To See a Total Eclipse of the Sun
Unless you've been hiding in a cave of late, you probably know there will be a total eclipse of the sun, visible in the United States, all the way from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, this Monday, August 21. The time to make plans is now.
The first and most important thing you need to understand before the eclipse is upon us is that the sun is unlike most any other subject you are likely ever to be interested in photographing. It's bright, very bright. Blindingly bright, unless you take measures to protect your eyes. If you can get a sunburn on your skin by being out in the sun too long without protection, imagine what that same sun can do to your eye balls and optic nerves. Looking directly at the sun, even briefly, can potentially cause damage. And let's be honest, during a potentially once in a lifetime total eclipse of the sun, you're going to want to look at the sun as much as you can. That is the whole point. The bottom line is that you will need eye protection. But not just any eye protection. Sunglasses won't do it. Indeed, they can actually make matters worse by allowing your eyes to dilate and thereby letting in even more damaging solar radiation. You need to have specially made solar eclipse glasses or the equivalent from a reputable source. It's safe to look directly at the eclipse only during the brief period of totality when the sun is completely covered by the disc of the moon, but you know you're going to want to do more than that. You need to be prepared.
You should also have a solar filter for your camera lens to avoid damaging your camera. Keep in mind, you will almost certainly have it pointed toward the sun for a fair amount of time, and especially with a longer telephoto lens, the sun's heat will have plenty of time to cook your lens and camera if not protected. A magnifying glass can focus the sun's rays enough to burn ants on the ground. A telephoto lens is just a fancy, expensive magnifying glass.
Your least expensive option for a solar filter would probably be a number 14 welder's glass, available from welding supply stores and many larger hardware stores. These tend to impart a heavy green cast to images, but you can generally correct for this with white balance or digital post-processing. Commercial filters made using special mylar film are a better option as most produce images with truer to life colors, but you may need to shop around a bit to find one for sale at this late date. Other, more specialized glass solar filters are also available. Be aware that you can not get away with a polarizer or standard neutral density filter. The simply aren't up to the task.
The next major thing you're going to need to decide on is where to go for the eclipse. Although most of the country will be treated to a partial eclipse to varying degrees, only a narrow band across the country will fall in the path of totality. From where I live in the Seattle area, even standing in my back yard will afford me a 93 percent eclipse, but I don't want to settle for 93 percent. By driving down into Oregon, I can see 100 percent. I like that. Depending on how close to the path of totality you live, you may have a longer or shorter drive than I will, but I'd highly recommend doing so to avoid regret. You're not going to get another chance at a total eclipse in the continental United Stated until April 2024. The next one within driving distance to me won't happen till 2044 in Montana and eastern Canada. If at all possible, it's time for a road trip. Traffic in some areas may be heavier than usual too, so don't wait till the last minute to get there. The path of totality will only be about 70 miles wide, so expect company. Also, be sure to consider the weather. A solar eclipse hidden behind dark clouds won't be much to look at. Obviously, you want clear skies.
In terms of lenses, you going to want a lens of at least 300mm focal length (35mm equivalent) to show much detail in the eclipse. To even come close to filling the frame, you will need at least 2000mm. If you want to know how big the sun will appear with your longest lens, take a photograph of the moon. The magic of a solar eclipse is that the moon just barely covers the sun. The two are remarkably close to being the same size. Another option would be to use a more modest focal length lens in order to include some context and surroundings, accepting the fact that the sun won't appear very large. Exposure for such images will be problematic as well due to the brightness of the sun relative to everything else in the frame.
A good tripod is highly recommended. The longer the lens you plan to use, the more important it will be that you can hold it steady. A tripod will also make it easier for you to follow the sun throughout the course of the eclipse.
It can be helpful do some equipment tests ahead of time to make sure you are comfortable with your new solar filter and the rest of your gear. Make sure the battery in your camera is fully charged before the event starts. You won't want to waste time during the eclipse doing anything other than enjoying the event and recording what happens with your camera.
In addition to all the websites you can find out there about the upcoming eclipse that can help you prepare, there are also a growing number of Android and Apple iOS applications you can take along with you. One of the best I've found so far goes by the unassuming name of "Eclipse 2017" by W. Strickling. In addition to having an excellent mapping function to help you find your way, it also will also help you keep track of time, even providing spoken notification of important times during the eclipse. It also has a good camera augmented view showing you where the sun will be as the eclipse progresses.
If you haven't made plans for the eclipse yet, don't be too surprised that hotel space will be hard to come by. But even if you have to stay some distance away, don't get discouraged. Just get up a bit earlier on August 21 and drive the rest of the way to your chosen viewing site. If you can't get away at all, at least skip work, or go stand outside for a while so you won't miss out. Trust me, you won't be alone.
This should be quite an event.