top of page

Solar Eclipse: How to Observe and Photograph an Eclipse

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

When a solar eclipse is announced, everyone goes into a frenzy hoping to get a glimpse! If you aren't sure how to prepare for an eclipse, whether as a casual viewer or as a photographer, one thing is for certain - view it safely. Read on to learn more about what a solar eclipse is, the different types of eclipses, preparation tips, and how to safely observe the event.



Key points of this guide:

  • What is a Solar Eclipse?

  • Different Types of Solar Eclipses

  • How to Observe & Safety Concerns

  • How to Photograph the Solar Eclipse

  • Impact on Ancient Civilizations

  • Impact on Astronomy


 


What is a Solar Eclipse?


A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun, blocking the Sun's light and creating a shadow on Earth. In simpler terms, as a spectator on Earth, you have your view of the Sun temporarily obstructed by the passing moon. View the graphic below to see a visual representation of how this effect occurs.


Graphic demonstrating a solar eclipse on Earth | Source: NASA
Graphic demonstrating a solar eclipse on Earth | Source: NASA

When a solar eclipse occurs, it produces two shadows - the umbra and the penumbra. In the graphic below you can see the difference between the two. The darkest part of the shadow is called the umbra and the effect has a much smaller path as it moves across the Earth. When you stand in the path of totality (the areas of the Earth where the total eclipse can be viewed) it provides the best view of a solar eclipse.


Umbra and penumbra of a solar eclipse
Shadows of a solar eclipse | timeanddate.com

The penumbra covers a larger area around the umbra. In this spot, you would be in the moon's shadow but you cannot view the total eclipse as you would in the umbra.


This is the reason why individuals travel to areas in the path of totality - to see the total eclipse in full glory.



This uncommon solar event can only happen when two conditions are met. First, the Moon has to be in a new moon phase. Second, the Moon is in its orbital plane intersecting the plane of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. An orbital plane happens when celestial bodies line up in a way that the smaller body creates a flat disk path. In this case, the larger body is the Sun and the effect that occurs (the shadow) is visible on Earth. Even more incredible - we see this happen from the shadow side!


However, not every eclipse is the same type. As the Sun and Moon and Earth orbit, they can line up just right to make a total solar eclipse, but other times they might be just shy of a perfect path.



Different Types of Solar Eclipses

Listed below are the four types of solar eclipses. Find a short description of each one as well as an example of what it looks like.



A total solar eclipse
A visual representation of a total solar eclipse

Total Solar Eclipse

A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon completely blocks the Sun, creating a narrow path of totality on the Earth's surface.


During this eclipse, the sky darkens and the temperature drops, and the Sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, becomes visible to observers on Earth.



 

A Partial Solar Eclipse
A partial solar eclipse with a crescent-shape

Partial Solar Eclipse

A partial solar eclipse occurs when the Moon blocks the Sun but not completely, and creates a crescent-shaped shadow on the Earth's surface.



During this type of eclipse, the Sun appears as a partial disk, with a portion of its surface still visible.



 

An Annular Solar Eclipse with the Ring of Fire
An annular solar eclipse with a "ring of fire"

Annular Solar Eclipse

An annular solar eclipse occurs when the Moon is at its farthest distance from the Earth, and appears smaller than the Sun, creating a "ring of fire" around the Moon's silhouette.


During an annular eclipse, the sky darkens, but the Sun's corona is not visible.



 

Sketch explaining a Hybrid Eclipse
Graphic demonstrating a hybrid eclipse | timeanddate.com

4) Hybrid Solar Eclipse

The rarest type of solar eclipse is a hybrid solar eclipse. The eclipse switches from "total" to "annular" depending on your location.


For example, a total solar eclipse can be viewed from Australia, but a person in Southeast Asia may see an annular eclipse. (This actually occurred in April 2023!)


 


How to Observe The Eclipse & Safety Considerations

Before you rush out to buy your solar eclipse sunglasses, we recommend educating yourself on two very important things: how to prepare for the eclipse and how to safely observe the Sun.


1. How to Prepare for a Solar Eclipse

The biggest component of viewing an eclipse is preparation. Careful planning takes time and effort, but the payoff is well worth it.


Why is it so important? Well, unless you are fortunate enough to live in an area where the path of totality passes over your backyard - you have no choice but to travel and plan. If the trip (car, bus, train, plane) to the darkest zone doesn't hold you back, your lodgings surely will.


path of totality of solar eclipse
Path of totality of April 2024 solar eclipse | greatamericaneclipse.com

Often, hotels in areas in the path of totality are often booked up YEARS in advance now that science can predict upcoming solar eclipses. Camping might be a good alternative but understand that space at campgrounds is limited as it is. On a busy weekend, finding an open spot could be risky as thousands flock to the observation location. Consider your options in advance and make reservations and plans sooner than later as prices hike will up or availability might run out.


Once your lodgings are settled, all you have left is the equipment. For casual viewers, grabbing a pair of solar eclipse sunglasses might be enough. However, serious observers and photographers are compelled to get the best camera (and telescope!) possible to not only see but also take photos of the event.


