My first foray into Eclipse Photography
I am going to start off by saying before 2017 I knew absolutely nothing about photographing an eclipse other than don’t look straight at the sun. I really wanted to witness the Great American Eclipse of 2017, and debated with myself about did I or did I not want to photograph it. (I did, but I didn’t want to get caught up in hardware/camera/tech and miss the actual experience.)
1. Weather maps and predictions
I was torn regarding cloud cover probabilities vs. going somewhere closer to home. I booked my hotel in February/March (and found that I actually didn’t have a place to stay a few days before the eclipse because there was a double booking error.) Moral of story: book in 2 different places if you are serious about it, you can always cancel and make someone else really happy in the last minute. We ended up deciding to risk it with the cloud cover in Missouri, where it looked like we had a 50% chance of getting good cloud cover. I was SO anxious about cloud cover. Soooooo anxious.
2. My plans!
We stayed at Eple Haus B&B, and it was a lovely experience. I was actually the only person with a semi-serious camera setup at the B&B, so everyone was excited to see my photography. Spoilers: it looked pretty good for a first try!
3. My camera.
Sony Alpha 7 mark II with a Sony E-mount 70-300 lens. Of course, I would fry the sensor if I pointed it at the sun without a filter, so I made a filter. There are a few ways to go about this… you can buy one pre-made for about $100 (make sure it fits the business end of your camera lens!) or you can do it yourself! To do this, you need to get yourself a sheet of solar film (Baader AstroSolar film is what I got… get this in advance because it will sell out during pre-eclipse frenzy.) The Baader film comes with directions, but I decided to get a bit fancier and used instructions involving some foam core. The finished product was durable and ready to travel! I had extra film and foam core so I made some filters for our binoculars too. When I booked my hotel room 6 months before the eclipse, I also bought some eclipse glasses. You’re going to need those, and they’re going to be all sold out when Eclipse Frenzy hits.
4. Using the camera to photograph the sun.
I am going to be honest about this part… my first photos were so bad I almost gave up on the whole eclipse photography thing. Please see Exhibit A, my first photo taken with the solar filter on the camera. After I got the filter on the lens hood better, things improved, but the sun was still blurry and I didn’t know why. I have included camera settings on all of my photos here, even the bad ones. Here are some things I learned in the process:
- Your camera’s “infinity” focus is actually NOT what you need for photographing the sun… you might need to dial it back quite a bit. My camera thinks “infinity” is at about 17 meters.
- The sun has sunspots. There are websites with pictures of what today’s sunspots look like. You can tell if your camera is in focus by whether or not the sunspots are in focus. Sometimes there are no sunspots, and that’s no fun, but fortunately, you can focus on a distant point on Earth (or the moon) and then use some gaff tape to tape down your dial.)
- Autofocus doesn’t really work on the sun.
- Most importantly: LEARN HOW TO USE YOUR CAMERA BEFORE ECLIPSE DAY. Learn how to use it when you are really distracted. Learn how to use it while someone is tickling you. Go through the motions of what you will do when totality hits (IE remove the filter, change settings quickly) at least a few times so you know what it feels like. B&H photo has a really nice tutorial that explains A-Z how to photograph an eclipse. Especially if this is your first time seeing totality, you are going to be extremely distracted by everything. It’s an amazing moment. (I forgot to take the filter off, but fortunately my partner reminded me and that filter got flung to the ground in my haste to remove it. Good thing I made a durable one, eh?)
- You will also need a tripod, very optional is a rotating mount so that your camera will follow the sun all on its own. I have one of those now, but didn’t at the time of the eclipse. Another handy thing that I had was a remote shutter trigger, so I didn’t have to be at the camera in order to take pictures, and they came out extra crisp. I could be off hanging out and eating BBQ and remembering to click my button every minute or two. I managed to get photos at least every 6 minutes, so I could assemble one of those nifty composite images (I really should get to doing that!)
After learning all of these things and a lot of trips back to the computer for more google searches of “how to photograph the sun” I got a decent picture of the sun with some sunspots. Yay! Next stop, Missouri for the real deal!
We drove from Iowa City to Missouri the night before the eclipse. The roads weren’t too busy, but we brought water and extra snacks, just in case (we didn’t need them). Eclipse day dawned partly cloudy and I was extremely anxious about clouds. As the sunlight grew dimmer, the world acquired a strange grayish cast and the temperature dropped noticeably. We noted the cool eclipse sun shadows reflected between the leaves of all the trees! When eclipse time approached, I was surprised to see airplanes following the eclipse path. We were all looking to see the shimmering effect against buildings when the eclipse started, but didn’t see it. And then totality happened. And it was amazing to see that weird corona and a black circle where the sun was just a few minutes before. The horizon was purple/pink on all sides, and it was not dark enough to need a head lamp or anything. Eerie twilight, and the birds and insects thought night was approaching. I have a video of the moment, so much excitement, and me going “holy shit!!!!!” mostly because I couldn’t believe it wasn’t cloudy and we were actually seeing the eclipse. And I took some pictures. I had the little chart from that B&H photo article all printed out so I knew about where I needed the camera settings to be (very helpful!) And then the moment was over, sunlight peeked back around the moon, and things slowly returned to normal. I kept photographing the duration so I could make that collage, but most people wandered off to nosh or chat indoors. After it was over, I got images off of my memory card and had my first “I’m a real photographer” moment when I saw some of the pictures I had taken.