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Wind. Darkness. Once-in-a-lifetime event: Here’s how to photograph the solar eclipse

How to photograph a total eclipse

Jen Winter of Daystar Filters describes the steps and planning involved with successful total eclipse photography like the one passing over the United States on August 21, 2017.
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Jen Winter of Daystar Filters describes the steps and planning involved with successful total eclipse photography like the one passing over the United States on August 21, 2017.

OK, photographers, are you ready to take a once-in-a-lifetime photo?

Think of it.

When the solar eclipse of 2017 goes into full totality — turning day into night as the moon covers the face of the sun on Aug. 21 and its shadow speeds across the country — you will have 2 minutes and 40 seconds at most to capture your image. If you’re not in the center of the eclipse’s path, you will have less, perhaps not even 2 minutes.

The wind will kick up. It’s going to get dark. Street lights and stars will suddenly glow. And the searing rays of the sun, burning with intensity into your lens just moments ago, will immediately be blotted out.

Did you have your filter on? Do you even have a filter? Will you remember to take it off and change your shutter speed?

If this sounds a bit nerve-wracking, well, that’s good. It’s supposed to, said Jen Winter, an astronomical photographer from Warrensburg, Mo., and the owner of the company DayStar Filters. For nearly 20 years, she has traversed the earth (Antarctica, Hungary, South Africa, middle of the Pacific Ocean) snapping picture of eclipses.

Her first piece of friendly caution for those looking to snap shots of the historic moon-over-sun moment:

It’s hard. It’s technical. It takes practice. And, frankly, she and many other photographers agree that if your intention on the day of the eclipse is to just go outside, tilt your 35 mm camera, or cell phone, or automatic point-and-shoot at the sun and moon and eclipse and think you’re going to capture a whiz bang photo of the moon blotting out the sun, you ought to think again.

It doesn’t work that way.

“You’re so emotionally charged,” Winter said, “it’s easy to forget the basics, like taking the filter off the camera. It’s easy to forget to click the shutter button. It’s easy to forget to change out the memory card or the battery.

“The real tragedy is you can end up looking with your eyes at the knobs instead of the event. It’s gone just like that. You can’t back it up. The regret is horrible. You miss it. You miss it.”

Her honest advice is to not even try. Instead, enjoy the moment and use your camera to take pictures of your family and friends during the early or later phases of the eclipse. Put them in the front with the developing or partial eclipse in the background. For many, trying to get that iconic photo of the moon over the sun will be a futile exercise that ends in disappointment.

“You don’t have to have an incredible camera to get an incredible photo on the night of the eclipse,” she said. “There are a lot of different eclipse pictures that are not tight on the sun that are absolutely gorgeous. Some of the very best eclipse pictures have things in them that aren’t the eclipse.”

But knowing that many people will not want to pass up a historic moment, here’s how to do it:

Equipment and preparation

▪ Cameras: You can use any camera, from a pro-like 35 mm to a point-and-shoot to your cellphone.

▪ Use all manual settings on cameras that allow it, for focus, aperture and shutter speed. Automatic focus is not likely to capture an image so far away.

▪ Set expectations. The odds are little to none that you will capture a total eclipse photo like the ones you see in books or on websites. The reason has nothing to do with talent. It’s because many of those photos are not single photographs, but are composites of multiple photographs using multiple exposures that are combined for maximum effect.

▪ Lens size matters. The longer the lens or better the zoom, the bigger the eclipse image will be. Remember, the moon is far away and can look miniscule in a lot of pictures, no bigger than the head of a pencil eraser in many photos. NASA’s guide to eclipse photography gives you a good idea what to expect.

▪ Use a solar filter. A filter is an absolute necessity no matter what kind of camera you use, even a cell phone. Normal photography does not often involve pointing a camera lens directly at the sun and then peering into the concentrated light. Do that without a filter and you could sear your eyes and cause permanent damage.

“Like a magnifying glass burning ants,” Winter said.

Solar filters, which range from about $13 to a few hundred dollars depending one’s desires, can be had online at retailers like Amazon or from camera stores, science shops or telescope suppliers.

Another option is to buy solar filter sheets, which can be cut into whatever size is needed. With some duct tape and a jar lid you can make your own filter.

An easy option for cell phones is to tape the lens from a pair of solar glasses over the cell phone camera. Be advised, if you try to take a photo of the sun without a filter, the image will wash out as a white blob. Useless.

