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

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. 

Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

New Study Says We Could Be Alone in the Universe

There's a good chance that humans are the only intelligent life in the galaxy, according to a new study submitted to the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A. As Quartz reports, researchers at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute applied existing knowledge of biology, chemistry, and cosmology to the Drake equation (below). It was created by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961 as an attempt to calculate the number of intelligent civilizations that could be in our galaxy. He included factors like the average rate of star formation and the average lifespan of intelligent civilizations.

Image showing text of the Drake equation and explaining what each variable means
Equation: University of Rochester; Image: Hannah McDonald

They estimate there’s a 53 to 99.6 percent chance we’re alone in the galaxy, and a 39 to 85 percent chance we’re the only intelligent life to be found in the entire universe.

“Where are they?” the researchers ask, referring to the classic Fermi Paradox, which asserts that intelligent extraterrestrial beings exist and that they should have visited Earth by now. “Probably extremely far away, and quite possibly beyond the cosmological horizon and forever unreachable.”

Seth Shostak doesn’t buy it. Shostak is senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, a research organization that analyzes radio signals for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Part of the challenge with mathematical modeling like this, Shostak says, is that the data are limited; scientists just haven’t looked at very many star systems.

“I could walk outside here in Mountain View, California and not see too many hippos strolling the streets,” he tells Mental Floss. “But it would be incorrect for me to say on that rather limited basis that there’s probably no hippos anywhere. It’s a big conclusion to make on the basis of a local observation.”

Moreover, they may not even know what to look for in the solar systems they have reviewed. The SETI Institute examines radio communications and light signals, but there’s always the possibility that an intelligent civilization has attempted to contact us using means we may not have developed or even considered yet.

The Fermi Paradox itself may be naïve in its understanding of the universe, Shostak says. “You could have said the same thing about Antarctica in the 1700s. A lot of people wondered, ‘Is there a continent down there?’ On the one hand, you could argue there was [a continent], and on the other hand, you could say, ‘Look, there’s an awful lot of water in the Pacific and the Atlantic, and there’s no continents there, so why should there be one at the bottom of the ocean?’”

In other words, any conclusions about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence are likely to be presumptive, made before any solid data is released or discovered. The truth may be out there, Shostak says. We just haven’t found it yet.

[h/t Quartz]


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