On 21 August 2017, a solar eclipse will be visible over most of the Americas, and although it won’t be visible from South Africa, that does not mean that we can’t get excited about it! The good news is that there are more eclipses to come – and no, it’s not common knowledge as “How long before we don’t have any more eclipses” is just one of the many wacky questions NASA has received from concerned earthlings before.
When can we South Africans enjoy a solar eclipse of our own?
The answer is soonish. If you consider how old the Earth is (at least older than you are), waiting three years for a partial solar eclipse on 21 June 2020), and 13 years for a total solar eclipse (on 25 November 2030) is not that much. If you grow impatient before then, you can always visit Chile or Argentina on 2 July 2019 and/or 14 December 2020 for a total eclipse of the heart (thank you, Bonnie Tyler, for the lyric). That said, the really good news is that you’ll have all this time to prepare for shooting a solar eclipse!
Just because the moon is moving in between the sun and the Earth for a few moments, it doesn’t mean that you can look directly at the sun without eye protection. Get yourself a pair of solar eclipse glasses. These have filters that block out UV and infrared radiation so you’ll be able to see another day.
Considering you’ll be in the sun, remember to take with plenty of water, sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.
Get a better vantage point
You can get a better vantage point by finding a highrise or mountain to shoot the solar eclipse from, but what we really mean is that you get yourself a pair of binoculars or even a telescope to zoom in on the spectacle. If you use a solar filter on your telescope, you might even see sunspots.
A solar eclipse is really short (only about 2 minutes long) so, if you feel you’re up to the challenge of taking a professional shot of the solar eclipse, whilst also taking a breather to experience it with your (protected) eyes, be sure to get:
- Optics: When shooting close-ups of the sun with your DSLR, you’ll need a telephoto lens of 500mm in focal length or more. This ensures a large enough image of the sun and the camera frame. You can even boost the effective focal length with a 2x teleconverter. PS: Remember to use a solar filter on your lens. Take a few test shots of the sun before the eclipse to determine the best exposure to use with the filter.
- Support: Ensure you solar eclipse images as smear-free by investing in a tripod that is strong enough to hold your camera and lens setup. Remember that if there are clouds, you’ll probably need to move around a few times to find a clear spot, which means that your gear needs to be lightweight and portable. Carbon fibre tripods, although more expensive than aluminium tripods, are stronger and lighter, thus ideal. Steady your tripod with a mini bean bag to prevent further vibration – the last thing you need is shake when you only have a minute or two to perfect the shot! And for tracking the sun, which moves at 25° per minute across the sky, use a fluid pan head for smooth movement.
- Power and storage: Use a high-speed, large-capacity memory card, in conjunction with a fully charged battery. It goes without saying that you should take extras for both.
Work out the ideal frame size for your camera’s sensor:
Full frame (36 x 24 mm) DSLR camera = focal length / 109 (e.g. 500 / 109 = solar image 4.6 mm across)
Canon APS-C DSLR camera (± 22 x 15 mm) = smaller field of view (1.6 crop factor)
Prepare your setup a day before by taking a few test shots and familiarising yourself with the position of the sun.
- Mode: Control your camera’s focus and exposure settings by setting it to manual.
- Exposure: Since the sun is moving across the sky, keep your exposure short to prevent smear. Better yet, use a remote shutter release cable to avoid shake.
- ISO: Since your exposure is short, use ISO 400-800 to minimise blur.
- Shutter speed: When the moon is busy moving in front of the sun, you’ll want to use short shutter speeds since it’ll be very bright, but as soon as the moon eclipses the sun, you’ll be shooting in if not total, near darkness, thus requiring a longer shutter speed (which is why gear support is essential).
- Resolution: Set your camera to shoot in RAW or the highest-quality JPEG setting to capture detailed image and colour information.
PS: Don’t use a flash.
The solar eclipse will be over in a few moments so take a few moments away from your camera to witness this wonderful natural phenomenon for yourself.
The best solar eclipse images are composites and many professionals use exposure bracketing to get more detail in the image – this is extremely useful for shooting a solar eclipse as, as the moon moves in front of the sun, the exposure may change from eight to 10 stops.