The Sun: it’s warm, magnificent — and absolutely critical to life here on Earth. If it failed to rise and set every day, we’d be in quite a lot of trouble. We also often photograph the Sun — but it’s not always the “star” of the show.
From sunkissed hair to the glimmeringly-lit curves of landscape photography, it would be very difficult not to capture the gentle caress of its refracted rays. Yes, the Sun’s illumination is essential for almost every type of photography.
However, as true as this is (and cheerful it is), it’s typically not the first astrophotography subject to come to mind! For one, the Sun’s movements contradict the predominantly nocturnal ones of most other popular astronomical subjects. But, besides that, it isn’t the easiest or safest subject to photograph directly.
I’m sure your parents told you not to stare too long at the Sun — or you’ll go blind. Well, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that pointing a lens (the mechanical twin of the human eye) at the Sun is not safe, either.
Hence why there’s a unique approach, one needs to take with Sun photography. Plus, some specialized solar photography equipment to pack — all of which I’ll be covering in this post!
Fun Fact: the Sun and Full Moon look almost exactly the same in diameter or size in our sky. Though the Sun is the much bigger of the two in our solar system, the Moon is the closest to Earth. Hence the unlikely match-up – and why we get to enjoy those perfectly aligned lunar and solar eclipses! However, this coincidence is actually quite special and rare as far as astronomical bodies go.
Timing Your Sun Photography
The movements of the Sun are some of the most predictable compared to other astrophotography subjects. It rises every morning and sets every evening — the exact timing of which varies based on the season and your region. Otherwise, aside from the occasional eclipse, you can expect few deviations in the Sun’s routine.
The challenging aspect of solar astrophotography is safety, as well as timing your shoot to match the unique happenings on the Sun’s surface. At specific times of the day or year, phenomena such as sunspots may be visible on the solar disk. Solar prominences and flares can also crop up on occasion, making for an explosive photo.
Photographing unique astronomical occurrences involving the Sun, such as a solar eclipse or a planet passing by, is easier. You can use a star tracker app or website to find out when the next eclipse, conjunction, or event is happening.
Of course, tracking the weather is also important. Thin clouds may be ideal for diffusing sunlight for outdoor shoots. But they aren’t when trying to capture a clear image of the Sun — nor is rain or a storm! That said, try to limit your direct Sun exposure by shooting when it’s not the highest in the sky.
Fun Fact: In the furthermost Southern and Northern Hemisphere, you can experience up to 24 hours of dark (polar night) during the winter months. Or the reverse — up to 24 hours of daylight (midnight Sun) — over the summer months. This phenomenon grants unique solar astrophotography opportunities — especially in regard to creating stunning composite and long-exposure images.
Must-Have Solar Photography Camera Gear: Safety First
Solar photography goes beyond technical expertise and expensive gear. Safety is key. Luckily, safeguarding yourself and your photography equipment mainly comes down to packing the right equipment for the job. Besides solar filters, you also want to pack specialized astrophotography equipment.
The Best Camera & Lens for Solar Photography
The type of lens, camera body, and equipment you select generally matters more than the brand. Choosing between different brands of cameras comes down to personal preference. Each brand’s cameras feature a unique setup, which is why your choice matters most when you’re getting started. Most photographers generally stick to one camera brand going forward, as changing over later can be costly and confusing.
Regardless of which you prefer, you should look for either a full-frame camera or a specialized astrophotography camera, such as a planetary camera. Full-frame cameras have a bigger camera sensor than regular APS-C digital cameras. Therefore, they’re better at capturing all the small details present in astrophotography — at both high magnification and low magnification. To complement a digital camera body, a wide-angle lens (14-35mm) or telephoto lens (300mm<) is the best lens for astrophotography.
Pro Tip: if you want to capture very detailed images of the Moon, far-away planets, and stars such as the Sun, a planetary camera is ideal. They feature a small sensor and much higher frame rates, capturing multiple images you can stack. Since astronomical bodies are so far away, atmospheric interference is common. These fast frame rates up your chances of capturing more clear images to use to create that composite. A Barlow lens can also help extend your telescope’s range, bringing planets “nearer.”
