Photographing the Total Solar Eclipse with my Cats

I’m going to photograph each stage of the 2024 total solar eclipse… with my cats.

In less than a week, on April 8th, there’s a Total Solar Eclipse that’s passing through a long portion of the continental United States!

I had the pleasure of seeing the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse with my wife and Mother In Law. Back then I didn’t know what to expect and I was blown away by the experience. I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to see another one! This time, I’m going with a plan.

The Plan

I’m going to photograph each stage of the 2024 total solar eclipse… with my cats.

Azula & Mai - A perfect depiction of their personalities

Photographing the Eclipse

I first picked up photography 6 years ago as a hobby when my wife and I lived out of our Jeep Wrangler and traveled to National Parks. Back in 2017, I didn’t attempt to take any photos of the eclipse. Honestly, I didn’t understand that the difference between being 99% of totality and being in 100% totality is literally night and day.

I have a few photos I’m trying to capture; the totality, the phases, the 360 degree sunset, and a wide angle of the entire scene with the sunset, and totality in focus. If I could only get one of these, I’d like to get the totality!

Planned photo compositions; totality stack, phases composition & wide angle

In order to shoot the sun, I’ll need; a zoom lens, solar filter and a sturdy tripod.

Zoom Lens

One of my uncles gifted me a Canon fd 300mm f2.8 telephoto lens from the 1981’s, thanks again Mike! I found a 1.4x teleconverter, which adds 40% more zoom (at the cost of light) making my primary lens setup 420mm. I also have a 2x teleconverter, but I don’t know if the reduced light is worth the extra zoom.

Canon 300mm fd lens on my Sony A7ii

My alternative lens that I’m excited to play with is a Canon fd 500mm f8 reflex lens. This lens has an interesting design, it uses several mirrors to reflect light, allowing us to get really zoomed in at the cost of weird bokeh and a fixed aperture. This lens technique is really common in telescopes! Generally I don’t use this lens for too much, but I’m curious to see how it fairs when pointing directly at the sun, as the fixed aperture doesn’t matter as much when pointing into the sun. If I pair it with the 2x teleconverter, I’ll get a 1000mm lens; which will allow the sun to completely cover the camera sensor.

Here’s how the sun fills the camera sensor on 1000mm vs 420mm. I need to make sure to keep room in the frame for the suns corona, which extends far out from the surface of the sun and only visible during the totality.

Even the the 1000mm is a lot more zoomed in, the 420mm has just as much detail.

Solar Filter

Like our eyes, cameras can’t just be pointed towards the sun, it will burn the sensor out. To counter this, we have get a lens solar filter to reduce the amount of light going into the camera. You can buy a filter that screws into your specific lens, buy a telescope filter that fits overtop of the lens, or buy some solar film and make one out of cardboard. Since I want to change my lens a few times, I’m going with the DIY approach!

Its common in photography to use a neutral density filter (ND) to reduce the amount of light coming into a camera to help get the right photo characteristics. A solar filter does, in principle, the same thing, but even the strongest ND filter (ND 1000) isn’t enough to protect your sensor when pointed directly at the sun. I need dedicated solar filter rated to ISO 12312-2 standards.

I called around to all the Atlanta camera shops I could find, but none of them carried solar filters in store, I guess the sun isn’t a very common shooting subject, so I ordered 2 variants from Amazon. I spent half a day cutting and gluing cardstock into the shape of the lens. I think it turned out nice.

Testing my DIY solar filter
Without the filter, the sun would burn my cameras sensor

Star Tracker & Tripod

From the start of the eclipse to the end will take place over about 2.5 hours. During this time, the sun will be moving through the sky, as it does on any normal day. Since I’m wanting to take a photo of each stage of the eclipse (10% covered, 40% covered, 80% covered and totality), I’m going to want the sun framed in the center of my camera for the entire 2.5 hours.

Ideally I’d setup my camera, take some test photos, lock the focus in, lock in the settings and just let the camera do its thing for 2.5 hours. In reality, it wont quite be that streamlined, but the biggest annoyance is adjusting the framing. Traditionally this would require me to move my camera, adjust my frame and reset, dozens of times during the eclipse. I don’t want to do that.

To help with that, I’m going to use a star tracker to move my camera at the exact same rate as the sun through the sky, which allows for longer exposures and hands free continual center framing. To most people shooting the eclipse, this is probably overkill, but I’m trying to get a 40 image composite of the totality alone, so I have to have everything locked in!

Due to the size and weight of all this, I’ll need a sturdy tripod. I have one, but its designed to handle less than 10 lbs, so I picked up a sturdier one thats able to handle 35 lbs.

I want to know exactly what I’m doing, have all the settings and choices locked in before Monday. So I setup the entire system and practiced polar alignment, and taking some photos of the sun with various settings and got a game plan with bracketing my shots.

The full setup; with star tracker and camera!

Where I’m Going

I currently live in Atlanta, GA, which isn’t in the path of Totality, which means I’ll have to drive! My cats love getting out and going on adventures, so I’ll be taking them with me to experience their first eclipse!

The best place to see the totality is the closest city with the lowest chance of cloud coverage. The closest city from Atlanta to the path of Totality is Carbondale, Illinois. Ironically, Carbondale is “Americas Eclipse Crossroads”, as its the only place that gets to experience both the 2017 and the 2024 total solar eclipse.

We've been tracking the weather for a week - we'll see where we end up!

I’ve been keeping an eye on cloud coverage forecasts for a few days now, and Carbondale looks to be one of the best places to have the lowest chance for clouds!

Since eclipses literally cool the area as its passing through, shallow cumulus clouds will actually disperse as the eclipse begins. So I’ll keep an eye on the type of clouds as I get towards Carbondale and adjust as needed.

Since the drive will take about 7 hours, I’m going to pack up my Transit van and leave after work on Friday. I’d like to stake out a spot a day or so early, and set up my equipment and take some additional test shots of the sun!