The sun is a critical part of our photography. Without it, we’d have no light and most nature photography wouldn’t exist. We use the sun’s light to highlight our subject, enhance a scene, add some sparkle to water, and even include the sun in sunrise and sunset photos as well as to add some impact to a photo with sky.
Now a solar eclipse is coming up. These don’t happen very often. Lots of people are talking about photographing it.
So I thought it might be useful to talk a little bit about photographing the sun in any situation and why you have to be careful about that. A long time ago, I did photograph an eclipse of the sun, but those photographs are long gone. I have included the sun in my photographs, however, almost my entire career. I have loved including the sun in sunrise and sunset photos, but I’ve also enjoyed adding the impact of bright sun in lots of photographs.
I learned long ago that you have to be really careful when using a telephoto lens with an optical viewfinder and photographing the sun. For example, if you’re photographing the sun at sunrise or sunset, the telephoto will intensify the rays of the sun, and if you are using an optical viewfinder, that can damage your eye. This is magnified even more with an eclipse of the sun because you would be photographing it at first with its full power during a time of day where it is not diminished by sunset-time atmosphere.
There are a couple of things you can do to minimize any danger to your eyes. And I want to emphasize that there can be a very real danger of damage to your eyes. My wife works in eye healthcare, and she makes sure I know that, too!
First, whenever you are looking at the sun, especially when you’re looking through an optical viewfinder of a camera, you need to protect your eyes. You can’t just use any old dark filter or sunglasses. You need sunglasses with the ISO Certified seal of approval, or ISO 12312-2 printed on them. This ensures the glasses were made to protect your eyes. For more information, click here to see this article by an ophthalmologist.
Second, use your camera smartly. Set your camera to manual focus, then set your lens at infinity before you even frame up your photo with the sun. The sun is going to be at infinity so you don’t need to do anything else. Even when you are shooting a sunset, the sun on the horizon is still going to be at infinity.
Next, frame up the sun quickly with your camera on a tripod and then shift your camera so that the sun is out of your frame. Now you are ready to start taking pictures when the time comes, but you are not having the sun go through your camera. That way you are in no danger if you forget and look through the camera. When the time is right, quickly create your composition with the sun, then take your eye away from the viewfinder and start taking pictures. Since your camera is on a tripod, the composition is not going to change, so you don’t need to look through the camera as you shoot.
Now here’s a different idea that you don’t heard much about. People seem to forget that most cameras today can use Live View (and if you have a mirrorless camera, such as I do, then you are always using Live View). When you are using live view, you are never looking directly at the sun. The sun is being captured by your sensor, then being displayed on your LCD. That way you can see what you are photographing without any risk to your eyes. So use your Live View!
Years ago, cameras used to be very sensitive to having the sun constantly on the sensor. Sensors have been designed to make that much less of a problem now, but still, you don’t want to just leave your camera pointing at the sun while you are using Live View. That can create damage to your sensor or camera from the focused heat at the minimum.
When you use your camera with Live View and a strong sun, use a neutral density filter (or at least a polarizing filter acting like a neutral density filter) to knock down the intensity of the sun on your sensor. Then, follow the technique as described above – after setting your focus to infinity, quickly frame up the sun with your camera on a tripod and then shift your camera so that the sun is out of your frame. When the conditions are right for photographing, shift your camera again to create your composition with the sun, and start taking pictures. With Live View, you can actually watch the shots as they unfold, which is really cool for observing a solar eclipse.