7 Tips From a Nikon Pro for Photographing the Total Solar Eclipse

Oregon State University, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Oregon State University, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

We bear witness each day to some small celestial wonder never again to be seen by human eyes. The rare meteor—some lost fragment of a comet gone by—coursing through the heavens as a brief and tiny luminescent slice. The pulse and cadence of a distant star's twinkle, as unique as a fingerprint's swirl or the latticework of a snowflake. Those moments and details belong to their witnesses, and to no one else. They will never be seen precisely the same way again. It happens, we watch, and we are moved in some way. We take the event with us when we are gone. It's not often that we share in these events with millions, and rarer still that we know the precise time to take a photograph that will last forever.

The eclipse on August 21 will be one such time. To help you capture the moment with your camera, Mental Floss spoke to Steve Heiner, senior technical manager with Nikon, who saw his first eclipse 38 years ago. Here is what he told us you need to know. 


Witnessing the eclipse from outside the path of totality is like catching a glimpse of Disneyland from the highway. It's just not the same. Either you are there or you are not. The first step, then, in photographing a total eclipse is getting there. This is not as easy as it sounds, and this late in the game, accommodations are hard to come by—but not impossible. Such large cities along the path as Idaho Falls, St. Louis, Nashville, and Columbia are equipped to handle massive crowds from tourism and conventions. You can still find a room. Moreover, active, retired, and reserve military service members across the country have exclusive access to such major bases along the path as Whiteman Air Force Base, Fort Campbell, and Fort Jackson. So if you really want to be in the path, do not despair, but do not delay.


Sure, a few fortunate photographers will walk into the path peeling protective cellophane from the virgin displays of shiny new cameras … but it is not a requirement. If you have any camera at all—including the one on your smartphone—you're practically prepared for the event already. You might want a solid, stable tripod, too, but it is not a requirement. What you will definitely need is a "full aperture solar filter" to cover your camera lens. This will protect the camera's image sensor from being damaged by sunlight during the partial phases of the eclipse. Such filters are not hard to find, though perhaps patronize a reputable retailer. (The eclipse has brought out more than a few hucksters.) Consider also procuring protective eyewear. You will be staring at the Sun, after all, and will presumably want to continue using your eyes the day after the eclipse. Get a few pairs, because according to NASA, you can use the filters from ISO-certified eclipse eyewear as a full aperature solar filter [PDF] on your smartphone. And don't forget to turn off your flash.


"If you shoot a picture that excludes everything but the Sun, then it looks like every other picture that you can pull up on the Internet, or that anyone has ever shot of a solar eclipse," Heiner tells Mental Floss. Eclipses happen several times around the world every year. There are enough pictures of a Moon-masked Sun to go around. "I've been encouraging people to try to put the eclipse in context."

To that end, rather than using a telephoto lens trained on the Sun, consider a more moderate or wide-angle lens able to capture not only the eclipse, but also some scenery around you. "As the eclipse approaches totality, turn around 180-degrees and photograph people looking through their solar glasses. It can be almost as interesting a photograph as the Sun itself," he says.


"If you're interested in isolating the Sun in the sky and getting nothing but the actual eclipse, obviously it benefits you to be right in the path of totality," says Heiner. "You'll get that distinct corona on the outside as the event is taking place." Heiner recommends keeping the lens filter in place right up to the moment of totality. Then remove the filter from your camera and behold a shimmering, hazy halo of light that seems to reach from the black Moon's horizons. It is safe to photograph this. When the Sun again emerges from the Moon, reattach the filter.


Remember that this is the photography event of the year, and battalions of professionals will be drawn to the path. You probably can't take a better shot than they can. Rather than trying to take an eclipse photograph worthy of the cover of National Geographic, set your sights lower—literally. Everyone will see the Sun, but only you will see the city, park, mountains, or canyons around you. Only you will see the children laughing at the wonder of the moment, the animals scurrying along, the jaded teenagers struck with wonder. "Look around and try to keep your own personal context in mind when you're shooting," says Heiner. "Those are the pictures that, while they can include the eclipse, will also include elements that others will not have access to. It makes the pictures more personal."

He recalls his own experience from an eclipse 38 years ago. "One of the most intriguing things that I remember was that, if you look around under the shade of trees, all that dappled light—which looks quite normal on any other day—will turn to tiny crescents during the eclipse. To me that sort of detail can be as interesting as the actual eclipse itself. I would encourage people not to always be looking straight up at the Sun. Look around. Notice what's going on around you, and all the excitement regarding the eclipse. I think some of those pictures will end up being the ones you really remember."


The eclipse will be a very forgiving photography model even for rank beginners. The Sun will be reduced to a very prominent crescent shape as the Moon travels across its face. During that time, it is crucial to have a filter attached to your camera. In addition to protecting its sensor, it will ensure that pretty much the only thing illuminated in the scene is the Sun. Most camera metering systems will factor that in and take fairly decent photographs.

