There hasn’t been a total eclipse of the sun visible in nearly every corner of the continental U.S. since 1918. So you're certainly justified in wanting to photograph it — and you can, as long as you do a little bit of planning and make sure you have the right gear. Trust us, you don’t want to take this picture with your cell phone.
Why not? Well, for one, you could fry the camera sensor on your phone. Also, the size of the object you’re trying to shoot in the sky is no larger than the full moon, and if you’ve ever tried to shoot that on your phone you know the result is lousy.
Step-by-step instructions follow on how to do the rest, courtesy of experts at Canon and Nikon. But the key takeaways are brand agnostic: If you own a decent tripod, any brand of camera with a zoom lens that can take a threaded-on solar filter, and that has a timer function (so you don’t have to disturb the aim of the camera by using the physical shutter), you can make some once-in-a-lifetime shots.
“The most important piece of advice I have for people is to practice a few times well before the eclipse.” says Ken Sklute, one of Canon’s most acclaimed photographers. “You’re practicing,” says Sklute, “so that when everything is happening around you, you’re calmer.” Another Canon photog, Dave Henry, says you want to experience tracking the sun in the sky while wearing your solar glasses so you have a good idea how it moves (don’t forget that you’ll need a good tripod that you can rotate easily), as well as a solar filter for your camera.
Henry also says you should practice on a day with a few clouds, too, just to see how that impacts your setup, and your creativity, because as long as it’s not a totally cloud-filled sky, a drifting cloud or two can add drama.
Nikon pro photographer Lucas Gilman adds that if you’re not in the path of totality you still want to practice your shoot so you’re familiar with your gear and exposure settings, but he also makes clear that solar filters block out just about everything but the sun and the moon shading it. To capture more, he suggests, “taking multiple exposures, and then overlaying them in camera, or put them together later using software.”
The pros and enthusiasts among us will be shooting with high-power full-frame DSLRs, but shooting with something like the Canon PowerShot SX60 HS or a more affordable DSLR like the Rebel T7i or the Nikon P900 would work just fine as well. The key is that you need a reasonable zoom capability. “You want the ability to fill the frame with the sun disc,” says Sklute. In a DSLR that might be any zoom up to 1300mm, he says, but a range between 400-800mm works great. And if the camera shoots in uncompressed RAW format, use that mode, because that file format allows more post-production correction than JPG.
You'll have to get your focus and exposure times nailed. Start by switching the camera to fully manual operation. Exposure is somewhat complicated under these circumstances, so you’ll want to experiment. The challenge here is that you’re compensating for the earth moving in relation to the sun and the moon. And the longer the lens, the more that movement is magnified. The rule of thumb: For a full-frame sensor professional camera the formula is 500 divided by the mm length of the lens. Maximum time for a shot of the sun with a 500mm lens would be one second, but Sklute says he’d hedge and dial that back to more like 1/2 second max. For cropped APS-C sensors like DX format from Nikon or the Rebel series from Canon, divide 350 by the mm length of the lens. And for even more cropped sensors, like the PowerShot SX60 HS or the Nikon P900, slowest shutter speed is 250 divided by the mm length of the lens.
Henry also advises that heat can change the tightness of focus. “It’s the middle of August. It’s hot. The glass in the lens heats up, everything is expanding and you can wind up with a blurry shot.” He recommends using a white towel to drape over the camera body to reflect some of the heat, and to always re-check the LCD to be sure your shot’s still in focus.
If you’re going to be lucky enough to shoot the total eclipse when the sun is entirely darkened by the moon you’ll want to remove the lens filter and shoot the totality without it. Here you’ll see full coronal effects of the sun’s rays, and the most awesome shots you’ve seen of total eclipses happen in this brief two-minute window.
Enjoy the Moment!
Your best bet is to get a few of these shots and then stop shooting. “You get so lost in making sure you’re getting the shot you forget to just be a witness,” Sklute says. “Stand back and be in awe of what’s happening in front of you.” He says birds stop chirping, and insects go quiet, too. “Grown adults will start crying,” Henry says. “And it will get noticeably colder before totality. If you look off to the west you'll see a giant wave of black approaching as the moon’s shadow passes over the earth.” Henry suggests that while everyone is standing there in awe, that you pull out another camera and snap their faces. “You need to do this at high ISO, or use a video camera so you have an even better record.” There are also strange shadows created during totality, and it's overwhelming. “It’s the most majestic event on earth, Henry says, “And one of those rare times when we realize how little control we really have.”