Total solar eclipse in a dark orange glowing sky above a city and harbor

Capturing the Total Solar Eclipse with Canon Explorer

The Moon’s shadow will be sweeping across the United States on April 8th in a highly-anticipated total solar eclipse event. Canon Explorer of Light, Keith Ladzinski, a National Geographic Photographer and Emmy nominated director, shares his tips & tricks for all shutter bugs out there to capture the moment of a total solar eclipse, forever. 

Choosing a Camera 

Just about any camera will work to capture a solar eclipse, but some will produce a better experience depending on your expectations. Canon’s EOS R series of cameras will probably be the camera of choice for photographers looking for the highest image quality and most equipment flexibility. Choosing a full-frame sensor camera like the EOS R5 or EOS R8 can produce high resolution images with low noise. APS-C frame cameras such as the EOS R50 or EOS R100 will benefit from the smaller APS-C sized sensor due to the 1.6x crop factor. The smaller sensor produces a cropped image compared to the uncropped full-frame sensor. Your sun disk will be significantly larger with the APS-C sensor than with the full frame sensor.

Choosing a Lens

Choosing a lens to photograph the sun or moon depends on how large of a sun or moon disk you want. The size of the disk is controlled by two things: your mirrorless camera’s sensor size and the focal length of your lens. You should be looking for a sun disk 1/3 to 1/4 the height of your sensor. A 400mm focal length like what you’d get from the RF100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM Lens produces a 1/4 size sun disk on an APS-C sized sensor. If your plan includes shooting a time-lapse sequence of the entire 2.5-hour solar eclipse with a horizon or other foreground feature, you will be using some very wide angle lenses like the RF15-30mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM Lens.

Canon RF100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM Lens

Choosing a solar filter

Solar filters can transmit or restrict different wavelengths of light. Non-silvered glass and metalized Mylar produce a blueish-white sun disk while professional silver/black polymer solar film produces a yellow sun disk.

A truly safe filter for viewing and photography should have a CE or ISO certification and goes over the front of the lens, this includes the rear filter tray when using super telephotos. There is a difference between solar filters used by the public for viewing the solar eclipse and photographers photographing the solar eclipse. Some are saying that ND filters that restrict 14 – 16.5 stops of light are ‘safe.’ These may be safe for photography use only but not for direct viewing. Restricting the light being passed through a filter is only part of the story. A safe filter for photography and viewing also restricts infrared and ultraviolet light beyond 800nm. Neutral density filters don’t do this. Not having a solar filter or having a plain ND filter can burn a hole not only through the sensor of a camera, but also melt the aperture blades too! 

Choosing a Tripod and Head

Many photographers use their tripods reluctantly. In the case of the upcoming total eclipse of the sun in April, it’s a must. The eclipse is almost 2½ hours long and your arms will be exhausted if you don’t use one.  

Make sure your tripod can support more than what your camera, lens and tripod head weigh. Consider a tripod with four-section legs (versus a three-leg tripod) if you are travelling – four-leg section tripods fold up smaller and fit in suitcases easier and are often the same height as three-leg tripods when fully extended. Make sure your tripod comes up to eye-level, without fully extending the center column, because your lens will be pointing almost straight up, and you won’t want to hunch for over two hours to see your LCD screen. You can also bring a camping chair to sit in.

More important than the type of legs you buy, it’s the tripod head that counts. Unlike typical photography, you won’t be aiming your camera and lens more-or-less straight ahead. This is a morning to midday event in most of North America, and you will be aimed almost straight up to photograph the sun during this eclipse. That’s not something many tripod heads are designed to do, let alone with a large super-telephoto lens mounted. There are many types of heads that are usable, but the most preferred for this purpose is an astronomical equatorial head, gimbal head, and ball and socket head.

What to do when the eclipse happens

There are two parts to a total eclipse. The partial phases occur as the moon begins to partially cover or uncover the sun’s disk. Throughout this phase, you have the full intensity of the sun visible and need an actual solar filter over the lens. As the moon progressively covers more of the sun, there will be a point where only a small piece of the bright sun remains visible, and surrounding the moon is a bright ring of light from the sun. This is sometimes called the “diamond ring effect.” If you want to successfully photograph this conclusion of the partial phase, leading up to eclipse totality, you’ll need to remove your solar filter and then photograph it. But be extremely careful, without a solar filter in place, the direct sunlight — even from just a small segment of the sun — can be damaging.

Baily’s bead of a total solar eclipse is seen in Chonqing, China

About 15 seconds before totality, you can remove the solar filter to photograph the remaining diamond ring effect, and about five seconds before totality, there are still a few tiny rays of sunlight peeking between the valleys of the craters on the moon. This creates what has been named Baily’s beads, after English astronomer Francis Baily. Once the moon completely covers the sun, after Baily’s beads, totality has begun and you are photographing the corona. Totality during this eclipse will vary but will average, on the centerline, about 2½ minutes. At the end of totality, Baily’s beads begin to reappear, leading to the diamond ring effect. Once the light of the diamond ring effect becomes very bright, replace your solar filter onto the front of your lens. From this moment through all the concluding partial phases, the solar filter needs to remain on the front of your lens.


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Camera Solar Exposure

Exposing the solar disk can be made in either automatic or manual exposure modes. Depending on the lens and meter mode you use, the possible large amount of black in the viewfinder may create a very overexposed sun disk with any of the automatic exposure modes. Manual exposure mode will usually yield better consistent results throughout the eclipse.

This is because the intensity of the sun isn’t going to change even up to the diamond ring. The sliver of sun you see just before Baily’s beads is still very bright. The only reason the intensity would change is if clouds drift overhead or the sun sinks lower into the west.

To come up with the best exposure for all the partial phases (where the sun is fully or partially visible), test your lens/extender and solar filter combination all together, well in advance of eclipse day. To be prepared, try shooting exposure tests with your solar filter in place in different weather/cloud conditions. That way on eclipse day, if clouds pass by, you’ll be able to check your notes and be ready to make the necessary exposure change. To be sure, periodically check your LCD screen to make sure everything is going according to plan.


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