How to Safely View the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

Total Solar Eclipse
NASA

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Is it dangerous to stare at the Sun—or, a solar eclipse? As we prepare for the 2017 total solar eclipse, here are eclipse safety tips to protect your eyes—from eclipse sunglasses to welder’s goggle filters—and a few things they don’t tell you.

First, if you are NOT on the path of totality—that ribbon of darkness—on eclipse day, then a partial solar eclipse will unfold for you on August 21. (Learn about different types of eclipses.) You cannot safely look at any of it. Not even for a minute. You need eye protection.

But if you are planning a solar eclipse road trip to that narrow dark band of the full eclipse, well, that awesome, unbelievable spectacle does not require special filters during those two minutes of totality. Still, the mind-numbing glory of totality is presaged and then followed by an hour-long partial phase—and here also you must protect your vision.

Is It Safe to Look at the Sun?

I’m in touch with a man who suffers permanent eye damage from looking straight at the Sun decades ago. True, he used binoculars, which can cause permanent blindness in just a second or two. But it brings up that ancient eclipse question: what is the actual, unexaggerated danger of simply peering at the Sun directly?

Few articles tell the truth because eyesight is so precious; editors usually feel it’s better to exaggerate the danger than to state it neutrally. Years ago when I was with Discover magazine and researched this, the shortest amount of Sun-staring I could find, that had created a permanent detectable retinal lesion was 30 seconds. That was a man who’d been drinking, who’d stared at the Sun on a bet. Going the other way, we’ve all taken quick looks at the Sun during our lives, and have not suffered eye damage. So those are the starting points, the limits: A quick fraction-of-second glance won’t harm you, while 30 seconds can damage your retina permanently. In between lies a blurry dangerous realm, a terra incognito of ill-defined peril, a swampy land you want to avoid.

And contrary to widespread myth, the Sun is not more dangerous when it’s in eclipse. It’s simple. That’s when people have a motive for staring at it. In reality, the danger is produced by heat concentrated on the retinal cells. It takes this heat a little bit of time to build up.

Is It Safe to Look at a Total Solar Eclipse?

So let’s picture the real-time scenario, the quandary. It’s eclipse day. The Sun has been moving behind the Moon for the past 50 minutes. Soon, the Sun will appear as a thin sliver, like a slender crescent Moon. In a minute, even this gets reduced in size. You look at the ground around you; it’s getting darker. If you are within the path of totality, you want to see the famous “diamond ring” that happens just before totality begins. Is it okay to then take a quick squinting glimpse at the Sun?

Some articles say no. But I and other astronomers, including NASA solar system ambassador Charles Fulco, always do. When it’s almost total, we’ve taken quick (no more than a half second) glimpses up. If we see anything but the start of totality, we immediately look away. If you can be disciplined enough to limit such momentary glimpses to under a half second, you’ll be okay.

But many don’t have such discipline. And children should never be allowed to try. So the safest route is to play it safe, and use your eye protection until darkness when the Sun is totally eclipsed or the expert in your party shouts, “It’s total now!”

Types of Solar Eclipse Eye Protection

What type of eye protection is best? Here are a few options for most of the viewers on eclipse day—enthusiastic beginners.

Eclipse Glasses

Many companies sell inexpensive “eclipse glasses” made of cardboard, with plastic Mylar filters. They work. The cardboard types run about $10 for a 4-pack. You can find eclipse glasses on Amazon.com but look quickly as they are selling out. Also, Amazon has recalled eclipse glasses by some manufacturers due to safety issues. Only select from reputable dealers: https://eclipse.aas.org/resources/solar-filtersIf you’re feeling fancy, go for plastic frames which are sturdier versus cardboard.  Do not even consider regular sunglasses. Wear the solar shades right until the Sun goes completely behind the Moon.

 

solar-glasses_full_width.jpg

Make a Pinhole Viewer

Some people punch a pinhole in a box and let the Sun project its eclipsed image on another interior part of the box. That’s always safe because you’re not looking directly at the Sun. See NASA’s guide on how to make a pinhole camera.

Purchase Welders’ Goggle Filters

If you do not have access to a solar filter, you may use instead what is called a no. 14 welder’s glass, available in most local hardware stores.

For the seven total eclipses I’ve led for our tour company, we always purchase welders’ goggle filters shade 12 or 14. Their optically certified glass allows for a crisp, perfect image, and those filter replacements are only about $2. Some websites say that only a shade 14 is safe. This is incorrect. Back at Discover Magazine in the 1990’s and now at Astronomy magazine more recently, we’ve had eye safety experts do evaluations for us. Both shade 12 and 14 are equally protective. For our past seven totalities, we’ve always used 12. But when the Sun is high up, as it will be this time, it presents a brighter image than when it’s low down. This time around, the most pleasing image will be had through a shade 14.

welder-filters-12-14_0.jpegsafe-shades-12-14_0.jpeg
Image: Welder Goggles and Filters in Shades 12 and 14.

