The sun, the giver of life on this planet and so important to photography. It provides the natural light photographers crave after but it’s a subject in itself that few other than astrophotographers ever attempt. Loads of people will have a crack at photographing the moon but few will take on the dangers of the sun but it’s not as hard as you might think even with some standard photographic equipment.
Of course, using a telescope with a solar film filter or a dedicated solar scope will provide the best results but you can still capture those sunspots with possibly, what you have already.
Before we proceed though, a warning. Photographing the sun is dangerous, I cannot stress this enough. Blindness can occur in seconds and photographic equipment can be ruined just as quickly but proceeding with some caution you can minimise risks and catch pictures of the surface of the closest star to Earth. I accept no responsibility for any lack of sight or melted cameras that may result from the following, you try this at your own risk.
OK? Not freaked you out? Let’s get started!
Firstly you will need:
DSLR camera (preferably)
As big a lens as you have (I use a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and 2x tele giving 400mm)
At least one 10 stop photographic filter or enough filtration to get as much as 10 stops.
The 10 stop filter is essential. If you don’t have one, can’t get access to one or can’t replicate with other filters DO NOT proceed. Some filter sets come with 3 standard ND filters, 0.9, 0.6 and 0.3 which stacked will give you 6 stops, which is NOT ENOUGH but if you can add others in there to get to 10 stops on you go.
For extra safety I like to shoot with the DSLR tethered to my MacBook pro using the Nikon only Sofortbild software to control the camera but you can get away with a standard remote control on the camera, it’s just not quite as easy.
To get started, mount your camera on the tripod and add the 10 stop filter to the lens, set your focus to infinity and using the live view feature on your camera or laptop preview, locate the sun. Once you have it, cover the lens to stop heat build up. Now, switch on Exposure delay mode if your camera has it, close the lens up as much as you can, f22 or higher, I use f32 on my own setup. You should be in manual exposure mode, so set your exposure to as high as it will go, typically around 1/4000th and your ISO as low as it will go, typically ISO100.
Now, you’re good to go, uncover the lens, take the shot and cover the lens again. Now you can check what you have. You should have a white-ish disc, sunlight is white not yellow and if sunspots are visible then there will be darker areas on the disc. From here you can adjust exposure to get the best possible shot but DO NOT exposure for any length of time, keep the exposures in the region of thousandths on seconds, you do not need to go any higher at all.
If no sunspots are visible it may be that the side of the sun facing us has no activity on it at the moment, check http://www.space-weather.com for an up to date listing of active visible sunspots. If there are sunspots and you cannot see them on the shot you may be overexposing, dial in a faster shutter or up the f setting to as high a number as it will go and try again.
The darker dots are the sunspots. I’ve also added a little false colour to make the shot look a little more like what people expect the sun to be.
It’s possible using http://www.space-weather.com to identify the sunspots and label these up on your shot.
That’s all there is to it, it’s not that difficult with some pretty normal bits of photo equipment and take the proper precautions and you’ll be fine. Do please remember though, never look at the sun through the camera viewfinder, even with the filter on place and never leave your camera focused on it for long periods of time. Have some respect for the subject and you’ll be fine and get a shot of something not that many ever attempt.
In the time I’ve been seriously taking photographs, one thing I’ve discovered is that a little research pays dividends before you travel to a location to photograph it. I used to just turn up where I fancied and snap away, now with a bit more experience under the belt I usually have some idea of what kind of shot I want before I get there and it’s pointless going if the conditions aren’t going to be right!
Here’s a perfect example, this is the Belhaven Bridge just to the east of Dunbar:
At this location, high tide covers the walkway to the bridge so the bridge looks as if it goes nowhere with deep water either side, it in fact, spans the Beil water as it exits into the sea at this point which you can see at low tide. So, using the Tide Times website, I knew when high tide would be so headed down there for that. Sadly, it didn’t co-incide with sunset which you could check out on Suncalc.
