Recommend me a camera for eclipse photography


Supreme [H]ardness
May 20, 2011
I'm just back from seeing the eclipse in Indonesia and my camera - a Pentax WG-1 - was wholly inadequate not only for the eclipse itself but for the rest of the tour. I knew it was going to be inadequate for the eclipse itself but was expecting it to be good for the rest.

So I need a better camera for next year's eclipse tour. Unfortunately, I was last into cameras over 20 years ago, using a Practika film camera with 150mm zoom and a light meter, and I know that I really don't know cameras these days.

It absolutely must be able to take a solar filter for photos pre- and post-eclipse. It must be fast to start up (this was a real problem when photographing butterflies and other wildlife). Good battery life. A good big viewer on the back. Must be mountable on a tripod (I'll take one of those small flexible ones) and have a remote shutter control so I can look at the eclipse while photographing it. Must cope with dust / desert conditions / trekking (Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, Atacama Desert in 2020, etc). Must be easily portable. Must be able to take multiple photos rapidly, for wildlife / Diamond Ring as well as long exposures to capture the corona and background stars during the eclipse itself. Should have a decent optical zoom. Big sensor. Changeable rechargeable batteries. Changeable memory cards. And I'm sure there's more I need - you tell me!

Fancy gewgaws are nice, but for most things, I really just want to point, compose, zoom, and shoot. The various technologies are of secondary importance to me - I just want to take photos. I won't be changing lenses in the field (that doesn't preclude a camera that supports changeable lenses). And I don't want a heavy hunk of metal hanging around my neck - I'm going to be in for some long treks.

I'd like to keep the budget to three figures.

I would note that out of 17 people on the trip, four had Canon cameras that failed. I don't know which models.
So to get decent photos of the eclipse itself, like taking photos of the moon, you're going to want the longest telephoto lens you can possibly afford. I would definitely consider renting one, as they can be crazy expensive to buy.

If you want to take photos of a solar eclipse and have any detail in any surrounding scenery, you're going to have to take 2 different shots and combine them in post-processing. I'd suggest using a long telephoto lens to get the eclipse itself, then a medium/wide lens with a faster aperture to capture the surrounding night scene, then combine in post.

I personally wouldn't bother trying a point & shoot camera with a fixed lens for this, but there may some out there that would work. Just look for some that say they have like 30x optical zoom on the lens. But for your budget I'd personally recommend going with an entry level DSLR body and put the majority of the budget into lenses. There are tons of options out there, but I'm a Nikon guy, so I'll say the D3300 might be a good one to consider, given your budget and how much of it you'll need to dedicate to glass. There may also be a newer mirrorless camera solution that would work well for this, but I'm not too familiar with mirrorless options yet - I have a feeling you're not going to get a mirrorless that can handle the large telephoto you'll need for this.

For most astral photography you'll want a wider prime lens somewhere between 10mm-30mm depending on how much of the surroundings you want to include, and make sure it has an aperture of f/2.0 or larger (aperture numbers are in fractions, so f/1.2 is larger than f/2.0). This is the type of lens you'll want to capture the surrounding night scene.

And if you really want to see the detail in an eclipse, you'll want to take along a giant telephoto lens, at least 500mm on the long end, but the longer the better - something over 1000mm would work even better. Most lenses that size will have a tripod mount collar directly on the lens as they'll be heavier than the camera itself.

You're going to have to get used to the idea of carrying multiple lenses for this subject. Large tele lenses are huge and heavy, so they'll probably require their own dedicated carrying case. And I recommend fitting your tripod with a carrying strap as well. If you want to get the detail in the eclipse along with a detailed night scene around it, you'll really need two lenses and two different photographs to combine to get this. There isn't any one lens that will do justice to the full depth of this subject.

I'd recommend picking up the camera body-only first, then looking around for a good lens rental place to try out what lenses will work for your situation.

Practice by taking photos of the moon to see how your exposure should be set up. People tend to think because they're shooting at night that the moon is very dark and should need a long exposure, but in fact it's reflecting the sun, so it's very bright. Think of it like taking a picture at the beach on a bright sunny day and use a very fast shutter time to capture all the detail. To get the surrounding night scene you'll need that wider fast-prime lens and a longer exposure. Then you'll have to combine your shots later to get the full image you're envisioning.

I know nothing about shooting the sun as opposed to the moon, but it's obviously a lot brighter, so you'll still want to use the fastest shutter speed the camera can manage, and using a specialized filter sounds like a good idea. When you look at telephoto lenses, check what filter size they use and go from there.

Looking forward to following how this project goes - good luck!
Oh also, traditionally solar eclipse photos are taken using pinhole camera's or lenses rigged to have the smallest aperture possible. Again, that insanely bright light needs to be toned down, so in combination with the solar filter, you may want to look into rear-mounted pinhole aperture options to tone down the sunlight even more.

In contrast to the wide-aperture setup you normally want for low-light night scenes, shooting into the sun will require the smallest aperture possible.

I know some of the guys here have experimented with building their own pinhole cameras. Hopefully one of them will chime in with more info on those.
Hmm... ok, I'm an idiot. Yeah, I've never actually seen a full solar eclipse in person before. I keep confusing this with lunar eclipses I've seen.

