Shooting a Total Solar Eclipse

DSC_0156_006 (3)webA couple of weeks before the Great Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017, I decided I wanted to take pictures of it. I had recently bought a new digital camera and lenses, so why not! First I went online to get tips on how to photograph an eclipse and what I would need. The most important item, after a camera with manual adjustments (check) and a decent telephoto lens (check), was a SOLAR FILTER, which is absolutely necessary to photograph the partial stages of the eclipse. During the partial stages, the sun is still exposed. Not only should you not look at the sun without SOLAR GLASSES, the camera lens should not be pointed at the sun without a SOLAR FILTER. Otherwise your eyes AND the camera can be damaged.

The first challenge I encountered was that I couldn’t find a solar filter anywhere; they were all sold out. Second problem: solar glasses were also sold out everywhere I looked. Luckily, a few days before the eclipse, I was able to secure solar glasses at a planetarium museum store, so I bought a couple of pairs and took one apart to fashion a filter for my camera lens. Not ideal but it would have to suffice.

I drove with a friend, from Miami to South Carolina, where we would watch the eclipse. We arrived a day early to tourist around. Then eclipse day arrived.  I got up early to check the weather, particularly the expected cloud coverage. The viewing location my friend and I had initially chosen was now projected to be cloudy, so we picked two alternate locations and started driving west. The plan was to go to the closer site first and access the weather; if it wasn’t good enough we would continue driving to the further location. When we got to the first site: Greenwood, South Carolina, the skies looked clear so we decided to stay there. We picked-up information about a few good viewing spots at the Visitor Center and scoped them out. We decided on a lovely goat farm called Emerald Village and set up our gear there, next to a couple who had just put-up various cameras. It turns out they had traveled from Florida to see the eclipse also.

Since the piece of the solar glasses I had taped over my camera lens was too small to cover the entire lens I masked the rest of the lens with black electric tape. This resulted in only being able to use two-thirds of the lens so I wouldn’t be able to zoom into the eclipse as much as I wanted to. I could only use a 300mm focal length. (If I had had the appropriate solar filter, I would have used a 500 to 600mm focal length). I also made a mini solar filter for the telephoto lens on my cell phone. And my friend took apart a pair of solar glasses and taped the lenses onto her binoculars.

I hadn’t had time to do test shots of the un-eclipsed sun, using different camera setting, so I tried to follow the recommendations of MrEclipse (retired NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak) and various other experts who published tips online. I set my camera to 200 ISO, f8. I would mostly keep it there and bracket the shutter speeds from 1/4000 to 1/160. I zoomed the lens to 300mm, focused to infinity, secured the camera on a tripod and waited.

When the moon started slowly covering the sun at around 1:15 PM, I began taking pictures and adjusting the settings as the partial eclipse progressed. This period lasted approximately 1.5 hours, though it felt like only about 30 minutes. I also tried taking some snapshots with my filtered cell phone but the sun in those photos came out overexposed. All you saw was an orange ball—no indication of the moon moving over it. I heard other voices in the crowd saying that their phone pictures weren’t any good, so I knew this was a general problem. I decided to only use the phone for people photos, not the eclipse.

I kept shooting the sun/moon with my main camera. Then as the moon got close to totally eclipsing the sun, my main camera jammed! I had no idea why. I took the camera off the tripod and fiddled with it. My new Florida friend came over and looked at it. It was very nice of him considering he was working 3 of his own cameras at the time. As mysteriously as the camera STOPPED working, it STARTED working again. So I frantically secured it back on the tripod, found the eclipse in the viewfinder and began shooting again.

Then the sky darkened as the moon completely covered the sun! The cicadas buzzed loudly. (I think that’s what they were). I took off my solar glasses. It was 2:39 PM.  I could see the stars, a planet. This was the first TOTAL eclipse I had ever witnessed. There were about a hundred people spread out on the goat farm and most everyone gasped or clapped or yelled. I frantically peeled the home-made filter off my camera lens so I could photograph the spectacular celestial event. During totality, when the moon is completely covering the sun, you have to take the filter off because it is dark and you need as much light to get into the camera as possible.

DSC_0160A (3)blog  DSC_0161 (5)blogI took a few pictures of the total eclipse while looking up at it and marveling. I completely forgot to bracket the shots in the excitement of the totality phase. The corona was small, then grew larger. Then as the moon moved over the sun a bit, and the sun’s rays came out one corner, you could see the effects known as “Baily’s beads” and “diamond ring”. I had seen photos of this but to see it actually happening was another thing altogether. Then more of the sun came out as the moon kept moving, and it was time to put the solar glasses back on. Totality only lasted about 2.5 minutes. I put the cover on my camera lens because I was done photographing. There was still another hour or so left for the moon to completely uncover the sun, and I just wanted to soak in the ambiance. I looked around. Some people were slowly packing up and leaving. Some were wandering around and others were watching the second half of the partial eclipse stages. A few people sauntered over to talk with us and comment about what we had just witnessed. “I’m just dazed with what I saw,” a man said to us. I stayed there with my friend until the eclipse was over, then we drove back to our hotel.

While examining the pictures afterward, I discovered that when my camera had jammed and I took it off the tripod, I had inadvertently hit the zoom lens and changed the focal point. Other settings were also altered by accident. I’m delighted with the photos that I got though, considering the technical challenges. All I needed where a few good ones and I have them. The most important thing was the experience of the total solar eclipse, itself. When I look at the pictures I remember the excitement and awesomeness of the occasion. And I smile.

 Photos & prints at

© 2017 Beatriz Portela. Images & text copyrighted.