▪ Be mindful of materials that should not be used as filters including Pop-Tarts foil, emergency blanket foil, welder glasses, 3-D movie glasses or sunglasses layered on top of each other. None are dark enough. Again, you’ll risk serious eye damage.

▪ Use a tripod to hold your camera still.

▪ Use a cable release to keep from jostling camera as you snap pictures.

▪ Use duct tape to tape down your focus settings when the time comes.

▪ Don’t use flash. Put electrical tape over your camera’s flash if it is automatic.

Practice

▪ Prepare a to-do list. Don’t show up on eclipse day without a plan. You’ll have hours to set up before the actual totality. The list should include all the equipment you’ll need, all the steps you’ll go through, so you’re not fumbling about as the moon and sun come together. Such a list might include: clear memory card, new batteries, filter(s), duct tape, tripod and cable release. Set camera on manual mode, turn off or tape over flash, bring list of focus settings.

▪ Pick your spot. Know where you will take your shot days or weeks in advance. The eclipse is not until Aug. 21. You don’t want to be running around looking for a spot, slam your tripod on the ground, start fiddling with the camera and filters while the moon is passing over the sun and you’re left as the fool photographer who will likely miss his or her shot as well as the entire experience. Figure out where you want to take your photo.

▪ Locate the sun as it will be on eclipse day. Know the time of the totality, the time when the moon will fully cover the face of the sun. In Missouri, for example, it’s about 1 p.m. Find the sun in the sky, place your filter on your lens, and point your lens at the sun.

▪ Do not tape your filter to your lens, as you will have to take it off when the eclipse reaches totality

▪ Conduct dry runs. With your camera in place, and filter on, you can now safely look through the viewfinder. Time to get a sense of your focus, shutter speeds and f stops.

▪ Focus: Put focus on manual. Focus in on the sun. Once you know your focus, tape it down, so it doesn’t move. “You’ve got to set it, fix it and forget it,” Winter said.

You will use the filter though the entire partial eclipse and only remove the filter when the eclipse goes into totality.

▪ Figure out settings in advance. Remember, the solar eclipse has different phases, which means you’ll have to alter your setting to accommodate for the sun’s bright light, which will then diminish to black, and then brighten again as the sun peeks out from behind the moon. A NASA photographic exposure guide helps with the different phases of the eclipse.

▪ Use the chart to help determine film speed, f stop and shutter speeds. Practice the changes.

The generally recommended ISO, or film speed, for an eclipse is 200 or 400. Higher film speeds tend to create grainy photos, especially when the photos are enlarged. Once you’ve chosen your film speed, go along the chart and choose your f stop, meaning the size of the aperture. For example, say you set your camera at ISO 400 with an f stop, or aperture, of 22.

Below the f stop column is a list of shutter speeds to use for the different phases of the eclipse. As the chart shows, you will need to set the shutter speed at 1/250 during the partial eclipse phase when the sun is intensely bright.

▪ Vital note: When the moon completely covers the sun, it will be time to take the filter off the lens to capture the dark disc covering the sun, with its glowing corona.

Multiple settings exist for the corona. The various corona numbers indicate the size of the corona. A corona 0.1 will have a tight corona, with light rimming the sun. For that (at ISO 400 and f stop 22) you need a shutter speed of 1/125. If you want a more expansive and wider corona, such as Corona - 4.0 Rs, the chart shows that you will need to set the shutter speed to a full 2 seconds. Remember, two seconds in a relative long exposure time. The longer the exposure, the greater the chance you will get an image with some blur.

▪ Replace solar filter on the lens once the sun reveals itself and goes into partial eclipse. Change shutter settings back to partial eclipse settings.

Day of eclipse

▪ Bring what you’ve practiced to bear. Using your list, set up your spot, camera and filters, and adjust your settings as the day requires.

▪ Start snapping pictures.

Winter said that based on years of experience, it will be clear exactly when the moon and sun are about to go into perfect eclipse.

“If you’re in the path of totality,” she said. “the moment to take your filter off is the moment when everybody is screaming hysterically. That’s your cue. As soon as you hear that sound, take it off. … That’s your cue to take pictures.”

Oh, one last huge piece of advice.

“Don’t forget to look up…,” Winter said. “It will fly by.”

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

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