Use Your Smartphone to Shoot a Solar Eclipse

Read this advice from expert eclipse-chasers before you use your smartphone to photograph a solar eclipse.

The advice many experts offer to first-time eclipse watchers is to experience totality without any lens in the way — even the longest total solar eclipse seems like the briefest moment in time. Yet many won’t be able to resist the temptation of trying to capture the rarest of photo ops: a solar eclipse.

Paul Deans / TravelQuest International

Before we begin, safety first: never look directly at the Sun without proper eye protection, using either solar viewing glasses or a No. 14 arc-welder’s glass filter when viewing the Sun naked-eye, or a special solar filter if viewing through cameras, binoculars, telescopes, and finder scopes. (Find a list of reputable vendors of solar glasses and filters here.) Do not use ordinary sunglasses, polarizing filters, or neutral-density filters — they are not safe. Failure to take proper precaution can result in serious eye injury or permanent blindness.

Using a smartphone to shoot an eclipse is appealing: smartphones are compact and easy to use, and the phone’s built-in camera can capture high-quality, high-resolution still images and video of the event, which you can then immediately share with family and friends via text message, e-mail, or social media. Just be sure your phone is fully charged, and that you’ve freed up enough memory.

If you just hold up your unfiltered smartphone to the Sun and try taking snapshots, not only is the Sun’s image going to be tiny, it's also going to be completely overexposed. There’s also the risk of damaging your phone. But there are other options.

Partial Phase Photography

Crescent Suns projected through the tiny openings between palm leaves aboard the MV Discovery, by Anthony Sanchez.

During the partial eclipse, look under leafy trees — the tiny spaces between the leaves act as natural pinholes, projecting dozens of small solar crescents on the shaded ground. Lay down a white blanket to see the crescents better. The projected solar images will be tiny, dim, and fuzzy, but they are perfectly safe to look at and to photograph with your phone camera.

Alternatively, you can create your own pinhole patterns on a piece of cardboard, or use any everyday items around the house with small perforations to project solar crescents. Get creative!!

Capture Totality with Your Smartphone

Lynn Palmer captured this wide-angle view of totality from an airplane over Antarctica during the November 23, 2003, solar eclipse.

Smartphones are perfect for capturing dramatic panoramic shots of the sky and the local scenery during totality. To add creativity to your composition, you can include people observing in the foreground, silhouetted by the sunset colors along the horizon.

You can also use the camera’s video mode to record the shadow of the Moon as it approaches and then retreats. For best results, use a bracket or some kind of tripod adapter to hold the phone and keep it steady while recording. Prior to the eclipse, practice taking twilight photos at dusk to get an idea how your smartphone will perform in low-light conditions, just like what you’ll experience during totality.

Smartphone + Telescope

If you want to take highly detailed, close-up shots of the eclipse, you’ll need a telescope to magnify the image. (Inexpensive, third-party clip-on “telephoto” lens kits are often not enough, and they can be frustratingly tricky to use.) Be sure to place a proper, safe solar filter in front of the telescope when shooting the partial phase.

Smartphone bracket

Commercial brackets, like the Meade smartphone adapter shown here, are the way to go to get steady shots of the partial eclipse through a filtered telescope. No solar filter is needed during totality.
Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre

The quickest and easiest way to shoot through a properly filtered telescope is by holding the phone camera in your hand. First, insert a low- to medium-power eyepiece into the focuser and focus the telescope on the Sun. Then hold your smartphone and aim its camera lens directly into the eyepiece. To prevent stray light from causing unwanted glare or reflections, try to get the lens as close to the eyepiece as possible.

Use the LCD screen to center the sun. Try not to use the camera’s “digital” zoom to enlarge the image since this can degrade the image quality. Manually focus the camera by placing your finger on the image of the Sun’s limb and tapping the screen lightly to lock the focus. Slide your finger up or down to lighten or darken the exposure, then try to hold the camera as steady as you can while clicking the shutter button or icon. Refer to your phone’s instruction manual if you’re not sure how to do this. Of course, you don’t need to use a solar filter during totality.

A better and steadier way than handholding your smartphone is to use a commercial bracket to attach the phone securely to the eyepiece barrel. For example, Meade’s phone adapter, which retails for $19.99, can accommodate several models of the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy. Avid do-it-yourselfers and amateur telescope-makers can fabricate their own homemade bracket using metal or wood, as well as plastic components designed and created using CAD software and 3D printer.

To enhance your camera’s imaging capability, you can download photo apps — such as Camera+ or NightCap Pro for iPhones and iPads, as well as Camera FV-5, or Open Camera for Android phones and tablets — so you can manually fine-tune the camera’s focus, exposure settings, and much more.

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