Watch Your Eyes During the Eclipse

Millions of Americans are looking forward to the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, and rightly so. It will be the first total solar eclipse visible from coast to coast in the continental United States since 1918.

Keep in mind, though, that planning for this rare celestial show entails more than staking out a good viewing spot. Since the sun’s rays can cause serious, long-term eye damage, it’s important to take precautions to keep yourself and your family safe.

Below, experts from the Pacific University College of Optometry, the only school of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, answer safety-related questions. Some information contained in the responses also is drawn from NASA research and other trusted resources.

Is it unsafe to look directly at the sun, or is that just a myth?

Viewing the sun above the horizon at any time without proper eye protection can cause short-term retinal bleaching and discomfort, after only several seconds, or permanent blindness, after just a few minutes, according to Optometry Professor Karl Citek, a fellow at the American Academy of Optometry.

It’s important to wear proper eye protection even during the partial phases of the upcoming solar eclipse. If you will be watching the eclipse from the so-called path of totality, it’s safe to remove your eye protection during the brief period when the moon completely covers the sun.

Keep in mind that unprotected viewing of the sunrise or sunset poses no danger. Also, there is no real need to worry about your pets. Most cats, dogs and other types of pets have enough common sense not to stare at the sun, Citek said.

What types of eye protection should I use to watch the eclipse?

The only safe way to look directly at the sun, including a partially eclipsed sun, is through special-purpose solar filters, such as eclipse glasses or handheld solar viewers that meet certain safety standards.

Homemade filters or ordinary sunglasses, even very dark ones, are not safe for looking at the sun.

Don’t use solar filters that are scratched or damaged, and make sure to supervise children to ensure they use such filters properly.

What’s the best technique for using solar filters?

Follow the directions enclosed with your product, or printed on it. In general, you should stand still and cover your eyes with your eclipse glasses or viewer before looking up at the sun.

Never remove your glasses or solar viewer while looking at the sun. When you are done gazing at the sun, turn away before removing your eclipse glasses or solar viewer.

What exactly is the “path of totality” and are there special considerations for people who are in it?

The ominous-sounding path of totality is a roughly 70-mile-wide, 3,000-mile-long swath that lies directly in the shadow of the moon.

Those in the path, which stretches from Oregon to South Carolina, will see a total solar eclipse, lasting just over two minutes. People in other areas will see a partial solar eclipse.

If you are lucky enough to watch from the path of totality, it’s safe to remove your eclipse glasses or solar viewer when the moon completely covers the sun, plunging you into darkness.

As soon as the sun begins to reappear, replace your eclipse glasses or solar viewer to watch the remaining partial phases.

Is it safe to watch the eclipse through a camera, telescope or binoculars?

Experts caution against looking at the sun, even during a partial eclipse, through an unfiltered camera, telescope, binoculars or other optical device. If you purchase a solar filter for your camera, telescope or binoculars, be sure to use it properly, which means, among other things, mounting it on the front lens.

Why can’t I just wear my eclipse glasses to look through my camera, telescope or binoculars?

Doing so could spell trouble. Concentrated solar rays may damage the filter of your eclipse glasses or solar viewer and enter your eyes, causing serious injury.

What if I don’t want to buy eclipse glasses or a solar viewer, or can’t find them anywhere? Are there other safe methods for watching the Great American Eclipse?

Yes. One such method is “pinhole projection.”

Here’s how it works: Cross the outstretched, slightly open fingers of one hand over the outstretched, slightly open fingers of the other. With the sun to your back, look at your hands’ shadow on the ground. The little spaces between your fingers will project a grid of small images on the ground, showing the sun as a crescent during the partial phases of the eclipse.

You can also make a pinhole viewer with a few simple, inexpensive supplies. Check out this printable and instructional video by Pacific University for step-by-step instructions.

Happy Viewing!

More Eclipse Resources from Pacific University