Photographing the Solar Eclipse at Sunset

Partial Solar Eclipse on the evening of May 20, 2012

On the evening of May 20, some of us were lucky enough to see at least a partial solar eclipse, even if the sun set before the eclipse reached its maximum. The skies had mostly cleared after the afternoon’s thunderstorm had cleaned the air of dust, leaving only a thin and wispy cirrus cloud layer, which yielded a brighter than usual sunset. The trick here was to try to capture both the eclipse as well as the sky and foreground, but such feats are yet beyond me! Below is what I was able to do with the scene and lighting I had available to me.

Situated atop a ~70ft high glacial moraine overlooking a river plain with a clear view down to the horizon, I set my camera onto the tripod and began to shoot the setting sun. I struggled with finding the correct exposure, continuing to attempt to get the sun, moon and scene in the same shot. Unfortunately, as I was testing different settings, the sun was still too bright and was washing out everything. I really wanted a relatively sharp look at the eclipse itself, and eventually I lowered my camera to just about the lowest exposure settings I could:

Exp Compensation: -5.0
ISO 200
Shutter 1/3200 sec
Lens: 200mm, zoomed in, with Polarizing filter

Those settings gave me the following image:
The eclipse, the whole eclipse and nothing but the eclipse

Not only is the exposure so low that the sky is essentially black (when it had been in actuality a transition from yellow to blue), but the sun itself is still blowing out the whites and I cannot see any sunspots. But the outlines of the sun, and the moon in front of it, are pretty clear. Along with some of those wispy cirrus. The sun was probably still 7-10 degrees above the horizon in the image, and still too bright to view directly or through anything but the camera’s LCD screen.

Later, as the sun continued to lower in the sky toward the horizon, it dimmed and reddened somewhat. Not as much as I was expecting, but those same settings as listed above yielded a redder sun, redder sky, and an actual silhouette of the horizon, populated by trees and farm silos.
The eclipse descending toward the horizon

It was still far too bright to view directly or through the viewfinder. I continued to be surprised by how bright the sun remained, especially considering that the moon was blocking a significant portion of it. I’ve watched many sunsets before, and most times the sun dims are reddens considerably more than it did this time, allowing you to view it directly for a while before it sinks below the horizon. However, even on the horizon, it was still terribly bright, and the same settings were only tweaked a little bit, keeping the shutter open for about 1/2000 sec.
Still too bright

The silhouette is a nice effect, but it would have been nice to capture some more detail in the sky and foreground since there were lots of different visual accents. Unfortunately, when your clear primary subject is an eclipse, you’re left with little choice but to accommodate the situation the subject provides.