What’s that weird speck in my eclipse photo?

Maybe you didn’t plan ahead for the eclipse and found yourself in the same situation I did: unprepared. I expected to be traveling on Monday, so when I found myself under the clear Boston sky as the Moon began to move in front of the Sun, I had no eclipse glasses, no supplies to make a pinhole projector, and no decent camera. All I had was my iPhone SE in its grubby plastic case.

If you’re like me, you might have taken as many photos as you could with your setup, and discovered some weird surprises in the shots. In my case, there were eclipse-shaped bright spots in the sky — which Business Insider ID’d as lens flares. I was wondering what they were doing there, so I turned to a colleague who knows more about photography than I do: Verge senior editor Dan Seifert, who was a photographer and ran multiple camera shops before becoming a journalist. Here’s our non-exhaustive accounting of image artifacts that may be showing up in your eclipse photos.

Rachel: What are these little mini eclipses in the shot? Does this have anything to do with my iPhone case, which has a layer of plastic covering my camera?

Eclipse from Boston, MA.

Photo by Rachel Becker / The Verge

Dan: What you are seeing is commonly referred to as lens flare. Lens flares occur when there is a very bright light source (such as the Sun) in the image frame or just outside of it. It can be manifested as artifacts in the image, as we can see in yours, or it can show up as a glare that washes across the image.

Every lens is susceptible to lens flare, but higher-quality lenses are able to mitigate it better than others. It is caused by light reflecting within the lens itself, which is comprised of multiple pieces of glass, or elements. Your iPhone SE has a five-element lens; more complex lenses, such as zooms, can have more elements and be more susceptible to lens flares. Any surface, or element, that the light has to go through to get to the image sensor produces an opportunity for reflections, so if your case covers your camera lens, it can certainly contribute to lens flares.

Why are some of these blue, and why are the blue and white ones oriented differently?

Some of your flares are upside down because the light is bouncing around inside the lens before it gets to the image sensor. On top of that, the lens has coatings on it to protect from scratches and reduce lens aberrations. These coatings contribute to the different colored flares you are seeing. The flares in your images are eclipse-shaped because the source of light was shaped like that; had the Sun been unobstructed, they’d be more circular.

Most photographers will go out of their way to avoid lens flares by using hoods or shades around their lenses. But if the Sun is in your frame or right next to it, it can be impossible to avoid. And, as seen in your images, it can produce some cool effects.

Eclipse over the financial district in Manhattan.
Photo by Alessandra Potenza / The Verge

Why do the lens flares show the shape of the eclipse so much more clearly than the Sun itself?

The flares are reflections of the source light, so they are not as bright as the Sun itself. That’s why they are clearer or sharper, they aren’t too bright for the image sensor to resolve. The Sun is.

Were you moving or standing still in these shots? Like, were you on a train?

Eclipse over Copley Square, Boston MA

Eclipse over Copley Square, Boston, Massachusetts.
Photo by Rachel Becker / The Verge

I might have been walking in some, but was mostly standing still. Why?

Movement of the camera can cause issues with image distortion, but it’s highly unlikely when photographing the Sun, and I don’t think it was a factor at all here.

Also, the Sun looks kind of squished. Do you think that’s an effect of the eclipse, or is that a common outcome of photographing the Sun? (Which, uh, is not something I often do.)

The Sun looks squished, but it’s round there. This is because the Sun is so bright, the image sensor can’t capture it accurately, so the light is bleeding off to the sides, creating that football shape. Our eyes can capture a much broader range of light from bright to dark than a digital image sensor (or film) can, so when the camera is exposing for the other parts of the image, like the buildings, the Sun is too bright (or “blown out,” as a photographer might say).

Monochrome / Essential Phone

Eclipse over Rincon Park, San Francisco, California.
Photo by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

Okay, so since looking at the Sun can harm your eyes, can photographing the Sun during an eclipse fry any camera components?

Yes, it can, but it’s highly unlikely. It depends on how long the sensor is exposed to the Sun and how strong the lens’ magnification power is. Your iPhone is only exposing for a split-second and its lens does not magnify at all. (It is, in fact, reverse magnifying from what your eye sees, which is why subjects in your images appear smaller than what you saw with your eyes when you took the picture.)

We recently covered a video produced by a photography store that managed to fry the image sensor in a camera by pointing it at the Sun. But in order to do this, they used a very long lens that magnifies the light greatly to get an image closer to the Sun and they held the shutter open for an inordinately long time (six seconds). Most people will not have that strong of a lens, nor would they have the shutter open for that long when photographing the Sun, as it would produce an all-white image anyway.

There also are special solar filters that go in front of a lens (not unlike the special eclipse glasses that protect your eyes) that can prevent damage if you do want to get a close-up shot of the Sun. All of those really stunning images of the eclipse that you see bouncing around the internet today were likely taken through a solar filter.

As a tip, you should cut that plastic off your case if it covers the camera lens. Apple uses sapphire lens coatings on its cameras that are basically unscratchable already — so covering it is redundant and will affect the image quality negatively.

Oh, good to know! I thought that might be happening because my photos always look pretty fuzzy on my phone.

Not saying the case is 100 percent at fault there. But it isn’t helping, that’s for sure.

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