Solar eclipses: Not the end of the world, but really bad for eyes and cameras

In just over 48 hours, a phenomenon that was once associated with ill omens and ominous portents of the worst sort will darken the skies of much of the United States.

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Riverside student  Claire Willoby tries on a pair of eclipse viewing glasses  during a hands-on demonstration in Becky Lentz’s science class Thursday. (EXAMINER PHOTO | REUBEN MEES)

Although theories that a solar eclipse is a sign of impending doom have been mostly debunked, scientific evidence clearly links unprotected viewing of the sight to permanent eye damage.

And, with a nationwide shortage of the cardboard and film glasses specially designed for viewing the sun without harming the eyes, many residents will have to forego taking a long, hard look at the sight.

“While it is certainly a fascinating event, we are worried that not everyone is getting the message and they might be tempted to look when they shouldn’t,” optometrist Mariana Toplek-Swartz of Swartz Family Eyecare said.

“Just a brief look could mean a permanent lifetime change in vision.”

The only time it is safe to view an eclipse without protective eyewear is during the brief window of totality and, Ohio is not in the path of totality for this year’s eclipse. Local residents viewing the Monday afternoon phenomenon will only see a partial eclipse, when eye protection must be worn at all times.

Only glasses that meet the standard approved by the American Optometric Association and American Astronomical Society — ISO 12312-2 — are guaranteed, Swartz said. While some people may believe welding masks or goggles are suitable protection, only those rated 12 or higher are sufficient eye protection.

For those who ignore the warnings not to look, symptoms of solar retinopathy, which is damage to the visual receptors on the back of the eyes, include lingering bright spots in vision, soreness of the eyes and sensitivity to light.

“Mild damage may resolve itself in one to 12 months, but it can have permanent serious effects,” the optometrist said. “That’s why it’s important to contact your doctor immediately if you begin experiencing symptoms.”

Even taking photos or video of the astronomical event can damage the sensors on digital cameras or camera phones if lenses aren’t fitted with proper solar filters.

While quick snapshots of the partially-eclipsed sun in a wide frame is essentially the same as taking photos with the sun in the background, attempting to focus in on the sun to more clearly capture the shadow puts the equipment at risk, professional photographers and equipment manufacturers agree.

Professionals at Nikon and B&H Photography both recommend a 16-stop solar filter as the minimum piece of equipment to safely protect equipment from damage. Essentially, the light of the sun has to be reduced by a factor of at least 100,000 to effectively capture an image of a partial eclipse and protect the camera sensors.

But perhaps an even better suggestion for amateur photographers is to put the camera away entirely and enjoy the view.

“Sometimes when something is so special and you spend all your time taking a picture, you realize you missed it,” Riverside High School Principal Kelly Kauffman told a class of fourth-graders. “Then when you go back to look at the picture, it’s just not the same as seeing it in person.” 

Related story:

FUN WITH THE SUN; Local residents: To view or not to view?