The Sun, our source of light and warmth, is a notoriously poor photographic target, due to its extreme brightness and constant emissions of damaging ultraviolet and infrared radiation. However, with the right equipment, the sun can be a challenging and rewarding photographic subject.
The sun, like the moon, is above the horizon and in our skies half of the time. However, unlike the moon, when the sun is above the horizon, it is always visible (unless it is cloudy). The moon progresses through different phases as it orbits our planet, from new to full and back to new. The sun, unless blocked by said moon during an eclipse, is always a brilliant round disk.
Many of us have pointed our cameras in the direction of a setting or rising sun and millions of sunrise and sunset photographs populate Instagram and other social media sites and gallery walls. But, when the sun is overhead, it is much too bright to view directly. Photographing it requires specialized gear.
This article will outline the basics of solar photography. For information on photographing a solar eclipse, click here. As you might notice, the two articles are similar because the subject is, more or less, identical.
DO NOT look at the sun with your naked eyes. Permanent damage to your eyesight, and even blindness, may result. ALWAYS wear certified solar viewing glasses when viewing the sun. We have all glanced at the sun, but prolonged exposure causes permanent damage.
DO NOT point a camera at the sun unless the optics are fitted with a certified solar filter. Optics can magnify the intensity and brightness of sunlight, and this can cause damage to your equipment. There are many myths about the sun and its ability to destroy a camera, so we did some testing to see what the danger was. Check out the results here.
DO NOT look through the viewfinder of an unfiltered SLR camera when it is pointed at or near the sun because of the increase in intensity and brightness of the sunlight passing through magnifying optics. If using a dark ND filter, you should still not use the optical viewfinder of the camera.
DO NOT look through the viewfinder of a rangefinder camera when it is pointed at or near the sun, because the optical viewfinder will not protect your eyes from the sun’s damaging light.
DO NOT point an unfiltered digital camera at the sun and use live view or an electronic viewfinder, due to the possibility of damaging the sensor with concentrated, unfiltered sunlight. Our tests did not damage the sensor in our camera, but we cannot guarantee that other atmospheric or physical conditions will have the same result.
Basic Solar Photography Gear
Solar viewing glasses. You will want a pair of these when aiming your camera at the bright sun.
Tripod. The sun is bright, but when filtered with a solar filter, your shutter speeds will be slower. Especially if you’re using a super-telephoto focal length lens, telescope, or spotting scope, you will want the added stability of a tripod. A tripod will also help you get the sharpest possible image.
Remote shutter release. When firing your camera on a tripod, a remote shutter release (threaded, wired, or remote) will also help reduce vibrations.
Gear: Solar Filters
When photographing the sun, you will need a solar filter for your camera and lens. Several online tutorials mention using a neutral density filter or stacking several neutral density filters. I ONLY recommend using a properly designated solar filter. I am not alone in this recommendation. Experts at NASA, the National Science Foundation, the American Astronomical Society, Nikon, topdeblogs.com, Sky & Telescope magazine, and others all recommend solar filters instead of neutral density filters. Why? Because these are the only filters designed for viewing the sun, and they are constructed not only to dim the sunlight sufficiently, but they also protect your eyes and equipment from non-visible IR and UV radiation. Solar photography is NOT the time to experiment with homemade filtration concoctions to save a few bucks.
However, there are some ND filters out there marketed for solar photography. If you are looking for this type of filter, it looks like the consensus among brands is that 16 stops is the minimum strength for a filter. In comparing different brands, there was a dramatic difference between the light transmission of one brand’s 16.5-stop filter and a competing brand. Use at your own risk!
WARNING: Do NOT use these ND filters with an optical viewfinder! Many come with fine-print on their packaging, so use due diligence and stick to using your Live View mode or an electronic viewfinder.
Your safest option is a solar filter, but the optical glass ND filter may have other uses besides solar photography.
When it comes to solar filters, you have several options: filter sheet, screw-on front filter, or a solar filter that mounts between the camera and lens on an interchangeable lens setup.
Mylar white-light solar filters come in different shapes and sizes. Some, like the one included in this Celestron EclipSmart kit, are round and have tether holes to secure to your camera and/or lens. Many veteran observers also use sheets of #14 Welder’s Glass, which they mount or hold in front of the camera.
These white-light filters thread onto your camera lens just like a standard lens filter. However, they are designed for solar observing. Some are constructed of Mylar film stretched inside of a filter ring, and others are made from optical glass. Again, pay attention to the fine print, some ND filter brands state that you should not look through an optical viewfinder or eyepiece while using them—they are for electronic viewfinders or LCD screens only.
If a screw-on filter does not have the correct diameter for your chosen lens, you can simply employ a step-up ring and adapt the larger filter to your smaller lens.
The color of the sun in your images is dependent on the type of white-light solar filter used. Metal-coated glass and black polymer filters result in a yellow or orange tint. Aluminized Mylar filters show a bluish sun. #14 Welder’s Glass creates a greenish image.
Intermediate filters, like the DayStar Quarks, are designed for solar imaging. They mount between your Canon- or Nikon-mount lens and your camera. The optical design filters out different wavelengths of light, allowing you to see detail on the surface of the sun that is not visible with standard white-light solar filters. See below for the details of our experience with the DayStar Camera Quark.
WARNING: Regardless of the filter system you employ, take care to ensure the filter does not accidently come off your rig while photographing the sun.
Gear: Lenses and Focal Length
Believe it, or not, the sun is almost the same size as the moon in our skies. It feels bigger and, even on a cloudy day when you can see the disk, it looks bigger. But, the fact that we have both total eclipses (when the moon blocks the entire sun) and annular eclipses (when the sun is still visible as the moon and sun are in alignment) shows us that the two cover nearly the identical amount of sky. This is cool when you think about it—and rare in our Solar System.