Solar & White Light Filters
In order to safely photograph the Sun, you must attach a solar filter to your camera lens or optical system. Solar filters only allow filtered Sun into your lens, viewfinder, and eyes, lessening the likelihood of damage to all. You might also want to use lens hoods to diffract the Sun’s rays from your equipment.
If too much light gets in, you risk an over-exposed image. A solar filter or filter system still lets enough light in to take a sufficiently exposed image. Solar filters are also used to selectively block out or allow only light wavelengths in to reveal unique phenomena on the Sun.
The main filter types used for solar photography include:
- White light filters: block 99.999% of all sunlight, revealing the sun’s photosphere or surface.
- Hydrogen-alpha solar filters: H-alpha filters block all light wavelengths except for hot hydrogen atoms, revealing solar prominences, flares, and plages on the Sun.
- UV filters: ultraviolet filters block out UV light, protecting film and optics only from this wavelength of sunlight.
You can even make your own solar filters for your lens, telescope, or optical equipment using solar filter sheets. Just be sure to only buy solar filter sheets or solar filters from reputable brands and test them regularly. You can do so by shining a light from a torch, phone, or similar through the filter. If streaks, spots, or patches of bright light appear through it, you shouldn’t use it to photograph the Sun.
What do solar filters reveal?
Solar filters generally block out some or most light wavelengths emitted by the Sun. In so doing, they reveal happenings on the Sun that aren’t generally visible to the human eye — for example, solar prominences, sunspots, and flares. Solar filters also make it safe to look at or focus a lens or telescope directly at the otherwise too-bright Sun.
Pro Tip: only using a regular neutral-density filter (ND filter) is not recommended for solar photography. An ND filter may block out some sunlight, but probably not sufficient enough to protect your camera lens, equipment, or eyes. Unfiltered sunlight can do damage — a proper solar filter or system is the surest way to safeguard yourself and your optical system.
A Telescope & Adapter
For those interested in taking close-ups, solar astrophotography can be taken to the next level using a telescope. All you may need to capture the Sun via your camera is a telescope adapter or t-adapter. A compatible adapter will allow you to attach your telescope to your camera body as if it was a telephoto lens.
How do solar telescopes work?
Solar telescopes are specialized telescopes with solar filters and protective technologies built in to safeguard the optics and you at low and high magnification. However, which parts of the Sun and its wavelengths are visible will depend on the type of filter system and technology built in.
A Tripod & Tracking Mount
Packing a tripod is a must in order to stabilize your camera and ensure sharp images. Even better if it features an equatorial mount or tripod head which allows you to move it according to the Sun’s movements; some tripods allow you to attach one to it. Or you can sometimes mount such equipment directly on your camera hot-shoe or mount. A remote shutter release cable or app is also a must to reduce camera shake.
Go-To Camera Settings for Photographing The Sun
Wondering which camera settings to get your camera set to? Try these recommended solar photography settings:
Manual mode is advised for solar photography and other types of astrophotography. It allows you to manually select and adjust all of your essential camera settings, including ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and white balance.
Planetary imaging always requires a faster shutter speed, as the Earth is constantly rotating. If you want the Sun to remain in focus, make sure the shutter speed of your camera is set to a higher value (around 1/320th of a second).
Your camera’s native ISO is best for Sun photography — generally around 100 or 200 ISO. However, this value varies based on your camera model and make (and whether it features a dual-gain sensor), so do look it up.
An aperture of around f/5.6 is ideal for solar photography, but you can play around with different apertures for unique results. Do try using spot metering to set the best aperture, as well.
A white balance of daylight (5000-6500K) is ideal for photographing the Sun. But you can play around with this setting or set your white balance to automatic, too.
Pro Tip: Do note that some photographers select a slower shutter speed to improve image exposure. However, when photographing the Sun, rather correct your other exposure settings (ISO, aperture, etc.). That way, you will ensure your image isn’t over-exposed or under-exposed without creating a blurry image. Generally, doing so is advised for all types of astrophotography — unless you wish to capture star trails.
