How to photograph the solar eclipse with a drone (because you’ll want to on April 8!)

The solar eclipse is coming soon, and budding photographers are waiting to document it. But even better than just a standard camera is if you photograph the solar eclipse with a drone. After all, witnessing the sun momentarily veiled by the moon offers a dramatic celestial display.

On April 8, 2024, a solar eclipse will grace North America, offering drone photographers in the U.S. a prime opportunity to take their eclipse photography to new heights. Here’s everything you need to know about photographing an eclipse (and more specifically, how to photograph the solar eclipse with a drone), as well as the best places in the U.S. to view the eclipse, and when to watch.

With the right plan, settings and gear, you could create an aerial timelapse, like this epic video from the 2019 solar eclipse.

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How to photograph a solar eclipse

Before diving into the aerial realm, let’s establish some foundational eclipse photography practices. Regardless of camera choice, safety is paramount.

Never look directly at the sun

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If there’s one takeaway from this article, it’s purchasing eclipse glasses.

Don’t look at the sun unprotected, even during a partial eclipse. This will result in damage to your eyesight, including high potential for permanent damage and even blindness.

To protect your own eyeballs, wear eclipse glasses. These are super cheap — you can typically find a 6-pack of eclipse glasses for less than $10 on big retailer sites like Amazon or B&H Photo. Ensure the pair you buy is ISO-certified to the 12312-2 standard. That means it blocks 100% of harmful ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) radiation while filtering out greater than 99.99% of intense visible light, making it safe for direct solar viewing.

Get the right gear

Beyond those glasses for you, you’ll need filters for your camera. And while all photographers will need special filters, drone photographers are up to an especial challenge. Here’s what you’ll need:

Invest in a solar filter

Now that you’ve protected your eyes, you’ll need to invest in a proper solar filter specifically designed for your camera lens. These filters dramatically reduce the sun’s intensity and protecting your camera sensor. If you are looking through the rangefinder (though you likely wouldn’t with a drone), this would also be critical in protecting your eyesight. Even still, don’t look through an unfiltered digital camera using its live view, as you’re still focusing concentrated, unfiltered sunlight through your camera’s sensor.

Depending on your camera, solar filters usually cost between $50 and $100, though you can even find cheaper (aka lower quality) models, which might not be terrible if you intend to use it just once anyway.

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The DJI Mavic 3 Pro with Freewell ND2000 Filter.

Some solar filters are designed for specific lens sizes. However, other cheaper filters are a bit of a one-size-fits-all situation. With most drones, you’ll likely need to rely on one of those one-size-fits all filters, though there are a few custom filters that DO work for certain drones.

For example, Freewell’s ND2000 filter is designed specifically for the DJI Mavic 3 Pro and Pro Cine drones. It costs just $30, and can reduce light by 11 stops.

DJI Mini 4 Pro filters

What about typical ND filters?

Neutral density (ND) filters are a commonplace tool used on all sorts of cameras, but especially drone cameras, when shooting in bright situations like direct sunlight. They essentially act like sunglasses for your drone, reducing the light that enters the camera. The right ND filter can dramatically improve your photo quality.

A solar filter is effectively a type of ND filter, albeit much, much darker. If you don’t have a solar filter (it doesn’t fit your drone’s camera lens, you can’t get your hands on one in time, or it’s just too expensive), your next best bet is filming with the darkest ND filter you have (which means picking one with a higher stop). An 8-stop is good. A 10-stop is better.

For example, DJI’s standard Mini 4 Pro filter set includes three filters: ND16, ND64 and ND256. With that, an ND16 would reduce light by four stops (or 1/16). Meanwhile, the ND256 filter is a neutral density filter that reduces exposure by 8 stops.

A solar filter is better, but a ND filter might at least be your best alternative. It’s far more ideal to have a real solar filter (so order one if you can). That said, a 16-stop or higher filter might at least be sufficient (but again, use these at your own risk).

