Is the solar-photography filter a one-trick (or eclipse) pony? After the solar eclipse, does your solar-photography filter become a paperweight, a forgotten photo accessory in the bottom of your drawer, or is it destined for the classified section of a local newspaper in the path of the next eclipse? Before you retire your solar filter, know that you can use it for a few interesting things before the next eclipse!
Generally, a neutral density (ND) filter is used to allow photographers to shoot with shallow depth of field in bright daylight and to allow movement in the frame, again, during daylight—think creamy daytime images of waterfalls. Well, regardless of whether your solar filter is a metal Mylar filter or if you are using a heavy (at least 16-stop) ND filter for solar photography, you can use that filter for “traditional” ND photography. The difference? The solar filter is much, much darker than your garden-variety ND filter.
How much darker? For this article, I employed the Hoya ProND-100000 Neutral Density 5.0 Solar Filter—with nearly twice the light-stopping power of the darkest ND filter you might commonly find in a camera bag. Most photographers that use ND filters use a 10-stop filter. Some have adopted the 15-stop. Solar filters can range from 16-stops to 24-stops.
I have found two disadvantages of these solar filters. First, with these super-dark filters, your daytime exposures can be painfully long. I bumped up the ISO a few times to keep the exposures to less than 15 minutes. In night photography, 15-minutes is cool. When standing in the sun in the middle of a summer day, 15 minutes is an eternity. The second disadvantage comes in the form of digital noise. I shot this filter in the New York City summer. Hot and humid. Did I mention hot and humid? Heat and humidity is a causal factor in the buildup of digital noise and, even cameras that are good with noise are going to struggle when doing 15-minute exposures in direct sunlight, 90ºF ambient temperature, and high humidity.
So, what can you do with your solar filters after (and before) the eclipse? Here are some ideas.
Photograph the Sun
Guess what? Your solar filter works great for photographing the sun on days where the moon isn’t partially or totally blocking it! And, even though both the sun and moon are above the horizon 50% of the time, only the sun is visible every day it is up (unless it is cloudy).
The sun is a very dynamic place and the surface of the star is constantly changing with eruptions, prominences, and sunspots appearing almost daily. Keep an eye out for heavy sunspot activity, filter your lens, and get some cool shots of the center of our solar system.
As I mentioned above, ND filters are popularly used for smoothing water in images. Many of us have seen the shots of a beautiful waterfall where the water is a milky stream instead of a frozen crystalline liquid captured in a fraction of a second. We have also seen images of rocky shorelines where the waves seem to melt into the surface of the ocean and make ghostly arrivals on the sand and rocks.
Well, not only can your solar filter do those things, but it can do them to the extreme.
Like long exposures at night, anything that moves throughout the duration of the exposure will be lost to eternity or transformed into a ghostly blur. During broad daylight, even a 10-stop ND filter might not capture everyone in motion and, if you want your cityscape to look post-apocalyptic, an 18-stop or greater ND filter might do the trick. Check out the photo above of Times Square in New York City. Sure, there are some folks around, but not the hundreds that were surrounding me. Nor are there any cars in sight, except for the parked NYPD van.
That was just one exposure on one day in an extremely crowded part of one of the most populated cities on Earth. Imagine the possibilities in different parts of your town or city.
Photograph a Solar Eclipse
This just in: there will be more solar eclipses. If the upcoming October 2023 and April 2024 eclipses are your firsts, you might very likely be bit by the eclipse bug. Eclipses happen, on average every 1.5 years. So, if you have the means and the will, you can start planning your next eclipse-photography adventure now… you already have a filter!
What do you use ND filters for? What are your thoughts on going super-dark with a solar ND filter?