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How to take the best photos of a solar eclipse: Tips from the pros

Photographing a solar eclipse can be challenging and dangerous, but with the right equipment and filters you can end up with stunning photographs. Here's what the experts advise.

The August 21, 2017 solar eclipse is destined to become the most photographed astronomical event to date, with every part of the US set to experience at least a partial eclipse, and tens of millions of people living in the direct path of a total eclipse.

Living in a digital age means that nearly everyone has a smartphone to pull out to shoot a quick photograph when the moon crosses over the path of the sun, but others will opt for more advanced cameras to take the best photographs.

Regardless of the equipment used, there are a few simple rules to follow to ensure snagging fantastic photos of the eclipse of the century. And remember, it's not always the eclipse itself that makes the best photos.

SEE: Watch the solar eclipse of the century: When, where, and how (TechRepublic)

Understand the danger

"You may have heard that you can do a lot of damage to your eyes when viewing an eclipse, and it's true." Mark Mugavin, M.D., M.P.H.

It's important to recognize the danger in photographing an eclipse. The ultraviolet radiation that the sun produces could result in a condition called photokeratitis, which is basically a sunburn of the eye. Looking directly at the sun can also result in solar retinopathy, which is permanent damage to the eye.

"You may have heard that you can do a lot of damage to your eyes when viewing an eclipse, and it's true," said Mark Mugavin, M.D., M.P.H., of the University of Louisville's Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, in a press release. "During an eclipse, our normal reflexes that protect us from sun damage, such as blinking and pupil constriction, are more relaxed because the sun's light intensity is significantly reduced."

Your eyes are not protected when looking at a dazzling solar eclipse through an unfiltered camera lens. And it's not just your eyes that are at risk—a telescope, camera, or binoculars will be damaged by the sun as well, so a solar filter is essential. It is okay to use a smartphone without a filter to photograph the eclipse, because it doesn't magnify it enough to damage the lens.

You can wear special glasses for the eclipse as you take photographs, or view the eclipse through the solar filter on the camera. It is safe if you're looking away from the eclipse and only at your smartphone screen, or the screen of a digital camera, but if you look through the camera's viewfinder, or hold your smartphone up to photograph the sun, you're in danger of damaging your eyes.

There will be a fleeting moment when the moon completely blocks the sun, and only then is it safe to look at the eclipse with the naked eye. But totality will only last for a maximum of 2 minutes and 41 seconds in places such as Carbondale, IL and Hopkinsville, KY, and as soon as totality ends, the sun's blinding rays will immediately be visible and dangerous again.

The American Astronomical Society has created an online list of reputable vendors for solar filters and viewers. Approved glasses should meet the ISO 12312-2 international standard.

How to photograph an eclipse

There are numerous ways to photograph an eclipse, and the experts at Nikon have suggestions, as they've been receiving more questions than usual in light of the upcoming event.

Whatever you do, don't use the flash on your camera for any reason during an eclipse.

"We've been doing a lot of outreach to people who have asked us for tips on photographing the eclipse. We're trying to help people the best that we can to make sure that they do it the right way and get exciting pictures, but do it safely. That's our primary objective here, to make sure nobody gets hurt," said Steve Heiner, senior technical manager for Nikon.

To photograph the eclipse, all that is needed is a digital SLR camera or a single lens reflex camera, an optical viewfinder, a tripod, and a solar filter. If you're taking photos through your telescope, you don't need a filter on the camera, only on the telescope. The solar filter goes on the object most directly looking at the sun.

"The eclipse can really be shot with almost any camera, it just kind of depends on the type of picture a person wants to take... Real aficionados will try and maximize the length of the lens, so that they fill the frame with the whole event right then, right there in the frame, and really exclude a lot of other things that might be going on around them," Heiner said.

To photograph the eclipse, Nikon has provided two videos online for the best gear and prep for capturing the eclipse and another for determining camera settings. If you haven't purchased a solar filter, most stores are sold out, but it is possible to make one with mylar cut to fit the end of the camera lens and taped firmly in place, Heiner said.

"During this eclipse it's going to be fairly high in the sky, so it's kind of hard to put anything else in the frame. It would be ideal if it happened sort of laterally across the horizon so you could catch it against buildings or mountains or other objects, but that's why I say you can shoot it with very specialized equipment and get up very close, but the average person who doesn't really have that kind of equipment can still take a really nice picture," Heiner said.

SEE: Video: How to watch the solar eclipse (TechRepublic)

If you opt to have your camera on a timer, you can schedule shots a few seconds apart from about five minutes before the eclipse until five minutes after. That way, you'll capture the changing shadows as the moon passes over the sun.

To use a smartphone app to help set up a series of shots you can use a device like the Pulse Camera Remote (for Canon and Nikon cameras) or the Pluto Trigger (for many different kinds of cameras).

lucas2.jpg

Prepare in advance to photograph a solar eclipse. Nikon Ambassador Lucas Gilman is seen here testing equipment.

Image: Nikon

Whatever you do, don't use the flash on your camera for any reason.