Pay attention to your camera settings

A filter alone is not enough to make your photos work. Not only must you pay attention to your camera settings, but you need to get them right in tandem with your filter. When photographing an eclipse, plan to switch your camera to manual mode. And, be prepared to adjust exposure settings based on the phase of the eclipse. 

When it comes to exposure, bracketing is your friend. The rapid change in light levels during the eclipse demands a flexible approach.

Take multiple shots at varying exposures to ensure you capture the perfect balance between the darkened sun and the surrounding landscape.

What about a hyperlapse?

For an even more mesmerizing effect, consider creating a hyperlapse of the eclipse. A hyperlapse condenses time, allowing you to compress the entire eclipse into a captivating video sequence, perfect for capturing the sun’s dramatic unveiling. Here’s how to tailor a drone hyperlapse specifically for the eclipse:

  • Capture the progression: The key to an eclipse hyperlapse is capturing frames throughout the entire event, from the first sliver of the moon covering the sun to the peak of the eclipse and back.
  • Adjust intervals: During totality, when the sun is completely obscured (within the path of totality), you can extend the capture interval to capture the dramatic change in light on the landscape. Conversely, during the partial phases, shorten the capture interval to capture the moon’s steady progression across the sun’s face. This will create a smooth transition effect in the final video.
  • Consider your flight path: You have a few flight path options. For example, you could program a course lock hyperlapse that tracks the sun’s movement across the sky. That would result in a hyperlapse showcasing the sun seemingly shrinking as the moon covers it.

You might also ditch shooting the actual sun. Focusing your hyperlapse on the land below could allow you to show the moon’s shadow arriving. Everyone else will have their cameras pointed at the sun anyway, so let your drone get a view that no one else could possibly get. Plus, this angle also enables you to avoid having to shoot your drone straight into the sun!

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Plan your flight

Now, let’s address the unique challenges and opportunities presented by drone photography during an eclipse. Here’s what you need to consider:

  • Get a spotter to maintain line of sight: Unlike a grounded camera, maintaining a visual on your drone while looking up at the eclipse can be tricky. Consider using a spotter to help you keep track of the drone’s position, especially during critical moments like totality. And, make sure your spotter has those eclipse glasses, too.
  • Have sufficient battery power: Be mindful of battery life, especially during longer eclipses. Factor in pre-flight checks, positioning, and the actual capture time when calculating your flight duration. Remember, you’ll need enough battery power for a safe return landing.
  • Know where it’s legal to fly: Know it’s legal to fly your drone in your planned destination. For example, you’ll need permits if flying within a National Park or other restricted airspace. Not sure if you can legally fly in a specific area? Check out my guide to where you can fly drones legally.
  • Map your flight path: Plan your flight path beforehand, taking into account wind direction and potential obstacles. Aim for a position that offers a clear view of the eclipse and the surrounding landscape you wish to capture.
  • Practice: With a solar eclipse, you get one shot. Before the big day, practice flying your drone in similar conditions, particularly focusing on maintaining control while looking upwards.
  • Consider multiple drones: If you’re looking for an excuse to buy a new drone, this might be it. If you want to have the drone in the air for the full eclipse, you’d need that solar filter. However, a filter is not needed when the sun is completely obscured by the moon during the totality portion of a total solar eclipse. Given that, it might also make sense to have a drone without the filter in the air, too.

And of course, plan for totality. Depending on where you are, totality might not last for very long (perhaps not even more than a minute or two). Factor this limited window into your overall flight time and — if relevant — your hyperlapse settings.

The best place to fly drones during the April 2024 solar eclipse

This specific eclipse on April 8 will be a partial solar eclipse, visible across most of North America. The path of totality, where the moon completely covers the sun, will stretch diagonally from Texas to Maine. Those positioned within this path will witness the most dramatic light changes.

