A Darker View

With the Transit of Venus looming on the calendar, a discussion of solar photography is in order. Taking good photos of the Sun is not that difficult, but can be aided with a little information. There are some unique challenges in solar photography.

Solar Filter

A solar filter mounted on a refracting telescope

The one obvious problem is dealing with the sheer intensity of the Sun. An intensity that can easily damage a camera if placed behind unfiltered optics. A proper solar filter is the easiest way to reduce the light to a safe level.

A solar filter will also produce the most pleasing images of the Sun. Indirect techniques like projection can be used. But for good solar photos, a proper filter in front of your optics is the single best method.

Solar filters for optics are constructed with a thin film of metal such as aluminum or stainless steel vacuum deposited on a substrate. This substrate is usually glass or a thin mylar film. The resulting filter allows only a small fraction of the light through, about 0.01% or 1/10,000 of the unfiltered value. Importantly, the filter blocks the ultraviolet and near infrared part of the spectrum as well. The result is a safe filter than can be used on a telescope or telephoto camera lens.

Sufficient magnification is needed if details of the Sun’s surface are to be well recorded. A few hundred millimeters focal length, found in common telephoto lenses will produce a reasonable solar image. The image will still be fairly small. To fill the sensor requires more. For an APS-C sized sensor (Canon T2i, 60D, 7D, Nikon D5000, D3200 or similar) a telescope with 1,000mm focal length will create an image filling a good portion of the image.


Image sizes for APC-C Sensors

Focal Length     Image Size (arcmin)
100mm   760×510
400mm   190×128
800mm   95×64
1000mm   76×51
1500mm   51×34
2000mm   38×25

The table to the left shows the resulting images sizes, in arc-minutes, given various focal length lenses, on an APC-C sized sensor. Recall that the Sun is about 30 arcminutes across as seen in our sky. With 100mm the resulting image is 510 arcminutes from top to bottom in the frame. This is 17 times the width of the solar image, a pretty small image indeed. With 400mm this improves to about 4, thus the Sun will reach about 1/4 the height of the image. At 1000mm this is about ideal, the Sun will reach more than halfway across the frame.

1500mm will just fit the solar image. While this may seem ideal, there is an issue. A small amount of drift will put part of the Sun out of the image, cutting off part of the disk. Sizing the image to fit in the frame with a good margin will allow some drift, while still giving a good image scale.

If you have a full frame camera (Canon 5DMkII, Nikon D800, etc.) a larger image can be used to fill the larger sensor, thus a longer focal length can be used. A telescope with 2000mm focal length will produce an image 17mm across, neatly fitting in the area of a full frame sensor.

Few compact cameras can boast a lens that will zoom far enough to produce an image of the Sun filling the frame. For these cameras another technique can be used, afocal photography. This can also produce good images, but will require experimentation to find the right combination of telescope, eyepiece and camera to produce a correctly sized image.

Solar Framing

The full frame solar image with about 1000mm of focal length and a Canon 60D

If you want to calculate the image scale for your optical combination, lens and camera, I suggest downloading the CCD Calculator from New Astronomy Press. You can enter the optical parameters and see exactly what the resulting image will look like with a sample image of the Sun, Moon or other selected objects.

Another issue is resolution. Our atmosphere usually limits the practical resolution to about one or two arcseconds, blurring any finer detail through atmospheric distortion. This can be much worse in the daytime with solar heating of the ground and air around the telescope. Thus the limit for resolution will be reached with about 1000mm focal length and a modern 10-15 megapixel camera. Any further magnification beyond about 1000mm will simply result in magnifying the blur. There are techniques for overcoming this (image selection and stacking), but if you know how to do that, you already know what you are doing.

Just a bit of summing up… You need a proper solar filter or other method of safely reducing the solar intensity. A long telephoto (400mm or more) will produce a reasonable solar image. A small telescope with about 1000mm of focal length is ideal for photographing the entire disk of the Sun with a DSLR camera.

Note: Astronomical event times and dates are calculated for the island of Hawai‘i at UTC-10 unless otherwise noted. The times shown should be applicable for much of the central Pacific region. For other locations you should consult a local reference or planetarium software.
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