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Darkness is coming! How to safely take pictures of the April 8 solar eclipse

The August 17, 2017 solar eclipse in totality taken in Idaho by Brian Kent.
Brian Kent
A still from a series of images of the August 17, 2017 solar eclipse taken in Idaho by Brian Kent.

Unless you’ve been living on another planet, you probably know that a total solar eclipse will occur on this planet on April 8, placing much of western Ohio in total darkness.

Brian Kent will teach a workshop on how to safely take pictures of the eclipse. Kent is the former chief technology officer of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and an amateur astrophotographer specializing in eclipse photography.

He tells WYSO’s Mike Frazier that you can use a fancy digital camera, or your cell phone, but with some modifications.

Brian Kent: You have to have a special film filter over it called a solar filter. Because that solar filter knocks down about 99.9% of the energy of the sun reaching your cell phone. If you're trying to take a direct picture of the sun with your cell phone, you might be able to do it. You won't see the partial phases correctly — and you could actually damage your sensor. But during totality, once the moon completely covers the sun, the brightness of the eclipsed sun is eye-safe to look at only during totality. And it is about the brightness of a full moon, which means you pull the filter off and then you can snap away. But the real problem with cell phones that you have to be careful with it during the partial phases, is looking up-sun and not getting the sun directly in your eyes where you can actually damage your eyes.

But my cautionary element is if you just mount that on a tripod and you're trying to point your cell phone at the sun to do that, you need to be very careful watching up-sun. And I would really recommend like a little sheet or a hood so that you don't get the direct sun in your eyes while you're looking at your cell phone.

Mike Frazier: So there's a cell phone, which may not be the most desired way of really taking any kind of picture. Then the next alternative is a digital camera, DSLR.

Brian Kent: It's a perfect medium to photograph the event, but you need to buy a solar filter to screw on the front of that. And again, that filter has to stay in place during all the partial phases when you're looking through the camera lens to take those pictures. And then, right as totality happens, you unscrew that lens, you can take pictures of it again without the solar filter. And then as soon as totality is ending, you have to pop it back on there. So again, one of the things that I have and what I recommend to people that have digital SLR cameras, if they have a detachable screen that swivels, swivel it at 90-degrees so you're not looking up-sun. If it just has the eyepiece, you can buy a 90-degree eyepiece adapter. And that way you're looking down at the image and you're not looking up-sun.

Mike Frazier:  And when you say up-sun, you mean facing the sun.

Brian Kent: Yeah, looking directly at the sun. Because, here's the statistics. If you stare at the sun with your naked eyes, you can start getting retinal damage within 20 to 30 seconds. If you stare at the sun through any kind of magnification instrument, like a camera lens or a pair of binoculars, for instance, your retina will be damaged within a thousandth of a second. So you really don't want to go there because it's permanent. It never heals, that damage. So that's one of the reasons why, in my workshop, I start with safety and setup and then show you how to actually do this safely.

Mike Frazier: So you can't even really look through the viewfinder safely during this eclipse. 

Brian Kent: If the viewfinder is a digital image that's projected from the camera's electronics and you're looking at the screen alone, that's not a problem. The problem is if, for instance, it has a glass viewfinder, where you're trying to center the glass on the sun itself, that's where you run into trouble, because not only do you really need a solar filter on the front of the camera, but if you have a separate eyepiece, you need a solar filter on that little tiny glass eyepiece as well.

Mike Frazier:  And you'll also be talking about camera settings like aperture and speed, and so on. 

Brian Kent: That's exactly right, because as the eclipse progresses, most actually for solar eclipses, the pictures are usually very fast. So for instance, if you're talking about an ASA or an ISO of, like, 200, you're probably taking individual frames at somewhere between a thousandth of a second or 3,000th of a second, very fast. But as soon as you get totality, now we're talking 60th of a second, 30th of a second. And because it's much darker again, you know, it's like taking a picture of the full moon at night — it's a completely different picture.

Mike Frazier: And you're referring to shutter speed. 

Brian Kent: Correct.

Mike Frazier:  Now, a lot of this terminology may be really foreign to people who don't really know photography, but really want to capture this event. Will you explain that in layman's terms during the workshop?

Brian Kent: Absolutely.

And I'll actually be providing tables and references that they can use for their own camera and their own lenses to actually set the right shutter speeds.

Everybody should experience the ambiance of a total eclipse at least once in their lifetime. I think that it really puts time and motion in perspective. And it really shows something of the natural world's beauty that you just don't see every day. The quiet, the way nighttime begins and ends is just fabulous. What happens is it looks like you've walked into a room, somebody goes to the wall dimmer and turns it down to zero, and you go from daytime to night in a matter of about 10 seconds. There's just no other way to describe it. It just makes you awestruck.

That was astrophotographer Brian Kemp speaking with WYSO’s Mike Frazier. His workshop on how to safely photograph the solar eclipse will be at the Centerville Library on Thursday, March 7, from 6 to 8 p.m. It’s free but registration is required.

His workshop at the Woodbourne Library on Feb. 6 is already full. You can see Kemp's astrophotography work on his website. For more information about the eclipse, Kemp recommends the website Eclipse2024.org.

A chance meeting with a volunteer in a college computer lab in 1987 brought Mike to WYSO. He started filling in for various music shows, and performed various production, news, and on-air activities during the late 1980s and 90s, spinning vinyl and cutting tape before the digital evolution.
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