How to photograph the Sun

All you need to know in order to take stunning photos of the Sun

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The basics

By Scott Tully, shortlisted, Our Sun, Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2017

  • When photographing the Sun you will need to use a special solar filter.
  • A large size lens or telescope can give good details and a tracking mount is helpful.
  • The best time to photograph the Sun is early morning before the atmosphere becomes heated and unstable.

Mercury's Silhouette Against Our Star © Scott Tully, shortlisted, Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2017
Mercury's Silhouette Against Our Star © Scott Tully, shortlisted, Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2017

Safety tips

Do not look at the Sun:

-      Through your naked eyes without protective glasses

-      Through a telescope or camera lens without a proper solar filter

Looking at the Sun or pointing a camera at the Sun without sufficient protection could result in:

-      Permanent damage to your eyesight, and even blindness.

-      Damage to your camera. Optics can magnify the intensity and brightness of sunlight, and this can cause damage to your equipment.

The gear

Michael Wilkinson, Highly Commended, Our Sun, Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2017

  • Camera

For photographing white light, which shows the solar photosphere with the sunspots, a simple DSLR is fine. However, a special "planetary camera" (a kind of webcam on steroids) will give better results.

A monochrome (black-and-white) planetary camera is best to see the layer of the sun just outside the photosphere called the chromosphere.

  • Solar filters

For white light, a simple "solar film" filter in front of the telescope will do.

When photographing the chromosphere, you need rather more expensive kit: an H-alpha filter or a Ca-K. H-alpha filters require careful tuning for optimal results.

Ghostly Sun © Michael Wilkinson, Highly Commended, Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2017
Ghostly Sun © Michael Wilkinson, Highly Commended, Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2017

Processing

In all cases, multiple images are taken, and special "stacking" software is used to select the best shots and add them together to reduce noise. Further postprocessing is done to enhance the detail.

In one sense solar imaging is much easier than many other forms of astrophotography: there is plenty of light (too much) and getting the data you need does not take long at all. Tracking (correcting for the earth's rotation) is needed, but need not be very accurate for good results. It is also nice and warm, as a rule.

Buying top class equipment is no guarantee of success. It is better to practice on simpler kit, gaining experience, and only moving to more expensive kit when you have mastered the technique. I started narrow-band solar imaging with a second-hand 35mm solar scope. I had a load of fun with that scope for years, and only when I felt I was limited by the scope rather than by my skills, and I was sure my interest in solar imaging was an enduring passion did I get a bigger solar scope (also second hand).

Case study

Eric Toops, Runner-up, Our Sun, Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2017

Solar Limb Prominence and Sunspot © Eric Toops
Solar Limb Prominence and Sunspot © Eric Toops

"The spring is the best time of the year for imaging the Sun, and a cool breeze and good viewing conditions make for a pleasant time. I used Lunt H-alpha filters in a custom-made telescope to bring details of the solar activity out using high magnification. Several photos were stacked to stabilize the image and the ‘seeing conditions’ (the blurriness of the Earth’s atmosphere). Solar limb images often have a 3D appearance, as in this image."

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