Sunday Solar Eclipse: How to Safely Photograph the 'Ring of Fire'
The safest and simplest technique to observe and photograph the eclipse is to use your telescope (or one side of your binoculars) to project a magnified image of the sun’s disk onto a shaded white piece of cardboard. This view was taken near Boston during the partial solar eclipse on Christmas Day 2000.
Credit: Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre

UPDATE:  For the latest tips and advice on seeing the May 20 solar eclipse, see: Annular Solar Eclipse of May 20: Complete Coverage

On Sunday, May 20, the western half of the United States will be treated to a spectacular annular eclipse as the sun sets in the western sky.

This 4 1/2-minute-long "ring of fire" as the moon blocks the sun will be visible to observers along a narrow track that stretches from Northern California to the Texas Panhandle.

The last time an annular eclipse was widely visible in the United States was May 10, 1994. After Sunday, the next one to be seen in the country won't occur until Oct. 14, 2023.

If you're planning to shoot this weekend's eclipse with a digital camera, particularly a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, here are a few pointers to increase your chances of success: 

Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre captured the May 10, 1994 annular solar eclipse from the eclipse path’s northern limit near Lordsburg, N.M.. They used a filtered 4-inch Meade telescope with a focal length of 1,000 millimeters and Kodak Royal Gold 400 color-negative film.
Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre captured the May 10, 1994 annular solar eclipse from the eclipse path’s northern limit near Lordsburg, N.M.. They used a filtered 4-inch Meade telescope with a focal length of 1,000 millimeters and Kodak Royal Gold 400 color-negative film.
Credit: Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre

 

Eclipse or not, always use a proper filter when observing or photographing the sun. Regular sunglasses and photographic polarizing or neutral-density (ND) filters are not safe for use on the sun.
Eclipse or not, always use a proper filter when observing or photographing the sun. Regular sunglasses and photographic polarizing or neutral-density (ND) filters are not safe for use on the sun.
Credit: Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre

1. Use a proper solar filter: Never look at the sun with your naked eyes, or through a telescope, binocular or camera viewfinder without a safe solar filter. Failure to do so can result in serious eye injury or blindness. [How to Safely Photograph the Sun (Photo Guide)]

Use a No. 14 welder's glass filter, or purchase special solar filters from companies such as Thousand Oaks, Kendrick Astro Instruments, or Orion Telescopes & Binoculars, and fit them securely in front of your equipment.

2. Use a telescope or telephoto lens with a focal length of 400 millimeters or more:  This helps to get detailed, close-up shots of the eclipse. This will give you a reasonably large image of the sun's disk in the frame.

The best way to attach your digital SLR camera to the telescope is to use an appropriate T ring and T adapter for your camera brand. (Check with your local camera retailer.) Other helpful accessories include an electronic cable release to operate the shutter and a right-angle magnifier that attaches to the camera’s viewfinder to assist you in focusing.
The best way to attach your digital SLR camera to the telescope is to use an appropriate T ring and T adapter for your camera brand. (Check with your local camera retailer.) Other helpful accessories include an electronic cable release to operate the shutter and a right-angle magnifier that attaches to the camera’s viewfinder to assist you in focusing.
Credit: Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre

3. Use a sturdy tripod or mount: Make sure your tripod and head are strong and stable enough to support your camera gear. Keep your setup as portable, light and easy to assemble as possible in case you need to relocate in a hurry to escape clouds.

4. Set the camera to its highest resolution: To record as much detail and color information as possible, use your camera's highest-quality (least-compressed) JPEG setting or "lossless" (uncompressed) image formats, such as TIFF or RAW.

5. Use a high ISO setting: Set your camera to ISO 400 (or higher) to keep exposures very short and prevent blurring from vibrations.

6. Switch to manual: Set your camera to "manual" (M) so you'll be able to control its focus as well as exposure and white-balance settings.

7. Focus carefully: Don't let poor focus ruin your images. If possible, prefocus your camera the night before the eclipse using a bright star. Otherwise, focus carefully on the sun's edge (or on sunspots, if some are visible). Place a piece of adhesive tape on your telephoto's focus ring (or lock the telescope focuser) to keep it from accidentally being moved during the eclipse. Be sure to recheck your focus as the eclipse progresses and refine it if needed.