"Dark adaptation of the eye and equipment is critical during an eclipse. If your flash goes off at totality, you'll ruin your photos, and the photos of everyone around you," cautioned Amy Oliver, NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador and NASA Total Solar Eclipse 2017 Subject Matter Expert.

Oliver also suggested that it's ideal to bring an extra battery and to insert the fresh battery about 20-30 minutes before totality to ensure that nothing goes wrong with your power source.

It's important to test your equipment before August 21. "Practicing for the total solar eclipse does not require a total solar eclipse. Practice only requires access to your solar filter, your camera, and the sun at the same basic angle where it will be located during the event," Oliver said.

"I highly recommend spending 2-4 hours setting up equipment, adjusting lenses, apertures, and ISO speeds in the days leading up to the eclipse to ensure that you're ready to go. Add two hours to this time if your setup includes a telescope through which you'll be taking photographs. You can also practice on the moon (which is pretty close to full right now) to see typical results; the full moon is about the same size as the sun from our vantage point here on earth. But don't depend on it to help you set aperture or ISO," Oliver said.

Live in the moment and enjoy the eclipse

The dominance of social media means that plenty of people will be busy posting photos of the eclipse on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram during the event. But resist the urge to document the eclipse as it's happening—instead, live in the moment.

"Everyone focuses on the moon in the sky and covering the corona, but look at what's happening in the environment around you and the significant changes. That transition is incredibly dynamic and incredibly powerful." David Makepeace

David Makepeace, filmmaker and eclipse chaser behind the popular website eclipseguy.com, has viewed 16 total eclipses on all seven continents. He said anyone who spends the entire eclipse fiddling with cameras and equipment is missing out on what is, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime event.

"You're doing yourself a disservice by missing the moment. Be present with your authentic self during totality, and you'll never forget what you see. This is the most spectacular natural event you will ever see," Makepeace said.

On Makepeace's website, he has an article from eclipse guru Fred Espenak on how to photograph a solar eclipse. However, he said his best advice is to avoid trying to photograph the eclipse itself, but opt for photographing the scene around you.

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Image: iStock/kdshutterman

"Everyone focuses on the moon in the sky and covering the corona, but look at what's happening in the environment around you and the significant changes. That transition is incredibly dynamic and incredibly powerful," Makepeace said. "You're much better off capturing what happens around you than some shaky, badly exposed shot. Photograph what it was like to actually be there. Set up two or three different angles on tripods that allow you to free up your hands and all of your awareness so you can experience the eclipse."

The pros spend years perfecting their ability to take a photograph of an eclipse. It takes working with multiple eclipses over decades to get just the right shot. "They're risking their experience with the eclipse by getting all these long telescopic shots. Let them do that. The real wisdom here is don't film it. But if you're going to, put it on a tripod and get it out of your hands," Makepeace said.

Don't forget to take photos of your friends and family, and the crowd watching the eclipse.

"The cool thing is, that if you've never experienced one of these before, it's pretty amazing. It's pretty easy to kind of forget what you're doing and sort of be in awe of what's going on. That's the time to turn around and shoot pictures of your loved ones and other people that are near you watching this event. Because sometimes those pictures will be more meaningful in the end than just another picture of an eclipse," Heiner said.

NASA jets will take more than 14,000 photographs of the eclipse

NASA will have two WB-57 jets in the air, chasing the solar eclipse across Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. For anyone worried that the jets might interfere with their photography and end up in a photo, it's possible but highly unlikely, said Amir Caspi, principal investigator of the WB-57 eclipse chasing program and a senior research scientist at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, CO.

SEE: Two NASA jets will chase the solar eclipse for never-before-seen images and massive data collection (TechRepublic)

"Based on the 122-foot wingspan of the planes, at an altitude of 50,000 feet, they would appear to be approximately 0.14 degrees across. For reference, the moon appears to be about 0.5 degrees across. So the planes could appear to be just a little bit less than a third of a moonwidth. But they will be traveling at about 460 mph, or about 675 feet per second, so it will take them only about two-thirds of a second to cross a span the width of the moon. The corona visible in pictures extends to maybe three to five moonwidths, so the planes will cross that entire region in under 3 seconds."

But if anyone does get lucky enough to snag an incredible image of NASA's jets crossing over in front of the eclipse, he said he hopes they forward them to Southwest Research Institute so he can check them out.

Jim Tucker, director of materials characterization department at Southern Research, which is part of the team of scientists dedicated to NASA's WB-57 jet project, said the entry point lens size is 200mm focal length, and to really be able to frame the eclipse in a shot, you need 600mm or larger. Hunter said he plans to mount his 35mm camera on top of his tracking telescope.

Tucker will be watching the eclipse in Kansas City, MO. "I don't want to waste too much of my 2-½ minutes fiddling with things. I'll have my camera hooked up to a computer with an app with a synchronization every so many seconds, and it will bracket it plus or minus two stops. The idea is that we will not be fiddling with the equipment since we have tracking and auto exposures. Afterward, we'll see what we got."

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About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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