Should You Try to Take a Photo of the Total Eclipse?

The cosmic event may be fleeting, but your friends’ reactions will be worth capturing.

A boy watches an annular eclipse through a camera.
Albeiro Lopera / Reuters

Most full moons, I try in vain to take a photo of our nearest celestial companion, and wind up posting something terribly blurry on Instagram. But even my best shots don’t depict what the scene feels like; I can only hope to preserve a piece of that feeling. So for something as rare and fleeting as a total eclipse, should I even try?

Eclipse chasers are mixed on this, and many say eclipse novices shouldn’t bother; not only will the photo feel insufficient, it’s not worth missing the show just to put something on Insta. But they almost all agree on one thing: Take photos and videos of your surroundings, even if it’s just on your smartphone. You’ll enjoy having a chronicle of what you and your companions did when the moon’s shadow came barreling toward you at more than 1,600 miles an hour, and how you reacted when the sun disappeared. (If you do take photos, send them our way, and we’ll highlight them in our Instagram story!)

If you want photos of the partial eclipse, you need special solar filters on your camera, which block almost all of the sun’s harmful light. NEVER photograph the sun directly without these filters! When the sun is 100 percent eclipsed, in “totality,” you’re fine to take them off, and to remove your eclipse glasses. But for the average viewer with an iPhone, how do you know when to do so? Darren Nilsen of Sterling, Virginia, wonders how he’ll know it’s okay to look at the sun from the path of totality in Carthage, Tennessee:

As we will be in the path of totality we should be able to safely remove our solar eclipse glasses during the two-plus minutes of totality. My question is: How will we know when it is safe to remove our glasses? Having never seen a total eclipse I wanted to make sure we don't remove our glasses too early (or certainly too late). I'm considering purchasing an atomic clock so that I can time it, but I didn't know if there were better/cheaper options or if it will just be apparent at the time of the eclipse that we can remove our glasses.

It’s a good question, and fortunately the answer is simple: You'll know it's safe because it will get so dark. You will see the moon's shadow racing toward you, and when it envelops you, you'll know. Take the glasses off at that point, and look up. When to put them back on is a bit more tricky. For that, you may want to start a timer, assuming you know just how long totality will last at your location. To find that out, you can check this map by a French cartographer and eclipse chaser.

If you don't have a timer, or if you forget to set one in the moment, then don't worry: Just put the glasses back on when the first beads of light start to reappear on the other side of the moon. These are called Baily's beads, and they happen because light is streaming through valleys on the moon.

Along with just watching it, which you really should do, you can take a photo of totality using your iPhone. But some eclipse chasers pack more sophisticated equipment. Evan Zucker is a lawyer, Air Force veteran, and eclipse chaser who has traveled to see seven total eclipses, along with several annular or “ring of fire” eclipses, when the sun is not completely obscured. He’ll be in Casper, Wyoming, with many other eclipse enthusiasts—and a bunch of gear.

I plan to observe the eclipse through 15x50 image-stabilized binoculars and a 3.5-inch Meade ETX telescope. Of course, I have solar filters for both, including 2 different types for the telescope. I plan to photograph and videotape the eclipse with a Nikon P900, Lumix FZ1000, Sony A77, Sony RX100 IV, and two iPhones.

My main advice to first-time eclipse observers is just to observe the event and not worry about photographing it. You can take all the photos you like during the partial phases, but during totality I suggest just observing. Other than a solar filter for the partial phases, the only hardware I would recommend (if you already have a pair) are binoculars for observing totality. If you have access to some sort of tripod, I recommend putting your cell phone on a tripod and have it record video beginning about 5-10 minutes before totality begins and continuing for a few minutes after totality ends. The audio from that recording will do more to convey the wonder and excitement of the eclipse more than any photograph can.

If you do take video, you can send it to Google, which will stitch it together into an eclipse “MegaMovie.” The project is designed to accumulate a massive public archive of eclipse imagery, as well as to do citizen science on the corona, says the project’s cofounder, Hugh Hudson of the University of California, Berkeley.

A major collateral part of this program is the app we are developing, Megamovie Mobile, that will allow smartphone users to participate painlessly while they watch the spectacle. [It’s available on Android and iOS.] The main effort in Megamovie, though, is to engage the large community of well-equipped photographers all along the path, and with their voluntary participation (we’re aiming at more than a thousand volunteers), to produce detailed high-resolution movies over the whole hour and a half.

Personally, I will be in Corvallis, Oregon, with one or two smartphones running our app, possibly with a telephoto lens attached to one of them. But I propose during the actual totality to ignore all instrumentation and just to enjoy the view.

Terry Garbutt, a retired IT worker living in rural Ontario, is headed to Alliance, Nebraska, one of the towns with the best chance of clear weather. He plans to contribute to the Megamovie, and he’ll be in place by 6 a.m. August 21.

I will set up my still camera (Canon APS-C DSLR/300-mm lens) and (BMPCC/420-mm lens) video camera on a single equatorial iOptron SmartEQ tripod mount. Stills from the Canon will go to the Google/Berkeley Eclipse Megamovie project. I may wear a GoPro for self-documentary purposes. All right, maybe a selfie!

Until first contact I will be checking the checklist, and checking it twice. Of course, by then I will have done dozens of practice runs. It will be a piece of cake. I’ll bring a headlamp. Yes, it gets pretty dark; one will see a 360-degree “sunset” effect. Throughout all this, I will be thinking positive weather thoughts.

Just after the “diamond ring” bright flash, the beginning of totality, take off your glasses, sit back in a chair, observe it to the fullest, hoist a glass of bubbly, and join your neighbors in celebration.

Remember the next United States/Canada total eclipse is in April 2024 ... you want to have retained your vision. The next time, you can photograph/video it.