Heiner suggests that amateur photographers consider bracketing their photographs. This basically involves shooting multiple pictures at slightly different exposure settings. The benefit of digital cameras today is that when you shoot a picture, you can review it immediately. If you see a picture you don't like, you can make a fast adjustment to correct the flaw. (Nikon recommends choosing a single aperture and bracketing shots "over a range of shutter speeds from 1/1000 second to 1 second.")


"Somebody at a high level might consider doing what is known as a timelapse," says Heiner, "when they can set the camera to take pictures automatically at a given interval. With the appropriate filter in place as usual, they can actually shoot photographs unattended through the whole process of the eclipse, and then actually stack them together or assemble them into a single image later, using software." (Nikon provides tutorials on how to do this, and other eclipse photography techniques.)

Regardless of how you record the eclipse, don't forget to experience it not through glass or smartphone screens, but with your own eyes, your own senses. Before hoisting your camera and snapping the Sun, take it all in. Make your memories. See a day turned to darkness, and animals scurrying home to nests and hollows. See the human response, which might perhaps be the most moving. For fleeting moments—a minute or two out of one's entire life—all heads will turn and rise in unison and cast no judgment but wonder. Here we are, on a pale blue dot, sharing in event of our star blotted from the sky. 

10 Riveting Facts About Mars

Mars's dust storms can be global. In these images taken a month apart in 2001, the dust storm near the southern polar ice cap (left) soon enveloped the entire planet (right).
Mars's dust storms can be global. In these images taken a month apart in 2001, the dust storm near the southern polar ice cap (left) soon enveloped the entire planet (right).

Few celestial objects have fascinated humankind throughout history more than the Red Planet. For over a century, we've longed to know more about Mars and the beings that we speculated lived there. When NASA dispelled the notion of creatures scurrying along the rusty plains, it raised a more tantalizing prospect: that we might one day be the creatures that call Mars home.

Mental Floss spoke to Kirby Runyon, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and Tanya Harrison, the director of research for Arizona State University's NewSpace Initiative, to learn more about the place your kids might live one day.


It takes 687 Earth days for the Red Planet make its way around the Sun. A Mars day—called a sol—lasts 24.6 hours, which would be a nuisance for the circadian rhythms of astronauts (but not as bad as a day on Venus, which lasts 5832 hours).


Mars looks desert-hot—New Mexico with hazy skies, red because of its iron oxide soil—but is actually very cold, with a blistering hot sol being 70°F, and a cold sol a brisk -225°F. Its dust storms can be huge; in 2018, one storm grew so large that it encompassed the entire planet for more than a month. (You can see a similarly huge dust storm in the image above.)


Compared to Earth, Mars is a tiny Styrofoam ball, with a diameter just over half of ours and one-tenth of our mass. Its gravity will be an absolute nightmare for future colonists, at .38 that of their native planet. (That means a person weighing 100 pounds here would weigh just 38 pounds on Mars.)


You won't want to get a breath of fresh air on Mars unless you're trying to suffocate: Its atmosphere is 95.32 percent carbon dioxide, with a little nitrogen and argon thrown in. (Earth's atmosphere, by contrast, is mostly nitrogen and oxygen.) When you do try to take that single, hopeless breath, the tears on your eyeballs, saliva in your mouth, and water in your lungs will immediately evaporate. You won't die right away, but you'll probably want to.


They're called Phobos and Deimos, which translate to Fear and Dread, respectively. They're shaped like potatoes and don't exactly fill the evening sky: Standing on the Martian surface, Phobos would appear to be about one-third the size of Earth's moon; Deimos would look like a bright star.

Future human Martians will have to enjoy Phobos while they can. The tidal forces of Mars are tearing Phobos apart; in 50 million years, the big potato will disintegrate.

In the meantime, Phobos is one of the stepping stones NASA plans to take on its journey to Mars. No part of human exploration of the Red Planet is easy, and before we land on Mars (and then have to figure out how to launch back into space and somehow get back to Earth), it's vastly easier to land on Phobos, do a little reconnaissance, and then take off and return home. As a bonus, on the journey to Phobos [PDF], astronauts can bring along hardware necessary for eventual Martian settlement, making the ride a lot easier for the next astronauts.


The tallest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest, is 29,029 feet tall. Olympus Mons on Mars is over 72,000 feet in height, making it the tallest mountain by far on any planet in the solar system.

Olympus Mons isn't the only extraordinary Mars feature: Mountaineers might also want to check out NASA's trail map for hiking the famous Face on Mars. If canyons are more your speed, you'll want to visit Valles Marineris. It is the size of North America and, at its bottom, four miles deep. (In the solar system, only Earth's Atlantic Ocean is deeper.) Once Earth's ice caps finish melting, you can always visit the ones on Mars. (If you have a telescope, you can easily see them; they are the planet's most distinctive features visible from your backyard.)


That's partially because of popular fiction (War of the Worlds, the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells, sees a Martian invasion force invade England) and partially because of Percival Lowell, the famed astronomer who wrote prolifically on the canals he thought he was observing through his telescope, and why they might be necessary for the survival of the Martian people. (Mars was drying up.)