Arriving later than hoped the tide was peaking but not covering the walkway. I know from research that night at the high tide height was 4.6m so; it follows logic that the walkway was just on the verge of being covered so waiting for a day with a tide predicted to be higher than 5m will give me the shot I want. The perfect time to take this shot will be a high tide, 5m+ co-inciding approx 20 either side of sunset. High tide and sunset co-incide on 24th May but with a predicted tide of only 4.2m it’s not the perfect night to get the shot, better to wait a couple of weeks and try again.
Tides also play an important part of decisions where harbours are concerned. I love long exposure shots but high tide, long exposures and boats bobbing about don’t go! Nobody wants blurred boats! In this instance, it’s better to forgo the 10 stopper and use a faster shutter and wait for a lower tide, or at least the boats in the front of the shot to be grounded. Of course, you always have the option of cutting the boats out of the shot altogether, but unless there’s something else as a good focal point then this leaves you with limited options.
Clouds are another feature of nature to keep and eye on. Nice blue skies are all very well, and indeed welcome in some cases but a bit of cloud cover always helps. To try and give an example, this is the top of the Falkirk Wheel on a day with little or no cloud cover:
I know which shot I prefer…
Fast moving clouds, by which I mean heavy broken cloud, are great for long exposure photography. Huge dark clouds with little or no definition are not! Clouds can also add a lot to sunsets as the light bounces off them and in HDR photography you can create dramatic scenes with a nice cloud cover:
So, before you head off. Keep an eye on the:
And plan accordingly!
What a week it’s been for the old sunset shots! It also helps that sunset is at a hospitable time at the moment too. Setting around 8.40 is much preferable to being out and about at the back of 10 or worse still, being sat in work watching the sun give a great visual display on the horizon!
My last post gave you whole tale of how I managed to get my favourite sunset shot of the year so far, but as I can see from my Flickr photostream, April tends to be a particularly good month for sunset shots around Edinburgh for some reason.
This was last night’s effort. The original plan had been to head down to the Cramond Island causeway, but since I’ve done that to death I headed down to West Shore Road instead to a spot further along the coast I spotted the other night which had a perfect view of the causeway, Cramond Island and the Forth Bridges behind.
To say this was a difficult shot to take would be an understatement. The sun was still high in the sky, actually just above the top of the shot. With the distance I switched to the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM for a bit of extra reach but actually expected it to give me horrible lens flares, which surprisingly, it didn’t. Once again, I framed up the shot with no filters, locked up the tripod and slipped on the now invaluable Heliopan ND3.0 10 stopper, the result was a pleasing enough shot with a nice gentle orange glow in the sky but it left the water a touch dull.
To combat this I slipped on the adapter ring and filter holder and slipped in the sunset filter. With this in place I could stretch the exposure out to a full 60s, after a couple of goes at setting the grad this was the final result. It took a fair bit of post process if I’m honest as shooting into the sun had brought out every single dust mark on the sunset filter, of which there were many! There was also a bit of flare I’m managed to just about eridacate with a little dodge and burn. If I were to try this again I think I’d try shading the filters to try and get rid of the flare from the shot in the first place.
The night before though also produced a surprise shot for me. With the position of the sun and ideally wanting to get it over water the Western Harbour at the back of Ocean Terminal is a great spot. The obvious shot is the old pier with the Gormley statue at the end of it, but the flats at the other side of the harbour make for a good shot too, especially if the water is still.
However, it was the pier that produced the goods. I’ve shot this before on long exposure and had a lot of issues with light bouncing back into the lens from the filters and I finally figured out why. At this location there is a shiny bare metal fence which I sit the tripod up against to get the shot, the light has been bouncing off the metal and back up into the bottom of the filters and I effectively get a reflection of the inside of the lens on the shot, just putting an arm along the fence was enough to get rid of this totally, amazing what you can figure out.
