Friday, 25 October 2013

How to Photograph the Sun

This article is in response to an email I received lately, one of our readers wanted to take pictures of the sun with her digital camera but was not sure how to. Instead of answering the mail personally I thought I’d write an article so others could also learn the trick. So this article is not a primer to astro photography but one that covers general points that help you capture beautiful images of the sun using your digital camera. It could be a DSLR, a point and shoot or a mirrorless, either long focal length (tele) photographic lenses or telescopes which have the option to mount a camera could be used. There are many opportunities for photographing the sun like Sunspots, ISS transits, eclipse or other special events.

how to photograph the sun
Photo by: Opticoverload

Before we go any further let us be clear about one thing. Photographing the sun is not a job for the uninformed as it could be quite a dangerous endeavor.  If you look at the sun long enough without proper filtration you could easily damage your cameras sensor and also lose eye sight.  The first and foremost consideration while attempting to photograph the sun, should be safety; both of your eye and equipment. Never look at the sun with your bare eyes or through any other equipment without proper filters attached. The only time we get to look at the sun is when it’s only a few degrees above the horizon (during sunrise and sunset); at all other times if you are not careful you could permanently damage your eyes just by looking at the sun.

Sun Photography Equipment Requirements

solar eclipse
Photo by: Rudy

1. Digital camera
2. Tele Photo lens with a long focal length (600mm or greater) longer the better.
3. Telescope
4. Tele-converters (1.4x or 2x)
5. Solar Filter
6. Tripod and Head

Photographing the Sun with a DSLR

For photographing the sun with other types of cameras, all the principles stated below are applicable, only thing you will be somewhat limited in the amount of control over different variables.

1.  To photograph the sun the most indispensable equipment apart from a digital camera and a long lens is the solar filter. Remember there are different types of filters, some materials used as filters like exposed film only blocks visible light but let’s IR rays pass. Using such materials could easily damage your eyes. So use a proper filter designed for visual use. Remember if it is safe for your eyes then it should be safe for your camera too. A quick glance through any "Astronomy" or "Sky and Telescope" magazine could help you find many suppliers of solar filters for visual use.

2.  Before you actually use the filter make sure the filter is in perfect condition without any tears or punctures.

how to photograph sun
Photo by: Tarique Sani

3. Remember the solar filter is to be mounted on the front of the lens; this might sound obvious to many but there are many lenses like the Canon 600mm f/4 which allow filters to be mounted on the rear slot. This was made possible so that the photographer could use smaller diameter filters with the lens which otherwise had a very large diameter front element. But if you mount an ND filter on the rear slot and face the camera towards the sun all the heat will be concentrated at the filter inside the lens and this could cause over heating easily damaging the lens or the camera.

4.  Once the solar filter is mounted on the lens your exposure depends on the strength of the filter you are using. In general it is advisable to keep you shutter speed faster than 1/250 to prevent camera shake as you will be working with long lenses.

5. To be on the safer side if you camera supports live view shooting use it instead of looking through the viewfinder.

sun photography
Photo by: Stuart

6.  With the filter attached to a tele photo lens, the sky turns pitch dark and the sun will appear as a white disk. Finding the sun with such a set up is in itself a challenge, also it keeps moving so you need to follow it with your lens. One trick to find the sun is to look at the shadow of your camera, point your lens in a corresponding angle and scan the general area using live view until you find the sun.

7. Once you have framed the sun, use the zoom function in live view to manually set your focus.

8. It is a good idea to bracket your shots and check your histogram for exposure.

photographing the sun
Photo by: Sergei Golyshev

9.  Your RAW image will look like a black and white picture with the sky appearing pitch black and the sun as a white disk. To adjust the colour of the sun adjust your white balance settings; you could either leave the sky as it is (black) or replace it with a shot of just the sky taken in the opposite direction as the sun is.

10.  It is advisable to go through the shoot as quickly as possible and pack your gear, never leave your camera pointed at the sun any longer than absolutely necessary.