Here are some helpful tips to assist you as you plan your experience:

  1. Research the eclipse. Find out the date, time, and location of the eclipse you plan to observe. Researching this information will help you find out where you need to find lodging, where best to observe from (if away from lodgings), and what to expect during the event. We made a post about all upcoming solar eclipses until the year 2100, so be sure to check out when the next ones are near your location!

  2. Choose a safe location. If you've never been to the area where you plan to observe, avoid several things that could block your view: tall buildings, trees, and other obstructions. If you are in a wildlife area, be wary of your surroundings and stay in permitted areas.

  3. Bring the right equipment. Don't forget that you should never look directly at the Sun. Bring equipment that is suited for viewing the Sun such as solar eclipse sunglasses, telescopes, cameras, and binoculars (with solar filters, of course). On top of that, don't forget to bring equipment for comfort like a chair or blanket. The event lasts hours before totality, so get comfortable and have plenty of water and snacks.

  4. Enjoy the experience. A solar eclipse is a rare and memorable event. While it takes a while for the eclipse to occur, the totality only lasts several minutes. Take the time to enjoy the experience before, during, and after. Observe the changes in the sky and the environment around you - it's a core memory waiting to happen.


Other things to remember about solar eclipses are:

  • It takes time until the eclipse reaches totality

  • Totality typically lasts for several minutes (be ready!)

  • Bring equipment that is modified or made for observing the sun safely (solar filters)


Find out when the next solar eclipse is in our 100 Years of solar eclipses post.


 

2. How to Safely Observe the Sun


The most important component of solar eclipses is safety. Staring at the sun for any period of time can result in long-term damaging effects or blindness.


It may be an obvious statement, but there is no harm in a second reminder about the consequences.




Below are a few things to remember on how to safely observe the sun:

  1. Use proper eye protection. Never look directly at the Sun without proper eye protection. If you do not plan to use equipment, you can use solar eclipse glasses to observe the event. Do not use regular sunglasses or homemade filters as they do not provide adequate protection. This can also lead to irreparable damage to your eyes and eyesight.

  2. Wear ISO-certified solar eclipse sunglasses ONLY.

  3. Use equipment modified or built to view the Sun. A telescope made to view the Sun can enhance your viewing experience.

  4. NEVER stare directly at the sun. Another kind reminder!



Where to Buy Solar Eclipse Sunglasses


You can find solar eclipse sunglasses online and in stores. Online options are vast in terms of style and durability. They come in all types of sizes and colors. If you decide to buy a pair online, ensure they meet the standards for proper protection.


To be compliant, they must meet the ISO 12312-2 standard which protects against harmful UV and IR radiation and reduces visible light. Buy solar eclipse glasses here.


If you're in a pinch, it might comfort you to know that local shops might have solar eclipse sunglasses in stock! We found them at a hardware store of all places for the North American 2017 solar eclipse. However, avoid making last-minute purchases because the closer you are to the event, the more likely a vendor is to sell out. Stay ahead of the curve, and if all else fails, contact your local astronomical society or planetarium because they might have a viewing party!



Equipment for Viewing the Sun


Lens with a filter attached for the solar eclipse
Lens with a filter attached for the eclipse - Reed Hoffmann

You can use instruments to view the Sun safely without solar eclipse sunglasses. These are DSLR cameras with lenses fitted with solar filters, telescopes built for solar observations or fitted with solar filters, and even binoculars...fitted with solar filters. Do you sense a theme here?


No matter what instrument you use, ensure that it is equipped with a filter created specifically for viewing the Sun. This allows you to protect your eyes and vision. Never look through an eyepiece that does not have a filter to safely observe the Sun.


 


How to Photograph the Solar Eclipse

To remember the event forever, consider taking a photograph of the solar eclipse. Bring a camera to attach to a telephoto lens with a filter or a solar telescope. There are several ways to photograph it and you can even take a photo using your smartphone. If you go that route, do your research beforehand and do so safely.


Total solar eclipse NASA

Simple equipment for photographing the sun:

  • DSLR or mirrorless camera

  • Telephoto lens

  • Solar filter / white light filter

  • A sturdy tripod (telephoto lens might be heavy)


Alternatively, you can use a camera attached to a small refractor telescope fitted with a solar filter.

  • DSLR/Mirrorless camera

  • Small refractor telescope with a solar filter or solar telescope

  • Tracker or mount

  • Tripod

  • A lightweight power source (long-lasting)


If you enjoy astrophotography, you may already have the equipment for a telescope setup - all you need is a filter. No matter the setup you choose, consider the following accessories while you're out on the field.


Other useful solar photography accessories:

  • Extra SD cards

  • Intervalometer (shutter release control)

  • A backup power source


These accessories are meant to make the photography element of your experience easier. The backup power source is self-explanatory. Extra SD cards are worth packing as you might run out of space taking hundreds of photos to capture a perfect eclipse. It would be a shame to run out of space during the most crucial moments of the solar eclipse. Have those SD cards ready to swap out at a moment's notice.




A good rule of thumb is to touch your camera the least amount possible to avoid changing its position. But how can you take photos without touching the camera, or changing the duration or intervals of a photo? This is where an intervalometer comes in. It is a handheld device that allows you to control the shutter release of your camera without touching your camera. This accessory can be wired or wireless and may require batteries to work so keep that in mind as you pack.


