The Science of Sustainability

Photographing the Sun: Let Me Count The Ways

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Know how you can start a fire with just a magnifying glass and the sun? And if you stare at the sun, the lens of your eye is the magnifying glass, and the burning happens on your retina? Well, cameras have the same problem. So how do you take a picture of the sun–which you might want to do during, say, a solar eclipse?

Turns out there are as many ways to photograph an eclipse as there are to watch it. With a bit of preparation and the generosity of strangers, I got to experience five of them during Sunday's annular eclipse.

My husband and I drove from the Bay Area up to Mt. Hirz near Lake Shasta which was smack in the middle of the optimal eclipse viewing path. About a mile from the top, we ran into an amateur astronomer named Ben who'd scoped the whole mountain the previous day and decided this was the best spot. He had a telescope, so we stayed with him.

A bit of cloud cover when the eclipse started had us all chewing our fingernails, but then it cleared up–and what a view!

Although I am an admirer of photography, I am not the most skilled practitioner. Flickr, however, is a treasure trove of beautiful images. All the pictures in this post are from photographers kind enough to share their work openly, for the enjoyment of the masses.

To make a hokey pinhole camera like I did, cut a square out of a piece of cardbord, tape aluminum foil over the empty square, and poke a hole in the foil with a pin. Stand with your back to the sun and hold the cardboard so the sun shines directly through the pinhole onto a piece of white paper. (This photographer made three holes, one of which was obviously best.)

eclipse through pinhole

A better technique is to replace the pinhole with a pair of binoculars like my husband did. You keep your back to the sun and hold the binoculars in the same position as the pinhole camera and you get a larger, clearer view of the sun on the paper.

eclipse through binoculars

Astronomer Ben's wife had a pair of eclipse viewing glasses that were the best way to see color–the "ring of fire" when the moon is totally inside the sun. You can put these glasses–or a really thick filter, which is the same thing (but see comments)–in front of a camera as well as in front of your eyes. But the sun looks really small.

eclipse through filter

Best of all is an actual telescope. Then you can see sunspots!

eclipse through telescope

The fifth, final, and possibly my favorite way to see/photograph the eclipse requires no equipment at all–just some trees. When the sun is a crescent, it shines through the leaves to create hundreds of little crescents on the ground or wall.

eclipse through leaves

Photographing the sun is one thing. But the full mood of an eclipse, with its cool air and dusky light, is difficult to capture. Here's one picture (not from the path of full annularity) that really pulled it off:

sunset eclipse
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Category: Astronomy

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Danna Staaf

About the Author ()

Danna is a marine biologist, a science writer, a novelist, an artist, and an educator. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and has blogged at Squid A Day since 2009. She holds a BA in Creative Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a PhD in Baby Squid from Stanford. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.
  • J.

    I would be cautious telling people they can use "a really thick filter" to view the sun/eclipse. Thickness of the filter does not mean it will have the proper shading value that will deter UV and other harmful rays from the sun. A filter's shade value is the most important aspect…not the thickness People can use a welder's filter lens (Shade #14…anything less will damager your sight). Just an FYI.

    • http://cephalopodiatrist.com Danna Staaf

      Thanks for the clarification, J.! I added a note to the text. I'll try to remember to be less glib in the future.

  • http://twitter.com/GabrielRoybal Gabriel Roybal

    light and shadow. simple science producing amazing images

  • http://twitter.com/GabrielRoybal Gabriel Roybal

    here is a photo i took of the lunar eclipse in 2010 as seen from San Francisco Area. the camera moved during the picture, but it created a cool effect! http://gabrielroybal.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/gabriel-roybal-11/