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Eclipse Photography - Part 4

Adapted from Chapter 12 of Totality: Eclipses of the Sun (2nd Ed.)

Copyright ©2008 by Mark Littmann, Fred Espenak and Ken Willcox

1999 Eclipse Pinhole Images
Pinhole Camera Effect
Pinhole crescent images dapple the wall beneath
a shade tree during the annular eclipse of 1999.
(click to see report)

Photographing Pinhole Crescents

Eclipses provide other phenomena that make interesting pictures, such as the crescent images of the partially eclipsed Sun produced by tree foliage. The narrow gaps between leaves act as "pinhole cameras" and each projects its own tiny (and inverted) image of the crescent Sun on the ground. This pinhole camera effect becomes more pronounced as the eclipse progresses.

You can make your own pinhole camera to project the crescent Sun with pinholes punched in cardboard, or by using your hands, or with a wide-brimmed straw hat. The profusion of crescents on the ground, on a building, or on a person's face makes a nice photographic memento. Almost any kind of camera will work. Just be sure to disengage the automatic flash.

Field of View and Size of the Sun for Various Focal Lengths

                   Focal Length   Field of View    Size of Sun                  (35 mm Format)                   (on film)                      20 mm         69° x 103°      0.2 mm                      24 mm         57° x 86°       0.2 mm                      28 mm         49° x 74°       0.3 mm                      35 mm         39° x 59°       0.3 mm                      50 mm         28° x 41°       0.5 mm                      105 mm      13.1° x 19.6°     1.0 mm                      135 mm      10.2° x 15.3°     1.3 mm                      200 mm       6.9° x 10.3°     1.9 mm                      300 mm       4.6° x 6.9°      2.8 mm                      400 mm       3.4° x 5.2°      3.7 mm                      500 mm       2.8° x 4.1°      4.7 mm                      800 mm       1.7° x 2.6°      7.4 mm                      1000 mm      1.4° x 2.1°      9.3 mm                      1200 mm      1.1° x 1.7°      11.2 mm                      1500 mm      0.9° x 1.4°      14.0 mm                      1800 mm      0.8° x 1.1°      16.7 mm                      2000 mm      0.7° x 1.0°      18.6 mm                      Note:  Image Size of Sun = Focal Length / 110

1995 Eclipse Landscape
1995 Eclipse Over India
This wide angle image was made with the camera attached to a tripod.
Total solar eclipse of 1995 Oct 24
(click to see more photos and report)

Landscape Eclipse Photography

If you have an extra camera and tripod, take a few wide-angle shots of the sky, horizon, and landscape before, during, and after totality. This sequence might show the Moon's dark, fast-moving shadow approaching from the west or racing away over the horizon to the east. Place yourself or some other interesting subjects in the foreground to give the photos some scale. Full-frame fisheye lenses are especially useful and can produce dramatic images. Use your camera's light meter and bracket exposures if possible. If you know the Sun's altitude during totality, you can use the table accompanying this chapter to choose a lens focal length that will include the Sun in the top of the frame. You'll also capture any bright planets near the Sun during totality. You might even discover a new comet.

2001 Eclipse Multiple Exposure
2001 Eclipse Over Africa
This multiple exposure composite was made from a series of photographs
during the total solar eclipse of 2001 Jun 21.
(click to see more photos)

Multiple Exposure Sequences

Some of the most dramatic eclipse photographs are multiple exposures that show the totally eclipsed Sun accompanied by a sequence of partial phases on either side. This kind of photograph requires a camera capable of taking multiple exposures without advancing the film. Most electronic SLRs do not allow this type of photography. Check with the staff of your camera store and explain what you want to do; they should be able to show you cameras that will meet your needs.

In addition to a multiple-exposure camera, you will need a sturdy tripod that will hold the camera fixed to one point in the sky without moving when you recock the shutter between exposures and you will need a cable release to further reduce vibration.

To record all the phases of a total eclipse on one frame of film, you need to know the field of view of your camera lens. The Sun moves 15° per hour--its own diameter every two minutes. A 50 mm lens has a field of 49° along the diagonal. It should therefore take the Sun about three hours to traverse the diagonal, so try to orient your camera so that the Sun moves in this direction. From first to last contact, a total eclipse lasts about 2 1/2 hours. Taking an exposure every 5 to 10 minutes provides adequate separation between images on the final photograph.

If you want the image during totality to be in the center of the frame, you must calculate the times from that point in order to have all of your images equally spaced on both sides of the totally eclipsed Sun. For example, if mid-totality is at 10:32 a.m., then you would add or subtract increments of, say, 5 minutes to that figure to get the times to make your exposures. You may want to allow more of an interval just before and after totality to avoid trampling on the corona.

The altitude and azimuth of the Sun or Moon for a specific eclipse are easily obtained using astronomy computer programs available for your home computer (Totality - Appendix D). Other sources of information for upcoming eclipses include popular astronomy magazines, NASA's solar eclipse bulletins, and eclipse web sites (Totality - Appendix G).[20]

Eclipse Photography from Sea

For eclipse photography at sea, the pitching and rolling of the ship place certain limits on the focal length and shutter speeds that can be used. In most cases, telescopes with focal lengths of 1000 mm or longer can be ruled out because the ship would need to be virtually motionless during totality. In addition to the movement of the ship, you must also contend with vibration from the engines, wind across the deck, and hundreds of people stomping around you, so try to locate yourself to minimize these problems.

