Travel

How to Take Great Pictures of the Solar Eclipse, Even With Your Phone

solar eclipse
Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs/Getty

This summer, the sun and moon are going to tango in a way America hasn’t seen perhaps in your lifetime. On August 21, the United States will get its first total eclipse of the sun since 1979, 38 years ago. Or four years longer than when we got our last total eclipse of the heart.

People are already making serious travel plans for the solar eclipse to get underneath the line of totality, where the eclipse will be the darkest for the longest, but you’ll be able to see at least a partial eclipse all over the country. And since this is America’s first total eclipse since the advent of social media, having the best dang Instagram of the event is obviously a top priority.

Getting a decent snapshot of the freakin’ sun presents some special challenges -- considering you shouldn't even be watching it without special glasses. So we talked to professional photographer and Nikon ambassador Lucas Gilman, and he gave us some tips on how to get the best pictures of 2017’s total solar eclipse.

Understand that your phone isn't going to do much

To get pictures during the eclipse, most people will reflexively whip out their smartphone like it’s selfie time at the pool party. But Gilman says even the best Instagrammers in the world won’t be able to get good images with their phones.

“The typical lens on a phone is about 28mm,” he says. “And you’re going to need a longer lens to photograph this thing. Typically the camera (on a phone) is at a fixed length, and when you zoom in you’re just cropping pixels, not really zooming in. Your picture is just going to be a teeny blob off in the middle of nowhere and not properly developed.”

Basically, since the moon is 238,000ish miles from the Earth and the sun is almost 93 million miles beyond that, using your fingers to zoom in reeeeeeally far is a great way to take the sort of shot where you have to explain to someone, pointing to a distorted blob: “See that right there? That’s the moon.”

solar eclipse
Jenn Huls/Shutterstock

Make the most of your phone camera with a zoom lens and a tripod

Still, there are some things you can do to make the most of that phone in your pocket. NASA astronomer Sten Odenwald published a 12-page guide to smartphone eclipse photography a while back, but if you don’t feel like reading through it all, here’s a quick summary.

First of all, no matter what, you should cover the lens of your phone camera with a solar filter to protect the sensor from the direct sun. Placing a pair of the ISO-Certified protective eye glasses in front of the lens should do the trick. If you're lucky enough to be watching in the path of totality, it's safe to remove the solar filter only when the moon has slid fully in front of the sun (just be sure to put it back on right before totality ends).

Next, buy a zoom lens (or achieve the same effect with binoculars). A zoom lens will allow you to zoom in on the eclipse with glass, rather than by cropping pixels. This 15X lens from Olloclip, for example, is a good option.

You can also buy binocular attachments and smartphone lens adapters that let you attach your smartphone to a pair of binoculars, so your image is a picture of what you’d see when looking through them. Those run $10 to $20 each.

A similar suggestion from Thrillist's Associate Art Director, Drew: If you happen to have a telescope on hand, you could potentially achieve the same effect as a long lens. "A few summers ago someone set up a telescope outside the Brooklyn Museum to let people look at the moon. I put my phone up against it and got this image:" 

A post shared by Drew Swantak (@drewswantak) on

Lastly, you should set your phone up on a tripod ($3 to $10) to keep the image steady. And to get the most out of your phone camera's capabilities, we suggest downloading an app (such as Adobe Lightroom) that lets you put your phone into manual mode and play around with shutter speed and aperture. You can practice taking picture of the moon to get an idea of how to frame your shot. After the eclipse, you can use Lightroom (or whatever editing app you like) to help make your shots look like more than a random circle of light in the sky.

Even better, find a good camera

So your phone isn’t a telephoto lens -- you knew that. But you don’t need to go out and spend hundreds of dollars on a DSLR camera to get a decent image. Plenty of places (camera shops, for instance) will rent you a nicer camera, or if you don’t want to deal with that, Gilman says even a point-and-shoot camera with a long zoom will work.