Metering modes allow your camera to automatically adjust your exposure settings according to a selected area or “spot” of your image. This is why using this camera setting is recommended for Sun photography, where you will often be working with hard or uneven light distribution. With high-contrast images, try the spot metering setting or mode, in particular. When taking photos, it utilizes a very narrow area of the image to adjust your exposure settings.
To find out more about spot metering and how to use it on your camera, read our spot metering guide.
7 Tips and Tricks for Solar Photography
Here is our list of 7 tips and techniques for composing great solar images.
1. Capture Hydrogen-Alpha (Solar Flares) Images
Hydrogen-alpha solar filters can be used to block out all light waves except hot hydrogen atoms on the Sun. So do try it out! H-alpha imaging reveals stunning details of solar activity on and around active regions of the Sun and its surface, in particular — such as solar flares and prominences.
Fun Fact: Solar prominences and solar flares aren’t the same, though they are both caused by magnetic shifts on the Sun’s surface. The main difference between the two is that the former (prominences) are generally arc-shaped, jutting out and back onto the Sun’s surface. In contrast, solar flares burst out of the Sun’s surface and can cause solar storms. Solar storms are so powerful (many, many nuclear bombs in one) that they have the power to wipe out entire electric grids and the internet on planet Earth.
2. Play Around with Different Solar Filters
As with Hydrogen-alpha solar filters, various other solar filters — such as white light filters — modify the amount of light that gets into your camera lens. Try to play around with various solar filters to achieve unique results with your Sun photography.
3. Zoom In for Taking Close Ups of the Sun
Telescopes and telephoto lenses can be set to both high magnification and low magnification. Zooming in will allow you to capture finer details of the Sun, as well as frame your images better. Meaning you won’t need to edit or crop it later on during post-process editing.
Set your camera and lens to manual focus and adjust your focal length manually using your focus ring. Then play around with various focal lengths to find the sweet spot and create stunning close-ups.
4. Capture a White-Light Image of the Sun
Unfortunately, H-alpha solar filters are expensive, starting at a few hundred dollars up to thousands. Luckily, there’s another (more affordable) technique you can try out! White light imaging is considered the most inexpensive way to explore the Sun’s nuances.
Though you’re unlikely to achieve the same level of detail as H-alpha imaging, you can still capture unique and detailed white light solar photography images. For example, white light imaging is excellent at capturing limb darkening and sun spots on the Sun’s photosphere.
What is white-light imaging?
White light imaging is a type of solar imaging used to view a broader range of light waves. It’s particularly efficient at revealing sunspots. A sunspot is an area of the Sun with a reduced surface temperature caused by concentrations of magnetic flux, which inhibits convection. Typically, white light imaging is achieved using a white light filter and some specialized photography techniques.
5. Photograph a Solar Eclipse
Use a white light solar filter to capture a solar eclipse, just as you would wear a pair of specialized eclipse viewing glasses. As the Sun is still visible in your lens (if only partially) — unlike with a lunar eclipse — its rays can still do damage to your eyes, lens, camera, and optical equipment. The white light solar filter will also dim its brightness just enough to create a soft, attractive glow and reveal some details like sunspots.
6. Bring a Pair of Sunglasses and a Hat
Photographing the Sun is a risky pursuit, so do take extra precautions to protect yourself — not just your photography equipment. Pack sunnies, a hat, a scarf, sunblock, and whatever else you need to protect your skin and eyes. You should also stay hydrated while outside photographing the Sun.
7. Post-Process Your Solar Images
Post-processing your photography can give it the edge or simply an artistic touch. You can also take and stack multiple images in editing software to create a sharper composite featuring more details of the Sun. Or Photoshop in additional details — such as lens flare and stars or starry skies at night — to create a more impactful effect.
Solar Photography: Taking On The Sun
It’s always around, but to capture great photos of the Sun, you need to make it the star of the show! Photographing the Sun directly is as risky (and potentially rewarding) as flying too close to it. Hopefully, this post helped you figure out how to do so safely, effectively — and to grand effect!