Again with this shot, I set up the shot without the 10 stopper in place, played with the filters to see which combination worked best and then screwed in the ND3.0 and slipped the other filters back on top. In this case, I’ve used the ND3.0, circular polariser, ND0.9 soft grad and sunset grad filter on a 3 minute exposure to get the colour and effect on the water. The sun was still in the sky off up to the left of this shot.
That’s the more recent shots but like I already said, April is a good month for sunsets so here’s some of the month’s other highlights!
It’s not often I drop a new blog post about a single shot but I liked this one so much I thought it worthy of a little write up.
As you will see if you follow back my recent posts I’ve been experimenting with long exposure photography over the last few weeks, in fact, it’s becoming more of an obsession than an experiment.
What I have had bother with though, is getting decent colour into shots, hence why my Flickr Photostream has gone rather monotone of late. Stacking those Hitech ND soft grads is just a sure-fire route to a purple colour cast on the D90, which is pretty undesirable to say the least. However, last night everything just fell nicely into place and I ended up with, what has to be, may favourite shot of the year so far.
The original plan had been to catch the sunset at Longniddry over the rocks but other things I had to do put paid to that and I would have only made Longniddry just before the sun went down which would have been ok if I was more familiar with the location. As I’m not I diverted back up the Edinburgh coast with the intent to catch the sunset over the Western Harbour. However, since the shows are at Ocean Terminal just now and the place was overran with walking JD sports adverts with attitudes I headed for the more peaceful refuge of Newhaven Harbour instead.
I really didn’t want to be at Newhaven having really photographed the place to death over the last few weeks. Its easy location and multiple shot possibilities make it and attractive location but it’s fast becoming my new Colton Hill, somewhere I’ve visited so often I get bored of it.
With the sun setting though, it was Newhaven or nothing and apart from anything else, at this time of year bar the Forth Bridges, it’s probably the best sunset location in Edinburgh. Sunset was still about 25 minutes away when I got there so I originally setup with the Sigma 10-20mm on the D90 and took a few tester shots using the grads and polariser but no 10 stopper. 10 stoppers are only any good in harbours if the tide is out, with it in boats tend to bob about and blurred boats do not good pictures make.
With the sun and the available light dropping fast I moved position to put the sun behind the lighthouse to avoid any lens flares and replaced the ultra wide with the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 EX HSM, my absolute favourite lens. This let me frame the lighthouse and harbour wall nicely but avoid any boats in the shot. I then added the 77m filter ring and slipped in the polariser, ND 0.9 soft grad and tried a few test shots. I also experimented with a light tobacco grad and sunset filter but it was the red grad, a filter I’ve never used as I hated the results that was producing the goods. With the grads set properly, I locked the tripod securely and removed the filter holder and put it down on the camera bag careful making sure the grads didn’t move. I removed the 77mm ring and fitted the Heliopan 77mm ND3.0 10 stopper, fitted the 77mm ring to that and carefully slotted in the holder with the grads. I had to do it this was as with the 10 stopper fitted there was no way to line up the red grad on the horizon as you can’t see anything.
With light fading fast I upped the ISO to 200 and opened the aperture up to f8 and went for a 2 minute exposure which was ok but the red was too intense. I tried again upping the exposure to 3 minutes which turned out perfect.
As far as post process work went, there wasn’t a lot to do, the pleasures of getting it more or less right in camera. I created a new adjustment layer and increased the exposure to lighten the inside harbour walls and bring out some detail. I then erased all but the harbour walls from the layer. I then added a new photo filter layer to intensify the colour in the water, other than that, that’s about all I had to do with this one. Thankfully the sensor clean I attempted the day before must have been spot on as there was nothing needed cloned out at all. A welcome surprise.
So here it is the final product and most certainly my favourite shot of the year, so far…
As a photographer I’m constantly seeking out new views and subject matters. However, with Edinburgh being my main focus over time it can be difficult to find something new. What this led me to discover is that doing the same shot over and over again isn’t a bad thing. Familiarity with the subject and trying something a little different can often produce a vastly improved or very different shot.
