Ok, so let me start with a disclaimer. If you are going to point a whole load of glass that that is designed to capture as much light at possible directly at the sun – then you must understand there are risks. Risks to your eye sight if you are foolish enough to look through it (in other words… DON’T!) and also risks to your camera’s sensor it might get damaged like your eyes it is not designed to handle that amount of light!
Second disclaimer – I am no expert on photographing solar eclipses – the last time I tried was in 1999 in August and the whole sky clouded over and I got nothing. I did have a go at photographing the transit of Venus a few years ago but the results were disappointing to say the least.
Light Reducing Filters
Let me reiterate. Pointing the camera directly at the sun can cause damage to the camera sensor and even if it doesn’t I suspect the ‘flare’ will give a very indistinct image.
You can get special filters for a camera to enable you to photograph the sun. I went down to my local astronomy shop today to see if I can get one…. they have moved and now only sell on-line. So what can you do if, like me you don’t have that special filter?
I have just done some experiments using a stack of light reducing filters. You need as many as you can get your hands on. In my case I used two Cokin ND (Neutral Density) filters. They are P.153 and P.154 which loose 2 stops and 3 stops respectively. I also used an ND graduated filter Cokin P.121 with the dark section over the area where the sun is to loose a further 3 stops of light. So that is a total of 8 stops light reduction.
An alternative to stack that number of ‘ordinary’ filters would be to use a ‘big stopper’ which is a filter that is designed to remove up to 10 stops of light. I don’t posses one – so that it not an option for me.
Even with that amount of light reduction, I needed to shoot at ISO 50 (my 5D Mk III can go down that low), 1/8000th of a second, and with an aperture of f/22. As you can see those settings are pretty extreme! Anything letting more light in and the sun was over exposed and any hope of capturing detail in it was lost.
Pin Hole Photography
One other option I have tried is to use the ‘pin hole’ adapter that I have for my camera. This was not as successful as I had hoped. Firstly the image created is quite a wide angle so the size of the sun in the final image is too small. Secondly and perhaps more significantly images from the pin-hole are very soft and appear as though they are badly out of focus.
Framing and Focusing
Assuming you have some means to reduce the light though to the camera the next problem is how actually point the camera at the sun. I have successfully used two different techniques. Firstly I put my camera on tripod so that once I have the camera pointing in the right direction I want to know it will stay pointing the right way. Even with the light reducing filters on it is still dangerous to look through the viewfinder at the sun. Instead I used live view. You need to ensure that ‘exposure simulation’ is enabled – otherwise the display will just be a mass of image flair. However it is important to note that live view does NOT close down the aperture so that means that there is a huge amount of light hitting the sensor in live view, and this may have a detrimental effect on the sensor. So use that technique at your own risk, and take the camera out of live view as soon as your image is framed correctly. If you are worried about your sensor – hold down the depth of field preview button while you frame the image.
If you don’t have live view and like to live dangerously – you could try using the viewfinder while holding the depth of field preview button and making sure all the filters are in place. I would consider this to be quite dangerous however, because if your finger slipped of the DOF button, you may find yourself suddenly blinded, therefore I do not recommend this approach!
It is worth noting that at 8.30 am the sun will move left to right and from bottom to top so place the solar disc in towards the bottom left of the frame so that you reduce the number of times you need to reframe during the eclipse.
Good luck, if you are going to try to photograph the eclipse. It is due to start in Manchester at about 8.30am and finish at about 10.45am. For more information about the timings for Manchester go to http://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/in/uk/manchester or to find timings for where you are in the country select your nearest location from this table: http://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/in/uk
Having said all that – looking at the weather forecast for here in Stockport tomorrow – I strongly suspect that all I will see of the eclipse the same as I did in 1999 – just a dark cloudy sky!
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