What this means is that, with a wide-angle lens, the sun is very small in your frame. With a standard-length telephoto lens, the sun is slightly larger, but not frame-filling. To fill your viewfinder, you will likely need to go well past a 300mm focal-length lens.
So, any lens can get you an image of the sun. How close you want to get will determine your focal length. Note that, during a total eclipse, you will see the sun’s corona—invisible at all other times—and that having the sun too tight in the frame will mean you will miss some of the corona. But, when the sun is not being obscured by the moon, the disc will be pretty much all you can see unless you are studying solar prominence with a special non-white-light filter.
Digiscoping is a popular way to photograph the sun and solar eclipses. Many telescopes and spotting scopes allow cameras to be affixed to the scopes via adapters. Additionally, you can just hold a mobile device camera or point-and-shoot to the eyepiece of a scope or binoculars for casual digiscoping. The advantage of digiscoping is that, like with a mirror lens, you can achieve high levels of magnification without much of the expense of an exotic photographic telephoto lens.
Unless you are digiscoping through a dedicated solar viewing telescope, you must use a solar filter for imaging the sun. Some spotting scopes or telescopes have threaded front openings that allow the attachment of screw-in filters, and others have solar-viewing eyepieces. If your scope is not threaded, you can cover the objective lens with a filter sheet (described above).
Camera Settings: Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO
There are several variables that will determine your camera and exposure settings when photographing the sun. They are: filter type and strength, focal length, brightness of the sun (is it obscured by haze, thin clouds), and time of year (during winter months, the sun is lower in the sky).
ISO. You should be able to shoot the sun at your camera’s native ISO setting. This is usually around ISO 100 or ISO 200, depending on your manufacturer and camera model. Search the Internet for your camera’s native setting. Depending on your lens and filter, to reduce movement in the frame you might need to bump up your ISO, so be sure to know when you start to get unwanted digital noise and avoid those settings.
Shutter Speed. Even though the sun is very far away, the rotation of the Earth makes it move across the sky at a fair clip. Just like when photographing the moon, you will want a quick shutter to freeze the “action” and eliminate motion blur. Keep your shutter speed as short as possible, when using tripod-mounted super telephoto lenses.
Aperture. Adjust your aperture to control exposure once you have established your ISO and shutter speed. With a solar filter, the sun will likely be the only thing visible in the frame, so use spot metering and try to keep your lens aperture in the sweet spot and the sun in the center of the frame.
The process is simple. Part of the execution is a challenge.
1. Ready. Gear up! Tripod. Check. Camera. Check. Lens. Check. Solar filter. Check. Remote release. Check.
2. Aim. This is where it gets challenging. If you are working at long focal lengths and high magnification, aiming your camera into the sky at a relatively small target is difficult. Add to the fact that the sun is painfully bright to look at, and the challenge is much greater. Here is where solar glasses (for your eyes) and some luck, skill, and practice come into play. Some spotting scopes have “iron sights” on their bodies and/or lens hoods. Those are useful and you might wish your long telephoto had sights, as well.
3. Fire. With the camera aimed, adjust your aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus. Start shooting. You can fire off a few frames, or fire off a lot and use image-stacking software to blend more detailed images.
The DayStar Camera Quark Experience
While white-light filters are an inexpensive way to get into solar photography and good for taking photos of the sun and sun spots, stepping up to an intermediate Hydrogen Alpha filter allows the photographer the means to make a serious study of our closest star.
Our friends at DayStar were kind enough to loan us the Camera Quark H-alpha Solar Filter (Chromosphere) to try. The Chromosphere model is designed to show more surface detail, while the Prominence model will allow more study of solar prominences. Fellow B&H writer Chris Witt and I mounted the Camera Quark on a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4D IF-ED lens, a Novoflex Nikon to Fujifilm X adapter, and the Fujfilm X-T2 and X-T1camera. Powering the Camera Quark was the Daystar Filter 5V, 30Ah battery pack.
The 4.2x magnification of the Camera Quark really brought the sun in close with the Nikon 300mm lens. With the Fujifilm’s APS-C sensor, the rig’s 35mm equivalent focal length calculates to be 1890mm, and the sun was filling the frame nicely. The downside was that this made aiming difficult because the sun is a small target in a blank sky. Also, infinity focus (there is no hard stop on this lens) was no longer accurate. With the Fujifilm’s focus peaking, I could achieve accurate focus, but the Nikon’s focus ring was beyond super-sensitive. Focusing was an exercise in patience and steady hands. If we try the Camera Quark again, I may use my Nikon AF Micro-NIKKOR 200mm f/4D IF-ED lens for a bit less magnification, a higher-friction focus ring—and because everyone should use a macro lens for solar photography, right?
You can see for yourself, but the results we got while shooting from New York City and Oyster Bay, New York, are amazing. Instead of the plain white disc of the white-light filter, you see texture on the sun’s surface. The sun spots are replaced by visually turbulent areas on the sun’s surface and prominences, many times larger than the planet Earth, extending from the edges of the solar disk.
Scientists use the Camera Quark and other similar filters to do in-depth scientific study of the sun—a location that is far from revealing all its secrets.
The sun, except for when it is rising or setting, is a challenging photographic subject. Some special gear is required, but not all of it is pricey. As much as we know about the sun, it still has many mysteries. And, because you cannot just walk outside and photograph it at will, it is not the most prevalent subject of photographs found on gallery walls or social media. If you are up for a challenge and curious about that bright fusion reaction in the sky, try photographing it. If you want to photograph a future solar eclipse, this article is highly relevant since you will be photographing the sun before, during, and after the eclipse!
Are you a solar photographer? Or, are you interested in starting? Share your questions and experiences in the Comments section, below!