“A point-and-shoot with a longer zoom would work,” he says. “If for some reason a point-and-shoot didn’t have manual mode, change exposure compensation to make sure you walk away with something good. Some kind of a long zoom like the Nikon P900 is something, if you don’t have a DSLR, you could use.”

Use a solar filter

Much like you’ll need special glasses to view the eclipse without damaging your eyesight, so will your camera. Solar filters are kind of like sunglasses for your camera, and keep the sun from destroying the camera’s sensor. The cheapest way to get one is buying solar film. A permanent solar filter to put over your lens can run anywhere from $60 to $200.

Find your spot, and make a plan

“Do a little research and find an interesting spot to photograph from,” says Gilman. “There are all kinds of apps that will show you where the sun is going to be, and when. So if you live in a city and the eclipse happens at 2pm, and the sun is usually behind buildings then, find somewhere that’s open.”

Remember, the only places you’ll get the full, daytime darkness effect is in the line of totality, where the moon appears to align perfectly over the sun, and totality is the only time you can take off your solar filter. Elsewhere you’ll be photographing a partial eclipse, which might not be as awe-inspiring but can still make for some epic snaps. The Great American Eclipse is your best resource to see where the sun will be so you can plan accordingly.

sun eclipse
Zastolskiy Victor/Shutterstock

Make sure you've got the right specs on your camera

DSLR cameras make it easy for you to adjust the ISO (sensitivity to light), shutter speed, and f-stops, with digital menus on the viewing screen that let you select the settings.

Gilman recommends keeping your ISO relatively low, between about 200 to 400. Put the f-stop (which controls how much light your camera allows in) between f/5.6 and f/8. Then he recommends starting with a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second -- a tiny window, suitable during maximum light -- and working your way down to longer exposures at 1/30th and 1/15th as the light dims.

“Depending where you are in that moment of totality, the exposure changes a lot,” he says. “You’ll have more or less light to deal with, and it will vary widely based on where you are and what that moment is. So take a lot of pictures, and try to change exposure value while keeping the image consistent.” He suggests using faster shutter speeds if you’re not in the line of totality, to get good images of the crescent.

Put your camera in manual mode

“We want to be in control,” says Gilman. “This event is a short amount of time, and we don’t wanna just go out there pressing buttons and letting the camera decide what our exposure value is.” So how does one regain complete control of how their camera shoots? Put in in manual mode.

Gilman stresses that bracketing -- taking the same image with different shutter speeds -- is the best way to get a good image, since it will give you the opportunity to let different amounts of light into the camera at different times.  

Use a tripod

Anyone who’s photographed in low light knows that as steady as you think your hand might be, images can blur, even at fast shutter speeds. The best way to overcome this is with a tripod. It also ensures you’re getting the same image from the same place when you bracket.

Go out and practice

“This is something special that hasn’t happened in decades,” says Gilman. “I recommend people go out and practice a little. Go out and do research by photographing the sun with your filter on, and figure out what the exposure value you’ll need is, then and work your way down once the event happens (and it gets darker).”

Learning how your camera works, and what kinds of pictures it takes is important, he says. Take the camera out and learn how to bracket, how to put your camera in manual mode, and any other adjustments you might need so you’re comfortable when the eclipse happens. It will only last a couple of minutes, and the last thing you want to do is spend it fumbling with your camera because you weren’t prepared. Also make sure you’ve charged your batteries and cleaned the lenses and sensors before you go.

“It’s not really a lot to do,” Gilman says. “But this is a unique event and if you want to walk away with something special to remember it by, you’re going to have to put in some leg work.”

Wanna see the solar eclipse for yourself? Check out Thrillist's state-by-state watch guides to the best viewing spots in GeorgiaIdahoIllinoisKansasKentuckyMissouriNebraska, North CarolinaOregonSouth Carolina and Wyoming.

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer with Thrillist who’ll be taking all this to heart when he’s in Greenville on August 21. See the results on his Instagram @meltrez1.