Prepare your setup ahead of time and practice as much as you can. Our best advice is to research online guides and practice switching your exposures so you get the maximum results in the precious minutes of totality. The more comfortable you are with your equipment, the easier and faster the setup will be, and the less stressful you will feel. After all, there are no rewinds or immediate do-overs. We wish you well and hope you take the best photos possible!


Nowadays, we see solar eclipses as a positive, "can't-miss" event, however, in the past, this wasn't always the case.


 


Significance in Ancient Civilization

In ancient civilizations, solar eclipses were often viewed as bad omens or supernatural events. Many cultures developed myths and legends to explain the phenomenon and even ways to ward off the catastrophe they believed was to come, but not all cultures viewed eclipses as negative. Scientific observations were made long after some of these civilizations faltered explaining this natural event. Below are some examples of what eclipses meant to people around the world.


Latin America


Solar Eclipse in Peru | Nasi - 1842
Solar Eclipse in Peru | Nasi - 1842

In ancient Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Maya and Aztecs, solar eclipses were seen as an ominous event and were often interpreted as a sign of impending doom or the wrath of the gods.


The Aztecs, in particular, believed that they represented a cosmic battle between the Sun and the Moon, and offered human sacrifices to appease their gods during eclipses.


In Peru, people would bang hammers, whip dogs, and scream in fear in the hopes of stopping solar eclipses.


 

Europe


Solar Eclipse Vienna | Schoeller - 1842
Solar Eclipse Vienna | Schoeller - 1842

In ancient Greek and Roman culture, solar eclipses were also viewed with superstition and fear. The Greeks believed that eclipses were a sign of angry gods or an omen of coming disaster, while the Romans saw eclipses as a warning for politics or the death of a ruler.


Eclipses were noted by early European astronomers, such as the English astronomer Edmond Halley, who used them to refine his theories of celestial mechanics.


 

China


Eclipse in China observed by astronomers. Notice the scared servants
Eclipse in China observed by astronomers. Notice the scared servants

Ancient Chinese civilization viewed solar eclipses as a disruption of the cosmic balance between the sun and the moon.


Chinese astronomers recorded and predicted eclipses, and believed that their occurrence was related to the health and longevity of the Emperor. During eclipses, the Chinese people would often bang on drums and pots to drive away the dragon or monster that they believed was devouring the Sun.


 

India

In Hindu mythology, solar eclipses were seen as the work of the demon Rahu, who was trying to steal the Sun or the Moon. The Hindu sage Aryabhata, who lived in the 5th century, was one of the earliest Indian astronomers to accurately predict eclipses using mathematical calculations. In modern India, they are often viewed as a time of spiritual cleansing and purification, and people will often fast, meditate, or perform rituals during eclipses.


Overall, solar eclipses played a significant role in the mythology, religion, and astronomy of many ancient civilizations, and continue to fascinate and inspire people around the world today.



 


Significance in Astronomy

Solar eclipses are important in astronomy because they provide a unique opportunity to study the Sun's atmosphere. Not only that, but scientists can use eclipses to study the Sun's magnetic field and other physical properties.


Scientists studying the sun during an eclipse do so to learn more about:

  • The Sun's atmosphere and corona. Normally the coronas are invisible to the naked eye due to the Sun's intense brightness.

  • The Sun's size and distance. Eclipses can help calculate the size and distance of the Sun with greater accuracy by measuring its distance and path furthering our understanding of the structure and dynamics of the Solar System.

  • Solar activity through observation. By studying the Sun's activity, including sunspots, prominences, and flares, scientists can better understand the Sun's behavior and its effects on Earth's climate and technology.


Today, solar eclipses continue to captivate people around the world as a rare and awe-inspiring astronomical event. They provide an opportunity for people to come together and appreciate the wonders of the universe, while also advancing our scientific understanding of the Sun and its effects on Earth.


 

Final Thoughts

Solar eclipses are an uncommon phenomenon you should see at least once in your life! Now that you're familiar with the types of solar eclipses, you can better prepare for the next eclipse happening near you. Be wary and plan your voyage to the path of totality in advance so you can best observe the eclipse.


If you do not wish to take photos of the eclipse, ensure you protect your eyes with solar eclipse sunglasses and that they meet safety standards. Safety is key - so do not ever look directly at the Sun without proper protection. If using an instrument, it must be equipped with a solar filter for safety. With an understanding of how to photograph a solar eclipse under your belt, you should practice often to snap a photo the day of the event and keep it with you forever.



Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to stay up to date with our work!


Clear Skies,

Galactic Hunter




 

Our Books

Astrophotography books by Galactic Hunter

342 views0 comments

Comments


PROCESSING GUIDES
PixInsight Processing Guides
GET OUR NEWSLETTER

Subscribe to our newsletter and instantly receive 7 free wallpapers!

Messier Workbook 300x300px ad.jpg
THE GALACTIC COURSE

Learn astrophotography with our premium online course. Get lifetime access to all types of imaging content!

Galactic Course Logo transparent.png
bottom of page