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My frantic quest to capture the perfect solar eclipse photo

Commentary: I worked hard to make the most of two minutes of panicky astrophotography in rural Idaho. Here's what I did -- and what I learned.

My favorite part of the eclipse: totality, when the sun's corona streams off into space. It's easily visible with the naked eye and even more impressive.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

A total solar eclipse is a photographer's dream and a photographer's nightmare.

I learned that firsthand at 11:25 a.m. Monday in a roughly plowed dirt parking lot in Weiser, Idaho, about 75 miles north of the state capital of Boise. Tens of thousands of us headed to this town of 5,500 souls, giddy and excited to witness the total eclipse. But for a photography enthusiast with a chance to shoot a spectacular, fleeting and very rare event, there was another emotion, too: stress.

Photographing the eclipse started with two months of planning, accelerated with two days of travel and climaxed with a two-minute shutter-release frenzy.

Overall it was more dream than nightmare: I'm happy with my eclipse photos. If you want to take a crack at this when the 2024 total eclipse races from Mexico to Texas to eastern Canada, here's what I learned on the way.

Phase one: Do you even want to?

The first step toward photographing an eclipse is deciding whether you really want to.

There's a lot you can do shooting an eclipse with a mobile phone, but for the best shots, you'll need a bulky SLR or other higher-end camera, a big telephoto lens and a sturdy tripod. You have to be a bit of a gear freak if you want the classic total-eclipse shots.

But money is only one consideration. There will be no shortage of excellent photographers on hand whose photos will help you remember the experience. And although photographing an eclipse is an experience unto itself, you'll have less time to immerse your own senses in the event.

I decided I did want to photograph it. I'd already invested in good-enough gear, and I was reasonably confident I could handle the photography itself when the moment came. And for me, photography is like a journal -- it's how I record what happens in my life and my family's life, a historical record. Photography gets me to look carefully at the world and learn more about it, and I knew the eclipse would be a big, memorable moment.

Phase two: Preparation

Planning isn't my strong suit, but it's essential to ensure your eclipse photography isn't a waste of time. Photographing the sun is not the same as photographing toddlers, beautiful nature landscapes, wildlife on safari or anything else. Photography experience helps, but there are abundant opportunities for bungling eclipse photos.

One basic problem is that the sun is very bright most of the time, including during most of the eclipse, but when the moon moves in front of the sun, the world plunges into darkness. The other basic problem is that you don't have much time to photograph the most interesting moments of the eclipse.

Obviously you have to get yourself into the path of totality first, ideally somewhere toward the centerline moon shadow's path to get the most eerie darkness of the total eclipse. To learn the photography itself, there are several useful online sites. I particularly liked Fred Espenak's Mr. Eclipse site and the American Astronomical Society's eclipse photography advice.

To keep track of the eclipse's progression, I used the $2 Solar Eclipse Timer app, which gives audio prompts so you can prepare for different phases. And it lets you rehearse the event so you'll know how much time you have for all the shots you might want.

CNET's Stephen Shankland photographs the eclipse as moon starts occluding the sun. Note the black gaffer's tape on the lens barrel to lock the focus.

Brad Marshland

Gear will be a big question. I used a Canon 7D Mark II SLR on loan from Canon, my own EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II lens and EF 1.4x III telephoto extender, a sturdy Gitzo G1325 Mark 2 carbon fiber tripod, a silky smooth Wimberley WH-200 II gimbal tripod head and a Baader AstroSolar Binocular Filter 80mm filter to cut the sun's light before and after totality.

I was glad I practiced setting up the gear in advance, taking test exposures and editing them on my laptop to figure out what worked. I wish I'd practiced more, though, so I'd have been better prepared for just how frantic things would get.

One more part of prep: Order those darned cardboard eclipse glasses well in advance so you're not stuck in the lurch when Amazon fails to deliver your last-minute order in time.

Remember: When looking at the eclipse with cameras, binoculars, telescopes or your own eyes, you'll need a strong solar-specific filter on the sun end of whatever you're looking through. You can't put solar glasses on and then hold up a pair of binoculars, because they'll magnify the sun's infrared and ultraviolet light and zap your eyeballs.

Phase three: partial eclipse

We reserved a $30 parking spot in a dusty field and arrived at about 4:30 a.m. to ensure we wouldn't get stuck in traffic when the population of rural Idaho suddenly surged. It was cold and we were sleepy, but it was worth it for the peace of mind -- and for the prelude to the day's astronomical entertainment that dawn brought.

