written by: Balachandar Radhakrishnan•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/8/2012
On May 20, 2012 those in southern Utah will be treated to a rare viewing of a solar eclipse. Looking to capture the event on camera? Learn some tips on setting up your camera and other gear required for getting a great shot.
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Now, just because you don't have all the suggested equipment does not mean you can't take a good picture. However, in the case of a solar eclipse, the gear that you use is definitely important to get better images! A basic point and shoot isn’t going to be of much help here, an SLR camera is recommended or at least a superzoom digital camera. A few other requirements are listed below:
A tripod/ ball head mount, Gimbal head preferred
An eye-piece adapter (90 degree adapter)
Solar filter for the lens
A remote shutter release
A telephoto lens, super-telephoto preferred
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Camera Settings & Setup
A telephoto lens, say up to 300mm, should get you close enough for a decent image, and superzoom digital cameras can help you reach close to these focal lengths for a satisfactory image. A super-telephoto of above 300mm will get you the fabulous images you’ve seen in magazines, these get you really close and will allow you to resolve much detail in the shadow and highlight regions. A quick change in the camera ISO settings is required when intending to shift from darkness to light and this will also ensure that you get a noise-free image. If your camera supports ISO ranges where you can preset an ISO range, it's the right time to use it now. A ball head mount on your tripod allows better maneuverability than standard tripod heads, a gimbal head is perfect (but pricey!)
The key to getting clear and sharp solar eclipse pictures is to use a tripod. Mounting your camera on a tripod becomes even more essential when using a telephoto or super-telephoto lens. Take care to see to it that appropriate VR or IS modes have been selected on your telephoto lens for a tripod mounted shoot. Depending on the location where you intend to shoot, you might have to focus directly at the horizon or at a flat 90 degree angle or an elevated 45 degree angle. Using the camera’s built-in viewfinder at elevated angles is a bit uncomfortable and here’s where the 90 degree eyepiece adapter comes in handy. The remote shutter release will allow you to avoid camera shake and obtain sharp images.
You can use an exposure calculator to get a rough idea of your exposure settings and from there on work your own way out. As I’ve mentioned in a previous article on photographing the sun, your camera has a built-in light meter that measures light levels in the frame and pointing it a very bright source can throw the light meter askew. Use manual metering and manual focus modes on the camera for shooting solar eclipse pictures. Using the moon, take a couple of test shots and confirm your camera settings.
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The first and foremost safety precaution should be putting up the solar filter on your super-telephoto lens. Remember that the massive lens you are using is focusing all that light and makes the lens, the camera and most importantly your eyes susceptible to injury. A solar filter cuts out excessive light and also reduces the heating effect on the lens and camera sensor thereby also protecting your eyes. If you value your gear and your eyes, I suggest investing in a good quality solar filter and not just using a cheap ND filter.
Since solar filters cut off light, remember to set up your camera exposure settings after the solar filter has been attached to your lens. It is also important that the solar filter goes in front of the lens, not between your eyes and your viewfinder or lens and sensor.
Try shooting the whole sky with a wide angle lens mounted on a second SLR to get a picture of the whole night sky with the weird light, which makes for an interesting image. While shooting the solar eclipse you can bracket your shots which probably can be made into a HDR image. Get images at the different phases of the event, the initial overlap and the final total eclipse as well as the classic “diamond ring" images make for some of the best solar eclipse pictures. Good luck!