If you don’t have a DSLR camera, don’t worry — you can use your automatic “point-and-shoot” camera to take decent pictures of the eclipse through a filtered telescope. Insert a wide-field eyepiece and hold the camera lens close to it. Use the camera’s built-in LCD screen to center the sun and compose your shot. Zoom in as needed.
If you don’t have a DSLR camera, don’t worry — you can use your automatic “point-and-shoot” camera to take decent pictures of the eclipse through a filtered telescope. Insert a wide-field eyepiece and hold the camera lens close to it. Use the camera’s built-in LCD screen to center the sun and compose your shot. Zoom in as needed.
Credit: Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre

8. Minimize vibrations: The mirror slap in DSLRs can cause blurred images. If possible, use the camera's mirror lock-up feature before each shot to keep vibrations to a minimum. You should also operate the shutter with an electronic cable release to eliminate camera shake. Lastly, choose an observing spot that is shielded from the wind.

9. "Bracket" your exposures: It's a challenge to determine the correct exposure beforehand, so shoot the eclipse at various shutter speeds.

10. Use a fresh battery: DSLRs can easily drain their batteries, especially if you use the LCD screen continuously. Make sure you have a fully charged battery right before the eclipse begins, and have a spare one handy, just in case.

11. Test your imaging setup: Be sure to try out your actual setup before the eclipse. This will reveal any potential problems with focusing and vibrations, as well as internal reflections or vignetting in the optics. Take some test shots of the sun to give you an idea of what exposure to use with your solar filter.

12. Try to shoot the sun in hydrogen-alpha: Unlike "white light," the plain, visible light from the sun, H-alpha is the red light given off by hydrogen atoms in the sun's atmosphere. A portable H-alpha telescope offers a wealth of stunning details of the sun at a wavelength of 656.3 nanometers.

13. Process your images: Since the camera's output is already in digital format, it's easy to enhance the images' brightness, contrast, sharpness and color balance using image-editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. You can also "stitch" the frames together to create a movie. 

This is a typical view of the sun as seen through an H-alpha telescope. Details in the sun’s chromosphere that are visible include fine, carpet-like spicules and long, dark filaments across the disk as well as delicate prominences along the edges of the sun. Paul Hyndman captured this view April 16, 2004, using an Astro-Physics 105-mm refractor fitted with a Coronado Solarmax90/T-Max and 30-mm blocking filter, a Tele Vue 2X Powermate lens and an SBIG STL-11000M CCD camera.
This is a typical view of the sun as seen through an H-alpha telescope. Details in the sun’s chromosphere that are visible include fine, carpet-like spicules and long, dark filaments across the disk as well as delicate prominences along the edges of the sun. Paul Hyndman captured this view April 16, 2004, using an Astro-Physics 105-mm refractor fitted with a Coronado Solarmax90/T-Max and 30-mm blocking filter, a Tele Vue 2X Powermate lens and an SBIG STL-11000M CCD camera.
Credit: Paul Hyndman

Shooting the Eclipse with Video

As with digital cameras, you need a proper solar filter over your camcorder when recording the sun.

The color of the solar image will depend on the type of solar filter used. Metal-coated glass and black polymer filters produce a pleasing yellow or orange image of the sun, while aluminized Mylar filters show a bluish sun. Welder’s No. 14 glass filters give a greenish image (not shown).
The color of the solar image will depend on the type of solar filter used. Metal-coated glass and black polymer filters produce a pleasing yellow or orange image of the sun, while aluminized Mylar filters show a bluish sun. Welder’s No. 14 glass filters give a greenish image (not shown).
Credit: Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre

Today's camcorders have zoom lenses with up to 40x (or more) optical magnification. To videotape the eclipse, simply mount the camcorder on a tripod and zoom in on the filtered sun to the lens's highest power. (Hand-holding the camcorder can result in shaky footage.) High-end camcorders have manual controls for adjusting the gain, f-stop and shutter speed so you don't overexpose the sun's disk.

Again, it is best to test your setup before the eclipse. On the day of the event, be sure to use a fully charged battery and bring a spare one as backup. Take two- to three-second clips every two to five minutes to produce a time-lapse sequence that compresses the eclipse's hourlong partial phase into just under a minute.

High-end DSLRs are capable of shooting HD video. (Check your camera manual.) In a pinch, you also can use your cell phone camera to shoot video (or still images) through a filtered telescope. Low-cost webcams can also be useful.

Good luck and clear skies on E-Day!

Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre are veteran eclipse chasers with nine successful expeditions to date (eight total solar eclipses and one annular).