Photographing an Eclipse: Protection
Looking at the sun is bad... Protect yourself and your gear.
By far the biggest concern when photographing a solar eclipse is protecting your eyes and your camera’s sensor from damage. Looking at the sun with naked eyes can be blindness inducing. This problem gets compounded when you point your camera at the sun and look through the viewfinder… Having all of the sun’s energy captured by your lens focused on your eye – definitely a bad thing. I feel the need to get a warning out of the way:
!!!!!DO NOT, FOR ANY REASON, LOOK AT THE SUN WITHOUT PROPER PROTECTION!!!!! EVER!!!!! THIS GOES FOR LOOKING THROUGH AN OPTICAL VIEWFINDER TOO!!!!!
Now that I have that off my chest, let’s look at ways you can protect your eyes, your camera, and the rest of you. This, like the last article is a bit lengthy. It’s good information though… I promise!
There are a number of ways to protect your eyes while viewing an eclipse (spoiler, sunglasses aren’t on the list). There are several DIY/low cost solutions like welding glass or looking through the disk portion of a floppy disk (yes floppy disks…). If you search google for “DIY eclipse viewer” you will get thousands of results… Your mileage will vary with these and so will your level of protection.
I would suggest you use something commercially available and designed for viewing the sun or an eclipse. Options range from a few dollars to about $20. Amazon has paper framed viewing glasses for ~$10 HERE for a 10 pack. If you want something more substantial than a paper frame, Amazon has plastic framed, wrap around, glasses HERE for ~$20.
One article I read suggested wearing an eye patch for the eye not looking through a view finder… I thought that was a bit too much, but if you want to look like a pirate, Amazon has one HERE.
Before we talk about protecting your camera, let’s talk viewfinders… Some of you may remember burning things with a magnifying glass when you were a kid. That thing on fire under the magnifying glass will be your eye if you look through the viewfinder of an unprotected camera. DO NOT LOOK THROUGH THE VIEWFINDER OF YOUR CAMERA UNLESS AN ADEQUATE PROTECTIVE FILTER IS ON THE LENS! And even then, it isn’t a great idea… Use live view to find the sun, find focus, and change settings on your camera. If you have an electronic viewfinder (almost exclusive to mirrorless systems) you have far less of a problem as the light through the viewfinder is generated by an LCD screen and not the sun. But there is that other eye not looking through the viewfinder. Protect that other eye too!
I stumbled across a number of DIY solutions when researching what I was going to do. One was using welding glass as an ND filter. There are many accounts on the internet of welding glass being used for long exposures and viewing the sun and they are cheap. If you have tried this in the past and it works for you – Great. I haven’t had much luck with it. The glass turned everything green and the glass was really dark. If you are shooting with a slow lens the darkness could be an issue. Welding glass comes in several levels of darkening power and I have the most aggressive – that may have been my problem with having too much light being cut… But the green is still an issue.
Solar Filter sheets are another DIY(ish) alternative. The sheets come in several sizes and are very light weight. These have two challenges: attaching them to your camera requires some work and they are really dark. The internet has many an idea on how to attach solar filter foil, so that is not a big hurdle to overcome. The darkness can be an issue though. If you are planning to shoot the eclipse with a slow lens and/or use a teleconverter (or both) you may run into a problem getting enough light into your camera… I purchased a Thousand Oaks Optical solar filter sheet from Amazon and will do a run through in a separate article. If you are using fast lenses, this is a really inexpensive option.
There are many other solutions out there from exposed and developed X-Ray film to removing the disk from a floppy disk and looking through the magnetic material. A brief Google search will give you a day’s worth of reading material on the topic. Keep in mind that any DIY solution comes with risks. The materials you use may not block enough light to be safe to look through directly at the sun or through the viewfinder. If you have any doubt in your mind, use live view to try a solution out. Don’t risk your vision…
ND Filters are becoming my go to option as of this writing. I currently have a 2-8 stop variable ND filter and it works great. The current hurdle is that the sun is still really bright at 8 stops. Bright to the point it is still dangerous to look through the view finder. This can be a good thing and bad… The good, my lens maxes out at f6.3, so the slow glass is not a problem… But there is still the problem of danger looking through the viewfinder. Recommendations I have read range from just wearing sunglasses to adding a second ND filter or polarizer to dim things a bit more. One of the major advantages of a variable ND filter are that I can very quickly reduce from 8-stop to 2-stop without changing the camera’s settings – a big deal during totality when things get really dark… More to come on my testing.
Another downside to ND filters is that they are not designed to block UV or infrared light. Cameras have glass filters directly on top of the sensor to filter out these wavelengths of light so that there is no need for a lens mounted filter. This means that the UV and IR energy put off by the sun is still being focused on the back of your eye. That makes this solution dangerous – especially since everything will appear dark. If ND filters are the option you choose to go with, use live view or WiFi live view to focus and change settings.
Don’t Forget the Rest of You!
You have protected your eyes and your camera, but the eclipse is in the middle of the day in August! If you get to your shooting location early, you may spend several hours in the hot summer sun. Don’t forget a hat, sun screen, appropriate clothing to help keep skin covered, water, snacks, portable shade (if you can in your location) … Don’t forget about bugs either. If you are in a swampy area or near standing water, mosquitoes could be a nuisance.
Let us know in the comments below if you have other suggestions for safely viewing/photographing an eclipse.