Though it's easy to dismiss such conclusions today, at the time Lowell not only popularized space science like few others, but left behind the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona—one of the oldest observatories in America and the place where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.


Today, scientists work tirelessly to unlock the complex geologic history of Mars, to determine whether life exists there today, or did long ago. "We think that Mars was most globally conducive to life around 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago," Runyon tells Mental Floss. "In the Mars geologic history, that's the end of the Noachian and toward the beginning of the Hesperian epochs." There may once have been a hemispheric ocean on Mars. Later, the world might have alternated between being wet and dry, with an ocean giving way to massive crater lakes. Where there's water, there's a good chance of life.

"If we found life on Mars—either extinct or current—that's really interesting," says Runyon, "but more interesting than that, is whether this life arose independently on Mars, separate from Earth." It is conceivable that meteorite impacts on Earth blasted life-bearing rocks into space and eventually to the Martian surface: "A second life emergence on Mars is not just a geological question. It's a biogeochemical question. We know that Mars is habitable, but we haven't answered the question of whether it had, or has, life."


Mars hasn't hurt for missions in recent years, though scientists now warn of an exploration desert beyond 2020. But that doesn't mean we humans don't have eyes on the planet. Presently in orbit around the planet are the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which images and scans the planet; MAVEN, which studies its atmosphere; Mars Express, the European Space Agency's first Mars mission; MOM, the first Mars mission by the Indian Space Research Organization; the ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is searching for methane in the Martian atmosphere; and Odyssey, which studies Mars for water and ice signatures, and acts as a communications relay for vehicles on the ground.

Rolling around on the Martian surface are Curiosity and Opportunity—NASA missions both—which study Martian geology. Though the Russians and Europeans have tried mightily to do so, NASA is the only space agency to successfully land spacecraft on the Martian surface (seven times).

In November 2018, the InSight mission will land on Mars, where it will study the planet's interior. In 2020, NASA will land the Mars 2020 rover; where Curiosity studies Mars for signs of habitability, Mars 2020 will look for inhabitants.

"It is going to collect samples that will hopefully be brought back to Earth," says Runyon. "The three landing sites selected for Mars 2020 are Northeast Syrtis, Jezero Crater, and Columbia Hills within Gusev Crater, which is where the dead rover Spirit is currently sitting. Each of these sites is a hydrothermal environment dating from the Noachian-Hesperian boundary. These are some of the most perfect places to look for past signs of Martian life, and can help answer the question of whether life had a second genesis on Mars."


"Most people don't realize how active Mars is," Harrison tells Mental Floss. "Other planets aren't just these dead worlds that are frozen in time outside of our own. There are actually things happening there right now." Imagery from the HiRISE and Context Camera instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed such events as avalanches, sand dune erosion [PDF], and recurring slope lineae (flowing Martian saltwater).

Things are moving, but it's not always clear why. "There's a lot of material that has been eroded away," says Harrison. "We have entire provinces of the planet that look like they've been completely buried and then exhumed. And that's a lot of material. The big question is, where did it all go? And what process eroded it all away?" Curiosity might help answer the question, but to really understand the processes and history of the fourth rock from the Sun, we're going to need to send geologists in spacesuits. "You can't replace human intuition with a rover," Harrison says. "Looking at a picture on your computer is not the same as standing there and looking around at the context, stratigraphic columns, being able to pick up the rocks and manipulate them, take a hammer to things. So once humans land on the surface, it'll be kind of like the difference between what we knew about Mars from Viking and Mars Global Surveyor and then the revolution between Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Our view of what we think happened on Mars is going to completely change, and we'll find out that a lot of what we thought we knew was wrong."

A version of this story ran in 2017.

See What Hurricane Florence Looks Like From Space

NASA via Getty Images
NASA via Getty Images

As Hurricane Florence continues to creep its way toward the Carolinas, it’s repeatedly being described as both "the storm of the century” and "the storm of a lifetime” for parts of the coastlines of North and South Carolina. While that may sound like hyperbole to some, Alexander Gerst—an astronaut with the European Space Agency—took to Twitter to prove otherwise with a few amazing photos, and issued a warning to “Watch out, America!”

According to the National Weather Service, “Hurricane Florence will be approaching the Carolina shores as the day progresses on Thursday. Although the exact timing, location, and eventual track of Florence isn't known, local impacts will likely begin in the afternoon hours and only worsen with time throughout the evening and overnight period.”

On Tuesday, Wilmington, North Carolina's National Weather Service took the warning even one step further, writing: "This will likely be the storm of a lifetime for portions of the Carolina coast, and that's saying a lot given the impacts we've seen from Hurricanes Diana, Hugo, Fran, Bonnie, Floyd, and Matthew. I can't emphasize enough the potential for unbelievable damage from wind, storm surge, and inland flooding with this storm.”

Gerst’s photos certainly drive that point home.