This is the scene I’ll use to demonstrate, the classic Edinburgh Calton Hill shot, taken from the side of the Observatory building with the Dugald Stewart Monument on the left and Edinburgh Castle and the Balmoral Clock behind. THE iconic Edinburgh view.
This is a fairly typical shot, sunny day, nice blue sky. Just the Nikon D90 fitted with the Nikon 18-70mm lens, CPL and ND Soft Grads used.
However, try the scene again at sunset…
This first example is the same shot done at sunset in February (the sun only sets in this scene from later October to March). This one has had quite a lot of PP work done and is a 3 shot HDR image.
Another sunset, this time at the end of August, the sun is setting out the frame but the HDR processing has brought out the sunset colours in the sky.
Finally another sunset, this time in October and not given any HDR treatment, this is down to the use of ND soft grads.
So, 3 shots, all from exactly the same spot but a very different result from each.
How about at night?
Weather can also play a big part. As soon as the snow hit Edinburgh in 2010 it was time to try the shot yet again, but with added snow!
Again, same scene but a very different shot yet again.
So we’ve seen how the processing of the shot, times and weather can all produce different results, how about using a different lens?
Obviously for this particular scene using a big zoom would be pointless as you’d lose the foreground interest of the monument but this shot was taken with a Lensbaby 3G, a selective focus lens at around 55mm, too much to get the whole monument in but we can still get enough of it so you know it’s the same shot.
Or how about even a very different camera, this was taken with a cheap Holga on 120 format B&W film.
So there you go, same scene, 8 times but 8 very different shots and I wont hesitate to take this one again if I think I can get something different again.
I’ll leave you with one other example, this was a shot I took just after Christmas 2009 on the Cammo Estate in Edinburgh with a fair bit of snow on the ground, initially I loved the shot, the HDR just worked perfectly but the fencepost on the right fouled the tree behind it and it bugged me every since I spotted it.
Never be afraid to revisit places you’ve been and take the same shot, at the end of the day if you get enjoyment out of it take the same shot every day. There’s always something different even if the same scene if you look for it!
Ok, so here goes for my first tip and this is one I use pretty often myself.
We all know as photographers or even would be photographers that sunrise and the more sociable sunset are some of the best times to go out with your camera. What’s not so easy is locating the times and position of the sun.
It seems obvious now but until I became obsessed with photography I never actually noticed that the surise/sunset positions actually moved. We all know the time changes through the year and you can usually, with a little thought, get a fair idea of when it’ll be but over the course of a year the position of the sun changes to a fair degree.
If I’m only looking for sunset or sunrise times then I tend to use the Met Office iPhone app which will tell you the times for your location, but only the next one. ie, at 5pm it will tell you sunset may be at 7.30pm and after that it’ll tell you when sunrise is but it’s useful to get an idea of cloud cover as well, no point making the trip out if the sun is going to be totally obscured by thick cloud is there?
A more exact science is the website Suncalc.net.
What this website lets you do is to pinpoint a particular position, in the example below I’ve chosen the corner of the observatory on Calton Hill looking over the Dugald Stewart monument over the Balmoral and the Castle, that classic Edinburgh shot! From the position from today you can see on the right when sunrise was, when sunset will be and more importantly, the positions of the sun for each. The yellow line for sunrise, orange for the position of the sun now and the red for sunset. From this example we can see that the sun would be just to the right of the shot.
This might actually be ok on a clear night but ideally for the perfect sunset you’ll want it coming down roughly behind Edinburgh Castle, so by playing with the date, we can see that on November 4th onwards, the sun will set just behind the Castle, which, with a bit of clear sky will be a near perfect position.
The great thing about Suncalc is that as it’s based on the Google Maps api it’s a familiar interface and you can easily work out where you’ll be a sunset or not just by moving the marker around. You never know, it might save you a wasted trip. Most of the summer the only sunset you’ll get from Calton Hill is over St James Centre, not quite as attractive a building at the Castle!