Sun Block
The Challenge Of Eclipse Photography

As the songs says, it don't come easy. Solar eclipse photography is not something to be taken lightly or accomplished without preparation and protection. First, it can be very dangerous: without the right shielding, you'll damage your eyes--permanently--and your camera. Second, there aren't many solar eclipses, and most of them aren't going to be visible from where you are, so if you get into this, figure on doing a little traveling. Third, they're fleeting. The moments of totality--when the sun is completely obscured by the moon--typically last perhaps two minutes.

So why bother? For the sake of the accomplishment and the thrill of capturing on film a truly exceptional occurrence. Simply, it's dramatic, it's beautiful, and it's rare. If you're looking for unique images, this is the place.

We talked recently with Robert Slobins, a data processing consultant by profession who's a self-described "eclipse chaser." He's photographed a dozen solar eclipses--instances of the moon coming between the sun and the earth--using a pretty elaborate setup: up to seven motor-driven, tripod mounted, intervalometer controlled Nikons and Canons fitted with 300 and 400mm Tamron telephotos. (Did we mention that this guy is serious?)

While it's good to have all that gear, one camera, one lens, and one tripod will get you started quite nicely--but you will need two things Slobins has: protection and a plan.

Let's talk about protection first. The light from the sun before and after totality is so intense, you simply cannot safely look at it without protection for your eyes, and we're not talking Ray-Bans here. Likewise, you can't point your unprotected lens at the sun before or after totality. What you need is a metalized mylar filter material specially made for just this purpose. These "solar screens" are available from a number of sources you can locate by checking astronomy magazines or web sites. Slobins recommends the Solar Skreen filters supplied by Roger Tuthill of Mountainside, New Jersey (800) 223-1063; You'll need a filter for each lens and one for your eyes. They can be fashioned to fit eyeglass frames, creating eclipse sunglasses, and they can be fitted to cardboard frames for lens protection. Ask for directions for using them. Don't take any chances--make a mistake and you can be blinded; your eyesight is too precious to risk.

The only time during an eclipse when it's safe to look at the sun without the mylar filters protecting your eyes and your lens is at totality. With your filters in place, you can view the approach of totality and see the "diamond rings"--the last rays of direct sunlight. At totality, you can remove the filters and photograph the corona, the pure light of the solar atmosphere that's revealed when the sun is covered by the moon.

It can take up to an hour for the sun to be completely covered by the moon, and during that time you can set up your equipment. Remember, you've got to be wearing your eclipse sunglasses and have your lens covered. Take off your eclipse sunglasses only when you're looking through the mylar filter-protected lens of your camera to aim the camera toward the sun.

During totality the earth's going to be turning, so the sun and moon will, in effect, creep across the frame. Aim carefully to allow for that movement, and you'll be sure to keep the heavenly bodies within the frame. With a 200mm lens, the news is good: the magnification isn't high enough to move them completely out of the frame. Slobins suggests positioning the camera and lens so the sun is to the left in the frame--the earth's rotation will carry the sun and moon toward the center of the frame during totality.

Slobins also suggests that a first-timer tape everything down. "Tape the lens at infinity, tape the f/stop and the zoom ring. You don't want to take a chance that anything will be disturbed." The only thing moving should be your finger on the cable release.

Settings? One or two stops down from wide open--an f/4 lens at f/8, an f/2.8 lens to f/5.6--and a shutter speed of 1/4 or 1/2 sec for a 200mm lens and ISO 400 film. If you've got ISO 800 speed film, 1/30 or 1/60 sec will do. You'll get different looks at each speed, so if you've got more than one camera, it's a good idea to try a few different film and speed combinations. With one camera, pick your settings and leave them--"don't touch anything once totality starts," Slobins says.

Slobins has a little trick for a quick response to totality. Just prior to totality--and with his eclipse sunglasses on, of course--he'll remove the mylar protective filters from his lenses and immediately cover the front of the lenses with a towel. Then, at totality, it's a quick and easy move to snatch off the towel and start shooting. After totality, he immediately puts the towel back in place.

Finally, if you're going to be traveling in Europe this summer, you'll have a chance to try out your knowledge--a total solar eclipse will take place on August 11th. It will be visible from several locations, including Cornwall and Devon, in the southwest of England. Slobins will be in Romania with five of his cameras to capture it. If you're in the neighborhood, say hello for us.

What You'll Need

· A Plan. Do the homework to know when, where, and how. And remember, if you're going to travel to shoot the eclipse, plan on hand carrying your film around the airport x-ray machines.

· Basic Equipment. An SLR (preferably with a motor winder or motor drive); a telephoto lens--at least 200mm; print film (greater exposure latitude, greater flexibility when printing); Robert Slobins likes Fuji NPS or NPH, ISO 160 and 400, respectively); a cable release.

· Practice. Shoot the full moon for two minutes or less with all your equipment set up as described.

· Printing Control. Chances are machine prints are not going to be very satisfying, although they're good for reference and a guide to what may need burning in. If you don't have a color darkroom, talk to a technician at a custom lab about what you're looking for.

· More Info. Entering "eclipse photography" at our favorite Net search engine, Dogpile (, yielded dozens of leads. Our pal Jerry O'Neill likes the site at: bers6/glsmyth/eclipse.htm Slobins suggests the site at: and two books: Eclipse! by Philip S. Harrington and The Cambridge Eclipse Photography Guide. The site at can also be helpful for planning.