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Getting ready for photographing the next eclipse

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p.1 #1 · p.1 #1 · Getting ready for photographing the next eclipse

After surviving my first total eclipse, I came away with some great shots but discovered some issues in my technique. Maybe someone can provide some guidance on doing things better next time.

My gear was a 5D Mk III with a 100-400 zoom, a 2x extender, and a solar filter that screwed onto the lens. I also had a ball head and tripod. These latter items were relatively inexpensive but it was what I had. My biggest issue came from trying to acquire the sun each time I wanted to take some pictures. Usually, the sun had moved out of frame from the last series and I had to find it again. With 800 mm of focal length and using live view, it was awkward to loosen the ball, move the camera around until I found the sun, and then lock the ball again. It took only a small motion to sweep the sun from one side of the image to the other. Further, when I finally got the sun in the frame and locked the ball, the camera would still drop down, pushing the sun out of frame. I ended up having to try and position the sun just out of frame so that, when the lens dropped, it would appear in the field of view. Maybe my ball head wasn't beefy enough to fully support the weight. Post-eclipse, I thought about zooming in to 100 mm (200 with xtender), framing the sun, and then zoom out again without tweaking the positioning. Needs some experimentation.

The second problem I encountered was near the end of the eclipse when the sun was highest in the sky. I found that I couldn't elevate the lens high enough to locate the sun. If I dropped into the notch on the ball head, I'd gain more elevation but then I couldn't swivel the lens in azimuth. Afterwards, I thought that maybe I could shorten one of the tripod legs so the mount was no long level. The problem with that is the the mount is then no longer stable. I haven't tried this yet so maybe it will work. Are there other ways to achieve this higher elevation?

Next time, I need to practice more prior to the event. I did practice this time but it obviously wasn't enough. Coupled with the excitement, it resulted in missing some shots.

Any thoughts from you more seasoned eclipse junkies?

Aug 29, 2017 at 05:30 PM
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p.1 #2 · p.1 #2 · Getting ready for photographing the next eclipse

As you mentioned, practice would have identified these common issues and allowed a more deliberate decision how to proceed.
Sorry it didn't work out.
Best bet for this focal length and 'small' lens is to get a light weight relatively inexpensive GEM ($<1K) with a handset controller allowing fine changes in position. You don't need anything too fancy to track the sun for a couple seconds, keep it in the frame for several hours, and reposition a bit from time to time.
Alternately, you could use a geared head, but without a wedge underneath or unbalancing your load, you still won't be able to point that high.
For eclipses consider Alan Dyer's relatively inexpensive e-book is a must read.
Otherwise, I'd use something 300mm or less.

Aug 29, 2017 at 09:41 PM
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p.1 #3 · p.1 #3 · Getting ready for photographing the next eclipse

A good ballhead will not creep once it is locked down, although some seem to creep during the process of being locked down.

A gimbal instead of a ballhead will allow you to aim higher.

Aug 30, 2017 at 12:08 AM
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p.1 #4 · p.1 #4 · Getting ready for photographing the next eclipse

I ended up shooting with an astrotrac to track the sun, so you could use any polar alignment tracker to do the same. Otherwise I would suggest a geared head or a beefier ball head.

Like Danski said above, a good ball head will not creep, but may have some creep while locking down. But also a good ball head will provide some decent tension when you are moving the camera around.

Aug 30, 2017 at 01:06 AM

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p.1 #5 · p.1 #5 · Getting ready for photographing the next eclipse

a tracker or gimbal

Aug 30, 2017 at 02:18 AM

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p.1 #6 · p.1 #6 · Getting ready for photographing the next eclipse

I used a solar tracker (Star Watcher Star Adventurer) to track the sun. Things I found that made this more difficult were: (1) polar alignment is critical, otherwise your image (sun) will drift out of view over time; (2) firm ground (my tripods were on dirt ground, which caused tripod movement); (3) weather conditions: as I shot in gusty conditions.


Even with a tracker, I had to "drift align" periodically. Here, using a geared head would make the most sense.

Others have used slip-on solar filters. I used a threaded solar filter, thinking I'd be able to take it off quickly, but found that it wasn't quick enough, and missed the "diamond" start of the eclipse.

As to exposure, Dyer's e-book recommended 1-2 stops underexposure. I shot at 1 stop under and I think it should have been 2 stops under. I did a 3-shot (1 EV each) bracket shot set-up. I think a faster camera, like the Nikon D500, which has a 200-shot buffer max, would allow one to shoot more shots with wider bracketing. Also since it's DX, there's the 1.5x increase in focal length (I shot FX).

Finally, this little item allows you to find the sun without actually looking at the sign, which could harm your eyes. I adapted this to slip onto my camera hot shoe mount to quickly find the sun, then fine tune it in live view.


Aug 30, 2017 at 05:19 AM
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p.1 #7 · p.1 #7 · Getting ready for photographing the next eclipse

I have an Astrotrac and it is a very nice portable tracker.
However, aiming high up it is still difficult and with a heavy camera lens combo, it gets unsteady and unbalanced (vibrations). Adding a geared head puts the weight too far away, and a regular ballhead it too difficult to aim. Even a BH55 will sag a tiny bit if aiming at DSOs with long focal lengths (600-1200mm).
You really should use the Astrotrac counterweight head and shaft to make it silky smooth.

At that point, however, you are paying more for the Astrotrac kit than you would for a nice beginner GEM which has goto and controller handset. Using a true GEM with longer focal lengths is a real dream, except when you try to take it across the country.

The GEM is not going to be as portable as the Astrotrac which one would probably use more often without the counterweights. All about trade offs.


Aug 30, 2017 at 03:38 PM

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p.1 #8 · p.1 #8 · Getting ready for photographing the next eclipse

My experience was quite similar. I used a Nikon d750 with the battery grip for extra juice and a Tamron 150-600 (didn't care much for focusing speed!) with a Seymour filter. Where I had trouble was with the flimsy tripod-ball head combo I used. I too had to go wide and zoom in a couple of times. However, after some trials, I realized that I had better control by progressively adjusting the tripod legs one at a time. I was able to make much finer adjustments. Got 7 yrs to gear up for the next, and hopefully I will be shooting from my backyard in central IN.

Aug 31, 2017 at 10:41 AM

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