Expect totality to begin in Texas at 1:27 p.m. local time (CT) and to end in Maine at 3:35 p.m. local time (ET). Outside of the U.S., expect great views on Mexico’s Pacific Coast at about 11:07 a.m. local time (PT). Here are some major cities, and the time of partial eclipse to totality, according to NASA:

LocationPartial BeginsTotality BeginsMaximumTotality EndsPartial Ends
Dallas, Texas12:23 p.m. CDT1:40 p.m. CDT1:42 p.m. CDT1:44 p.m. CDT3:02 p.m. CDT
Idabel, Oklahoma12:28 p.m. CDT1:45 p.m. CDT1:47 p.m. CDT1:49 p.m. CDT3:06 p.m. CDT
Little Rock, Arkansas12:33 p.m. CDT1:51 p.m. CDT1:52 p.m. CDT1:54 p.m. CDT3:11 p.m. CDT
Poplar Bluff, Missouri12:39 p.m. CDT1:56 p.m. CDT1:56 p.m. CDT2:00 p.m. CDT3:15 p.m. CDT
Paducah, Kentucky12:42 p.m. CDT2:00 p.m. CDT2:01 p.m. CDT2:02 p.m. CDT3:18 p.m. CDT
Carbondale, Illinois12:42 p.m. CDT1:59 p.m. CDT2:01 p.m. CDT2:03 p.m. CDT3:18 p.m. CDT
Evansville, Indiana12:45 p.m. CDT2:02 p.m. CDT2:04 p.m. CDT2:05 p.m. CDT3:20 p.m. CDT
Cleveland, Ohio1:59 p.m. EDT3:13 p.m. EDT3:15 p.m. EDT3:17 p.m. EDT4:29 p.m. EDT
Erie, Pennsylvania2:02 p.m. EDT3:16 p.m. EDT3:18 p.m. EDT3:20 p.m. EDT4:30 p.m. EDT
Buffalo, New York2:04 p.m. EDT3:18 p.m. EDT3:20 p.m. EDT3:22 p.m. EDT4:32 p.m. EDT
Burlington, Vermont2:14 p.m. EDT3:26 p.m. EDT3:27 p.m. EDT3:29 p.m. EDT4:37 p.m. EDT
Lancaster, New Hampshire2:16 p.m. EDT3:27 p.m. EDT3:29 p.m. EDT3:30 p.m. EDT4:38 p.m. EDT
Caribou, Maine2:22 p.m. EDT3:32 p.m. EDT3:33 p.m. EDT3:34 p.m. EDT4:40 p.m. EDT

Just know that if you haven’t planned your travels to those major areas yet, don’t wait. Hotels are filling up. For example, Chase Travel data shows that Dallas is experiencing a 9.8x year-over-year increase in hotel travel during the solar eclipse. Meanwhile, there’s a 7.3x year-over-year increase in hotel bookings to San Antonio during the solar eclipse.

Of course, while Texas is a huge spot to watch the eclipse, consider other destinations, such as upstate New York. The Adirondacks sit in the path of totality of the eclipse, creating the perfect setting to view the eclipse.

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The 2012 annular eclipse with west of Lubbock, Texas.

You might also watch it aboard a cruise (check with your cruise operator to ensure drones are okay to bring aboard). Major cruise ship operators including Princess Cruises and Holland America Line are running cruises with routes specifically around the path of totality. For example, on Holland America’s sailing that departs March 30 from San Diego, cruisers will watch it from the sea outside of Mazatlán, Mexico.

According to travel-booking company Navan, the most popular eclipse-watching locations on the path include:

  1. Austin, TX
  2. Dallas TX 
  3. Columbus, OH 
  4. Montreal, QB
  5.  Indianapolis

When are the next big eclipse events?

If you’re not able to film the April 8 eclipse with a drone, there are other big events coming up.

Expect another solar eclipse on Aug. 12, 2026 in the Arctic, which could be a compelling place to fly (yes, I’ve flown drones in the Arctic, too). Expedition cruises in the Arctic are setting their schedules and routes early to align in the path of totality for that August 2026 solar eclipse. For example, AdventureSmith Explorations is running a 14-day Arctic trip featuring astrophysicist Paul Sutter as a special guest. Meanwhile, you could head from Spitsbergen to Northeast Greenland on another 14-day offering from the same company.

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