The impending solar eclipse with its promise of “totality” has already flooded the affected states with travel reservations—so much so that all the state parks in Oregon were booked up long before the event occurs on the 21st August. But even if you won’t be in that singular path as it carves across North America, you’ll probably still be able to see it—and, no doubt, you’ll want to document the event.
The web is choc-a-block full of advice from enthusiast sites and camera retailers to NASA. We’ve rounded up the best to help you guide the lens toward the sky, with tips for both smart phone shooters and those with more professional cameras. Oh, and a quick side note: don’t bother with the selfie! Let nature display itself in all its unfettered beauty. And equip yourself with a pair of certified solar viewing glasses to avoid serious, permanent damage to your eyes—the only safe time to look directly at the event is during the totality.
Practice Makes Perfect
At the moment of totality, the total eclipse will last less than three minutes, which may seem like a long time. But it’s not. To prep for the event, get to know your smart camera phone, particularly at night. Take practice shots of the moon and the sun (following our guidelines to not look directly at the sun, naturally). Camera features will also help; the iPhone lets you tap on an area of the image to focus and calibrate the sensors. Playing with the camera prior to the event will help you understand what works, and what doesn’t. Also play with different light settings. For example, after you tap on an image within the iPhone camera screen, you can scroll up or down to adjust the light that penetrates the lens. This will help you quickly adjust during the big event.
Prep Your Camera—and Don’t Chimp
Be sure you clear out loads of room on your camera by uploading other images to a backup drive, computer, or the cloud. Also be sure you’re operating on a full charge. And when you’re in the moment, be in the moment. Don’t “chimp”—a half-snarky phrase photographers use to describe people who shoot a photo and immediately look at the image. Just shoot and shoot and shoot. You’ll have time review them after the eclipse has passed. Also, turn off your auto-flash.
To prep for the event, get to know your smart camera phone, particularly at night.
Don’t Bother Zooming
The digital zooms on most smart phones don’t work the way a real zoom lens works, and can often result in pixelated images that look fuzzy. That said, if you really want to zoom in…
Up Your Gear Game
Forget the native zoom tool in your smart phone and pony up for one of the many third-party lenses on the market. There’s one for every phone model. Several, in fact. Look for telephoto lenses. Or you could use a pair of binoculars and align your camera lens with one of the eye pieces—you just need a friend to help out (or a pretty good rig to keep everything in place). You can also score an inexpensive solar filter to place in front of your camera to help make the image more dramatic and clear for all moment except pure totality. Tripods are also a useful addition; most come with smart phone-compatible cases. Then you can set up the camera and use the time-elapse function to catch a more dramatic video, rather than a sequence of still images. Just use the timer when you’re ready to start shooting so you don’t jostle the image by pressing on the shutter.
You can also score an inexpensive solar filter to place in front of your camera to help make the image more dramatic and clear for all moment except pure totality.
Measure Your Expectations
Seriously dramatic images require lots of skill—and lots of photos and some post-production work with programs like Photoshop to produce the singular image. If the images aren’t working out, turn your attention to what’s happening around you. Chances are, you won’t be alone, so you could take photos of peoples’ reaction to the eclipse or catch something unexpected, like the way shadows will crawl across the ground. Or…get a legit camera.
Prep Your Kit
You want a tripod—one you know how to use. That—paired with a remote or a cable attachment to trigger the shutter—will keep you from creating jostled images. And you also need a solar filter that can attach to (or placed in front of) your lens to protect your camera’s image sensor. It’ll will also help course-correct for the right exposure.
The Filter Caveat
If you want to capture the corona, that heavenly glow of pearly white and red that occurs during the point of total eclipse. Then ditch the filter and plan to shoot only during the time when the eclipse is in totality. Or swap out the filter when the moment hits.
You also need a solar filter that can attach to (or placed in front of) your lens to protect your camera’s image sensor.
Go Wide, Go Long
Wide lenses let you capture the entire sky, rather than zooming in; shoot at a high-enough resolution (or in RAW format) and you can crop the images later. This also lets you get other elements of the landscape—mountains, rivers, people—into the frame. Or get a legit telephoto lens, which provides longer focal lengths, and fully commit to the zoomed approach. Nikon recommends a focal length of 1300mm, depending on your actual camera. And anticipate a relatively long exposure when compared to day shooting; you need to allow enough time to pass for the image to register. Shutter speed can range from ¼ a second to four minutes, depending on the placement of the sun and moon as well as your other camera settings. We also recommend not using one of the pre-settings like scenic; with practice you should be able to calibrate for a better image by shooting in manual mode, or in either shutter speed- or aperture-priority modes.
Turn Off the Autofocus
Conditions will make it challenging for your camera to trigger the auto-focus. Instead, set up your focus leading up to the event, or set it to infinite—a solid default setting. And don’t mess with your ISO setting too much—higher settings let you capture more of an image in lower light with shorter exposures, but they’ll also be grainy. Best advice? Get out and practice during the next full moon—and shooting at the sun (again, following our advice to not look directly at the sun) and use the image data (which will record your f-stop, aperture, and other elements of the image) to help create a plan of attack for the big day. And don’t forget to turn off the flash.
And don’t forget to turn off the flash.
Some of the most dramatic images of an eclipse actually uses a composite of several different images shot in quick succession. Put your camera on that tripod and select the rapid-fire mode—most cameras have a setting that lets you depress the shutter for continuous exposures. Then hit Photoshop and layer the images on top of each other—about 22 images in total, super-imposed on each other, will let you create an image that captures the entire path of the eclipse, rather than just one moment. And be sure to use your bracket setting, which will shoot the same image with different apertures and shutter speeds. This will help you get images when the light readings go wonky during the rapid light changes.
Other particulars—the right aperture, shutter speed, specific focal length, and ISO settings, to name a few—will vary widely based on your camera (whether or not it’s a full-frame rig, for example) and what solar filters you plan on using (or not using). Mr. Eclipse has a useful breakdown of several guidelines to help orient you.