. One can argue that this can be avoided by being careful, but why take a chance for few $! I am not sure about ND damaging camera sensors but with my solar filter, I have done time lapse (recently with mercury transit, video on my Instagram page) with sensor exposed to Sun for a long time and my Sony sensor is perfectly fine.

            Lastly, the optical property of stacked ND filter is inferior to special solar filter. If you try to shoot transits (planet or ISS) or Sun spots then sharpness matter to see details.

            I found Canon page that talks about all this. https://www.usa.canon.com/internet/portal/us/home/learn/education/topics/article/2018/july/Being-Safe-Using-Solar-Filters/Being-Safe-Using-Solar-Filters

            • I’m using an EVF, and I have a single filter – no need to stack. Agree on transmission issues with stacked filters. 🙂

              • That will do. 😊 EVF is a must. I have also shot on film by first focusing with digital body/EVF and then substituting film body (Leica M). Just for the fun. 😊

                I also want to add a caution (for your readers) that if they go for Mylar film like solar filter then check the source carefully. I have read about film from food packaging industry passed on as solar filter (since they look similar) which might do damage.
                No amount of photographic enthusiasm is worth damaging eye sight.

                I don’t need to add how much I enjoy reading your posts here. Hope it continues in next year. All the best.

  3. Set aside anticipations and consider the result. The first image is the best eclipse photo I’ve seen in decades. Unique. Refreshing. It’s like listening to the first few bars of Finlandia played by a really huge orchestra.

  4. When I told my Grandfather I was to be a photographer he looked at me askew and said, “Just buy the slides”. Back then you could readily purchase pages of properly exposed, postcard perfect 35mm slides of Niagara Falls, the Pyramids, Hong Kong, Yosemite, etc. He was retired and traveling widely, he didn’t see the point of carrying a camera when millions of better photos already existed.

    Hard to argue ;-p

    • He kinda has a point: I wouldn’t want to make a worse image than something that already exists, even if that means one’s own previous work. However, completely different thing between a profession and a hobby of course…

  5. Ming, I had the pleasure of experiencing a full solar eclipse in the late 1990’s when a group of friends popped across the Channel to visit Amiens, northern France. I had no film kit that would have made any sense at trying to film it, but I did have a Sony Hi-8 videocam and which had a 42x optical zoom. Even so, keeping this trained on the sun with the deep red special filter I fitted was difficult even on a tripod.

    However, no photographic image can capture the silence or eeriness of the light at the moment of the full eclipse itself. It was an odd experience, especially the silence, and everyone around suddenly burst into spontaneous applause.

    • No silence here – life seemed to go on as normal – but why would people randomly applause at an event they have no control over nor which has any interface with them? Strange.

      • I note in your article, Ming, that you’ve never experienced a total solar eclipse, so I can understand your comment “…nor which has any interface with them”. You have viewed the event as purely an exercise in photographing, or not, the visual impact. But at the moment of the total eclipse there is a marked impact on those viewing it. The quality of the light is unusual, there is a stillness in the air, and a drop in temperature. All of this is real, and for those experiencing it for the first time, such as I, it was all unexpected. The only thing I’d read beforehand that I thought was odd; it is said that birds don’t fly at this moment in time. Something which I was unable to prove or disprove!

        The fact that spontaneous applause and cheering broke out won’t come as a surprise to Europeans. For the pre-Christian era in Europe, the sun was an important factor in the lives of pagans and the Summer and Winter solstices were celebrated with various celebrations. Perhaps our response was an autonomous response to what we were experiencing?

        • Fair enough – I can only say at least my corner of the world didn’t feel or look any different at peak eclipse, but it wasn’t total. Without the distinctive shape of the sun, there’d be no way to tell it was an eclipse – I just couldn’t see any visual cues that would signal this.

          If I’m not mistaken total eclipses are actually quite rare at tropical latitudes…

          • David Burns says:

            I think you are being a little hard on yourself Ming. I would have been happy to have taken that first shot with the clouds. Very atmospheric I thought!

            Happy New Year!

            David.

          • “If I’m not mistaken total eclipses are actually quite rare at tropical latitudes…”

            Not really. In the upcoming decade there are seven total eclipses wordlwide and two cross the equator. In the following decade, out of the 8 total eclipses, one definitely crosses the equator and another spends a significant amount of time in the northern tropics.

            None of these hit Malaysia, though!

            Ant to answer the question, no it doesn’t look or feel like a moon at all. When the eclipse is total, you see a black circle surrounded by the solar corona, and it feels like twilight.

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