It’s going to be nearly irresistible. On Aug. 21, the first total solar eclipse to be visible from the contiguous United States in nearly 40 years will occur. That means it'll also be the first total eclipse of the smartphone era here — and the impulse to shoot a picture of the sky will be overwhelming.
But some photographers, both professional and amateur, warn that doing so with a smartphone really wouldn’t be very smart.
For starters, pointing the phone at the sun would simply yield a small but brilliant blob since smartphone camera sensors tend to overexpose anything bright to begin with, said Ken Sklute, an eclipse photography expert from Canon.
“In this case, we’ve got the ultimate bright, with very dangerous ultraviolet and infrared rays coming through, and we can almost bet money that folks are going to zoom in as close as they can to the sun,” he said. “First off, that can’t be good for the product, but my real concern is for the user.”
The Great American Eclipse will be the first to exclusively cross the nation, from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts, since June 8, 1918. It will be visible in varying degrees all over the country, with the full eclipse being seen only along a 60- to 70-mile wide path from Oregon to South Carolina beach.
Most Americans won’t be inside the direct eclipse path, noted Ralph Chou, an eclipse chaser and a professor emeritus of optometry and vision science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
“That means there will never be a time when you can actually look at the sun without using the special eclipse glasses or viewers,” he said.
Even quick glances at the sun — while trying to adjust your smartphone camera — can add up and cause significant damage, which people won’t even feel since the back of the eye lacks pain sensors, Chou said.
But damaged eyes will initially keep working for hours, meaning that people will return home thinking everything is fine.
“Their vision is more or less normal right until they go to bed. And it’s not until the next morning when the damage is actually showing its full effect. They wake up and realize, 'Oh my lord, I can’t see anymore,'” he said.
NASA hedges a bit on the safety of using smartphones to photograph the eclipse in a guide it posted. The agency advises “the best thing to do is to cover the camera lens with a solar filter during the moments before (and after) totality when the sunlight is still blinding.” It suggests using a pair of certified eclipse-viewing glasses.
Apple, in a USA Today article, says its iPhone doesn't need any filter to capture the sun. Chou, who has viewed 18 previous eclipses and will be in Oregon for next week's event, says that's probably true for most newer smartphone models.
“But if you’re spending $600, $700 or more on a phone, I sure as heck wouldn’t want to risk my camera or my phone to take such a shot,” he said.
Sklute says a safer way to take a photograph of the sun during the eclipse is with a simple point-and-shoot camera — so long as it has a solar filter to protect both the camera and its user. Filters can cost as little as $50, depending on the size and complexity of the camera, he said.
Sklute recommends also using a tripod to mount the camera and keep it steady. He also said to make sure to use the camera’s digital display screen and not the viewfinder.
The eclipse, from start to finish, will last about three hours, although the moments the moon will cover the sun will only take about two minutes.
“What I suggest is that people take a photograph about every five minutes during the partial phase, and that way they can see the nine or 10 phases of the moon really blocking the sun, just before it goes into that photogenic phase of totality,” Sklute said.
Whatever method or camera used, NASA suggests rehearsing long before the actual event.
"Practice taking photos several days before just after sunset during twilight, because the light levels will be similar if you are on the path of totality," the agency said.
Chou suggests something even more novel: Leave the actual eclipse photos to the professionals.
"There’s going to be all sorts of imagery and video clips on the internet during and after the eclipse, he said. "It’s probably more beneficial to not worry about capturing the right shot and instead use the eclipse viewers as appropriate and just enjoy the experience, especially since it’s a one-shot deal for a lot of people."