Photographing an eclipse begins in earnest when the moon starts to nibble away at the sun's disc. You'll want to be set up well ahead of time, getting your gear together and snapping test photos to set focus and exposure brightness, but this is a relatively leisurely part of the whole operation. We had an hour and a quarter of partial eclipse before the onset of totality.

One piece of advice I'm glad I heeded: Bring some gaffer's tape so you can set your lens focus and then forget about it. Use your camera's live view to manually set the focus precisely, then tape the focus ring down so you don't have to worry about bumping it out.

If you're feeling ambitious, you can take shots at some precise interval so you can assemble a nice sequence showing the steady progression of the moon across the sun. But I didn't bother. I wanted more free time to fiddle with my equipment and didn't feel a desire to get every possible type of eclipse photo.

I also used my gaffer's tape to eclipse-convert some binoculars. You can buy official filters, but I just ripped up a couple pairs of cheap cardboard eclipse glasses. It was great for looking at sunspots.

As the partial phase of the eclipse progressed, my excitement steadily built. The sky got dim, then cool. We had time to fool around with the peculiar crescent-shaped light patterns that emerged from paper pinholes or the dappled shadows of tree leaves. My heart rate sped up and I started getting nervous.

As the moon occluded the last sliver of the sun's disk, my adrenaline surged. I'm not sure how much it was because of the excited whoops from the crowd, the bizarre dusk-but-not-dusk illumination, the anticipation of what was about to happen or my nervousness about getting a good photo.

Phase four: the madness of totality

During the final moments before the moon occludes the sun, photography gets as crazy as the crowd of people nearby will.

Just before the sun disappears, you have to whip your solar filter off your camera lens to capture the famous "diamond ring" photo. This is the one that shows both the sun peeping around the moon and the corona -- the streamers of solar material streaming away from the blacked-out sun.

The "diamond ring," with a little bit of the sun and its blazing corona, is a tough photo to get because you have to capture a fleeting moment.

The "diamond ring," with a little bit of the sun and its blazing corona, is a tough photo to get because you have to capture a fleeting moment.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

It's also hardest to concentrate in this moment because there's a good chance your mind will be blown when the total eclipse arrives. The sun turns dark, the sky turns an eerie blue-black, the otherworldly corona appears and everybody nearby is howling with some combination of glee and awe.

On top of that, the immense celestial bodies progressing in a stately way through the solar system all the sudden are moving very fast for human reflexes.

Photographing the corona is tricky. Near the sun, it's blazing bright, but it rapidly dims with distance. That means that to capture the whole thing in all its glory, you'll need to bracket your exposures from very fast to very slow. I used manual exposure, leaving my aperture at f/8 and starting at 1/4000th of a second then doubling exposure times for a series of one-stop increments.

To try to counteract camera shake and the motion of the sun, I moved my camera's sensitivity from ISO 100 to 200 for faster shutter speeds. But I was too frazzled to successfully shift to ISO 400 as I'd planned. And then boom, totality ended, I missed my second chance at capturing the diamond ring, and everybody around me was cheering and clapping.

Phase five: Take a deep breath

When the world started returning to normal, it took a moment to realize I was back at the relatively leisurely pace of the partial eclipse. It was like shifting suddenly from Formula One racing to strolling through the park.

One of my first actions, of course, was to check my corona photos. Given how keyed up I was, you can imagine my relief to find some winners.

I do have two regrets. First, my own Canon 5D Mark IV camera has vastly better image quality, something that would have helped reveal the structure of the corona and the beauty of the diamond-ring moment. I went with the aging, inferior 7D Mark II for the effective magnification its smaller sensor offers. But I wish that I'd switched camera bodies a couple minutes before totality -- even though that would have undermined some shots, like the one showing the beautiful red prominences jutting out from the sun's surface.

Second, I didn't have enough time to fully appreciate the uniqueness moment. I wasn't fiddling with the camera the entire time, but I would have relished more time with just me and my perfectly aligned members of the solar system. Eclipse photography guides gave me abundant warning about this, and it's why I recommend thinking carefully about the trade-off. I envy those whose eclipse mechanics allow more time in totality.

But don't get me wrong. My euphoria overpowers my regrets as much as the full sun overwhelms the corona. And I've got my photos to help me remember just how spectacular it all was.

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