Film choice can be determined on eclipse day by viewing the Sun through the camera lens (with a solar filter) and noting the image motion caused by the ship. Some people have been successful with ISO 100 film speeds, but a safer film would be ISO 400 or faster.

When shooting pictures on a pitching or rolling ship, notice the range of motion and attempt to snap each picture at one extreme while the ship is momentarily motionless, so the image in your camera will be still.

Fred Espenak and Video Camcorder
Capturing an Eclipse on Video
Fred Espenak adjusts his video camcorder during
the Total Solar Eclipse of 1994 Nov 03.
(click for more on eclipses and video)

Video Photography of Eclipses

Video cameras have provided eclipse observers with a new and easy way to preserve a dynamic celestial event. The newest cameras are smaller and lighter and come in a variety of prices and resolutions. The 8 mm format is the least expensive ($300-$500) and has the lowest resolution (250 lines). Hi-8 offers better resolution (400 lines) at about twice the price. Digital video has the highest resolution (500 lines) among consumer camcorders, but it's also the most expensive.

The new video cameras all use CCDs (charge-coupled devices), which are more sensitive to faint light, but are virtually impervious to intense light which could damage older tube video cameras. CCDs can tolerate exposure to direct sunlight for brief periods of time with no harmful effects.

Zoom lenses are the norm on camcorders and have ranges like 8:1, 12:1, and even 24:1. These are all optical zoom ratios. Many cameras also have a digital zoom that magnifies the optical image without improving the resolution. Digital zooms make the image look blocky because they enlarge the pixels, so they are not recommended for quality eclipse videotaping.

A video camera with a 1/2-inch CCD and a 70 mm lens provides an image of the Sun about 28 mm (1.1 inches) in diameter on a 13-inch screen, large enough to produce a decent view of the diamond ring and corona, especially from ship or plane. Converter lenses are available that screw into the front of your camcorder's zoom and magnify the image by two, three, or four times. This magnification is just right for dramatic close-ups of the partial phases, the corona, and the diamond ring.

The latest camcorders include electronic image stabilization, which is especially good for videotaping eclipses from sea or air. But unless you are on a ship, your camcorder needs to be mounted on a sturdy tripod. To videotape the partial phases, you also need a solar filter. Remove the filter about 15 seconds before totality begins to capture the diamond ring effect. Some observers even remove their solar filters a full minute before second contact with no damage to the camcorder. Keep your solar filter close by so that you can replace it on your video camera about 15 seconds after totality ends.

Auto-exposure works fine for eclipses, but the inner corona and prominences will probably be overexposed unless you adjust the exposure manually. On the other hand, auto-focus often functions poorly during totality. The low light levels may cause your camcorder's lens to wander around searching for the correct focus. Turn the camcorder auto-focus off about 10 minutes before totality and focus manually. This is also a good time to put a fresh battery into your video camera.

Video photography offers amateurs a chance to contribute useful scientific data. Recording the eclipse simultaneously with an accurate time signal allows the observer to determine the precise time of totality for a given location. This information can be particularly useful at the northern and southern limits of totality where video recordings can provide the data needed for accurate measurements of the Sun's diameter.[21]

Camcorders are also great for videotaping your observing site and the sky during totality. Just set your zoom at its widest setting and place the camcorder on a tripod. The camcorder's audio track will also capture all the conversations and excitement during the most majestic celestial event visible from planet Earth.

Nothing can compare with the eerie twilight sky and ghostly solar corona
which is only visible during a total eclipse of the Sun.
Total Eclipse of 1999 Aug 11 from Elazig, Turkey.
(click to see more photos)

Some Final Words

If there is one key to successful eclipse photography, it is preparation. Set up and test all your equipment at home to ensure that everything works perfectly together. Design a photographic plan or schedule and stick to it. Keep things simple. Don't try to do too much. Practice for the eclipse with a full dress rehearsal. Bring extra film, batteries, cable releases, and other crucial items.

Finally, don't get so overwhelmed with taking photographs that you deprive yourself of time to actually look at the eclipse.

Checklist for Solar Eclipse Photography Index

Return to Eclipse Photography Index

2001 June 21 Total Solar Eclipse
Total Solar Eclipse of 2006
This sequence captures the entire eclipse from start to finish.
(click to see more photos)

For more information, see:

Totality - Eclipses of the Sun

Third Edition
by Mark Littmann, Fred Espenak and Ken Willcox

Order Totality from

Copyright ©2008 by Mark Littmann, Fred Espenak and Ken Willcox

All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced, published, copied or transmitted in any form, including electronically on the Internet or World Wide Web, without written permission of the authors.

Contact Espenak (at MrEclipse) for more information.

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Copyright Notice

All photographs, text and web pages are © Copyright 2007 by Fred Espenak, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved. They may not be reproduced, published, copied or transmitted in any form, including electronically on the Internet or WWW, without written permission of the author. The photos have been digitally watermarked.

The photographs may be licensed for commercial, editorial, and educational use. Contact Espenak (at MrEclipse) for photo use in print, web, video, CD and all other media.

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Last revised: 2008 Jan 22