More common welders filters such as shade 10 are inadequate. Don’t use them. Also don’t use the stuff that was popular between 1870 and 1960, such as smoked glass and reflections from puddles. Exposed and developed film was once universally used. In truth, two layers of exposed and developed black and white (not color) film, meaning those black strips accompanying negatives, are adequate, and many science tours used them right through the 1980’s. Still, I’d limit the peeks to quick glimpses through them. With eyesight, you want to be conservative.

What About Binoculars?

The most dangerous is a view through an unfiltered telescope or binoculars. So if you’re observing totality through binoculars, that’s great. But I’d limit it to the middle section of this short totality. Once you’ve passed the eclipse midpoint, about a minute after the start of totality, I’d put down the binoculars. Because the last thing you want is for totality to suddenly end with, say, a diamond ring of full sunlight, and for you to be still using that instrument. Don’t let that happen.

Taking Photos of the Eclipse

Do not look at the Sun through a camera without a special solar filter—nor while using your eclipse glasses or solar viewer. The concentrated solar rays will damage the filter and enter your eye(s), causing serious injury. Even if you buy a special solar filter for your camera, shooting an eclipse is challenging, requiring the photographer to shift from too much light to shooting in the dark when you need a fast lens. If you’re a beginning photography, we’d put the camera down during the 2-minute event, soak in the experience, and look at the thousands of photos taken by professionals after the event.

We want to see this eclipse, and also be able to see each other afterward!

Learn even more about solar eclipse eye safety.

The Great American Almanac is the Great American Eclipse Central! Go to the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse Guide for ALL eclipse information

About This Blog

Welcome to “This Week’s Amazing Sky,” the Almanac’s blog on stargazing and astronomy. Wondering which bright objects you’re seeing in the night sky? Want to learn about a breathtaking sight coming up? Bob Berman, longtime and famous astronomer for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, will help bring alive the wonders of our universe. From the beautiful stars and planets to magical auroras and eclipses, we’ll cover everything under the Sun (and Moon)!

Reader Comments

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Solar eclipse 2017

Can you view the eclipse on the iPad when in selfie mode - so your back is to the sun and you are looking at the iPad with the camera in selfie mode.

Eclipse through iPad

Yes, we can’t see anything wrong with that… However, the quality of the camera will not be able to do the eclipse justice, so if you can find real eclipse glasses instead, we recommend that first and foremost!

2017 eclipse

I live directly on the 45th parallel so I will be in the path of totality.
Thanks for the welding information. I will be making a trip to Harbor Freight and look for a #14.
They sell auto dim helmets and have not seen this question asked. So will they work.
If people contact me I live on 75 acres and the weather forecast sounds great.
The last eclipse I was witness to was in about 1978(guess). @gonshorowski

Cameras - phones

Can you take a picture of the eclipse with a cell phone? Is it as bad for your phone as it is for a camera lens?

Taking Pictures of the Sun with Cell Phones

Good question! With a regular camera, the issue isn’t that the sun will damage the lens, but that the lens will concentrate the sunlight (like binoculars) through your protective eyewear and into your eyes. Your cell phone camera is just a miniature lens, so the sunlight shouldn’t damage it. Additionally, because you will be looking through your cell phone’s screen, you won’t be seeing the true brightness of the sun—it will only appear as bright as your cell phone screen allows.

reply

I really want to see the eclipse are there any other places to get the glasses it's getting hard to find them? I also wanted to know how much of the eclipse will be visible in the Philly PA. area, Of course when it heads to the east coast it has to dip towards South Carolina, Georgia instead of going straight across the U.S. closer to PA. but at least i'll still get to see it if I can find glasses so please help me find them if you can thanks.

eclipse glasses

You can find eclipse glasses on Amazon.com. Usually, they sell the glasses in packs of four for about $10.  Though it is not our policy to recommend certain products, here is an example of a good pair of eclipse glasses by Celestron.

You can only see the total solar eclipse if you are right in the “path of totality.”  PA is not in this path and it could very well look like a normal day. It might be helpful for you to see eclipse maps by state here: https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/eclipse-maps I hope this is useful!

eclipse glasses

i ordered eclipse glasses some time ago and companies are so back-ordered I may not get my order in time. I'd likely check for the welding lenses. Walmart had some more than a week ago and according to some articles they were OK. Check any "eclipse" glasses for certification logos; check with your eye doctor for appropriate logos. I may make the hours plus drive to a Harbor Freight and see if they have any welders lenses left on hand.

solar eclipse

How about using a small round mirror and reflecting the image on a nearby wall? I used this method years ago and worked great.

using a mirror

We’ve never heard of this; it sounds similar to the “pinhole” method. For a sharp image, you’d want to tape off part of the mirror to create a small square, say ¼-inch by ¼-inch, then project into a darkened room from a certain distance away. We wonder about the clarity of the image and also about the safety. We all know that you shouldn’t look directly at the Sun and wonder if you shouldn’t look directly at the mirror reflecting the Sun’s bright beams either; look only at the projection on the wall or screen.

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