I'm not actually sure how much of a "night scene" will be in the surrounding image since a solar eclipse could be happening in the middle of the day.

I still say you may want more of a wide-angle lens in addition to the telephoto to capture the surrounding scene if you want detail in the image besides the sun itself, but whether you actually need one with a fast aperture for low-light will depend on what time of day it is and how much light is still available.
Wow, sorry for the multiple string of posts here. After re-reading your original post, I'd love to recommend a bunch of stuff that would probably blow the budget.

Yeah, if portability is this much of a priority, I don't think you're going to be able to haul around the telephoto lens like I was thinking. You may have to just wave goodbye to the idea of photographs that show the detailed phases of the eclipse itself (unless there's some magical option for pin-hole lenses that would still work for this). Also, the small flexible type of tripod you mentioned (I assume you're talking about something similar to the Gorilla-Pods) isn't going to hold up a telephoto lens at all. You'll need a large sturdy tripod to hold up a DSLR rig for astral photos, which will eat another few hundred off your budget.

But for the rest of the things you'll be wanting to shoot in this trip, I think a little better camera body would suit you well, for faster more precise wildlife and landscape photos. Something more mid-grade like a Nikon D7200 or D610 (depending if you want crop or full frame) would probably fit you better. Again, not sure what the Canon equivalents are.

Also for the best weight and portability, you may want to go ahead and look at mirrorless options. Sony has a lot of good ones, but I'm not sure what is the best in your budget.

I'd start with a good kit lens that does 24-70mm to cover most of your shooting needs. Then look at wide/fast primes if you want to do night landscapes and full-sky astral shots, and a longer telephoto for the sun/moon shots and they're also great for wild-life. Again, just try renting a few to see how they handle.
I got some quite nice pinhole shots from the Indonesia eclipse. I was under a tin roof and it had some small holes in it, so I got some good shots of the moon partially eclipsing the sun projected onto the floor and onto a woman's shirt. The eclipse itself was totally awesome - in the proper sense of the word - and I just stood and stared. Hence the need for the remote - I don't want to waste any of those valuable 2 minutes of eclipse time fiddling with the camera. I'll be seeing the next one from near Cody, Wyoming.
When it comes to the eclipse, I'm going to need to be able to remove the solar filter very quickly, and put it on very quickly afterwards.
OK so it sounds like you want the ability:

zoom in close to wildlife
quick focus to capture the wildlife
no lag in taking the photo of the wildlife
can cope with dusty conditions
exposure control to adjust sensitivity
bracketing support so that you can ensure capturing the corona
ability to focus well on the sun
not heavy
small as possible

I've captured the moon, a planet transit, solar eclipses. The toughest thing was getting my DSLR camera to reliably focus and keep focus on the sun. Reading about this issue on websites the people who get the good pictures have cameras that will show a live preview on the LCD and allow the user to zoom all the way in and show truly what each pixel is capturing, so the sharpest focus can be acquired. When taking pictures at an infinity distance the slightest shift in the lens focus actually does matter. (In the days of film and manual focus lenses, people would bracket focus on a normal sun day, mark up the focus ring with the image numbers, then see which was the sharpest, remember that, then use it on the eclipse day.) Another problem I've ran into is the camera lens slowly changing focus when the camera isn't level (my Nikon 70-300 AFS VR G lens does this and is unuseable for these types of photos).

I'm thinking you need a camera with the focus sensors built right on the sensor. This means they are mirror-less, but they go one step further and have dedicated focus pixels right on the sensor. The newest cameras normally have this, and the Nikon 1 cameras have had this since they came out.

Also it looks like you need a lens that can zoom to at least 400mm. I'm getting that from looking at these pictures on the Mr Eclipse website.

Can you link some examples of pictures, and the quality, that you really really want to take?

A good option to get the weight off your neck would be to attach your camera strap onto your backpack straps on both sides of your chest with small carrabiners (when you need more movement you can unhook them and have your full camera strap length).

Right now I'm thinking a 1 inch sensor camera. Then find one that is build with some dust sealing. The optics needed for 400mm would be smaller on a 1 inch sensor camera, so the setup would be lighter.

Possible contenders of all in ones:
Nikon DL24-500
Panasonic FZ1000
Canon G3X + hood

I think the Canon is the smallest, and has the highest zoom at 600mm, sharp at 600mm, RAW images are saved slowly, fast JPG saving. The Nikon one is not shipping yet sadly and is delayed by the earthquake and a part supply issue. The Panasonic has 4k video and an awesome 4k photo mode, and very quick picture taking in JPG and RAW, but the lens is a little soft at 400mm. I'm sure there are other contenders out there, but those are the ones I know of off hand right now, late at night.

Time for me to go for today.

Edit: Just realized Luminous Landscapes that I linked to went to a subscription site (year = $12). After reading 2 articles the text gets grayed out. Sorry for that.
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Wow. Thank you. I'll see about posting some pictures in the morning, but it was butterflies (in particular) and other critters that gave particular problem in Indonesia in that the camera was so slow to switch on. Plus the eclipse itself. On my tour next year it will be mainly landscapes - Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, et al.