If there were ever an event that the entire family should enjoy together, it is the rare majesty of a solar eclipse. Solar eclipses, be they partial, annular, or total, are not entirely rare events, but, before 2017 it had been almost 100 years since the last total eclipse transited North America from coast to coast, and it had been almost 40 years since the last time a total eclipse could be viewed from the United States. In fact, most of Earth's citizens have never witnessed a total solar eclipse.
Let's talk about how to view a solar eclipse safely, with your family!
DO NOT look at the sun with your naked eyes. Permanent damage to your eyesight, and even blindness, may result. We have all glanced at the sun, but prolonged exposure causes permanent damage. During an eclipse, when the moon covers a portion of the sun, the intensity of the light remains constant. The ONLY time it is safe to look toward the sun with the naked eye is during the brief period of totality at the height of a total eclipse of the sun. During partial or annular eclipses, it is never safe to look at the sun.
Solar Glasses for the Whole Clan
By far, the easiest way to outfit the entire family for safely viewing a solar eclipse is with very inexpensive solar viewing glasses. These glasses, some with plastic frames, others with paper, have Mylar film lenses that block out 99.999% of visible light, as well as harmful ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) radiation, yet the sun is bright enough that you can see it clearly when you're wearing them.
Certified paper solar viewing glasses are completely adequate for most viewings. If you want to upgrade, some companies sell plastic sunglass-like pairs of solar viewing glasses, but the views will be the same regardless of the material of the frames. Some manufacturers sell 5-, 10-, 20-, or 25-packs of solar viewing glasses—share them with your friends and neighbors!
Get Closer with Solar Binoculars
Solar viewing glasses give an unmagnified view of the sun. Interestingly and beautifully, the sun appears to be the same size as the moon in the sky—this is the reason we are treated to the spectacle of the occasional total solar eclipse!
If you want to view the sun closer during the eclipse, your best option is either solar binoculars or standard birding/travel binoculars outfitted with removable solar filters. Solar or filtered binoculars can be used to view the sun anytime—not just during an eclipse. You can see details like sunspots with a good pair of binoculars.
As I mentioned in my article 8 Lessons Learned When I Photographed a Total Solar Eclipse, the view of totality through unfiltered binoculars was the single BEST VIEW of the spectacle that I had—better than with my unmagnified eyes and way better than the view through a camera!
For the photographers out there, the 10x binoculars have the equivalent magnification of a 500mm lens. The 8x models are like a 400mm lens, and the 6x binoculars have the magnification of a 300mm lens.
Get Closer with a Spotting Scope
While there are no dedicated solar spotting scopes on the market, you can easily attach a solar filter to a spotting scope for some close-up views of the sun or an eclipse. Know that spotting scopes require a tripod or alternative support—unlike binoculars—so they aren't quite as convenient as binoculars.
I am a big fan of spotting scopes for beginner astronomers―and their simplicity, durability, and versatility means you can use them to look at innumerable terrestrial and celestial sights when a solar eclipse is not transiting the sky.
Explore More with Telescopes
Like the spotting scope, a telescope equipped with a removable solar filter can be a great way to set up your solar viewing. While I believe the spotting scope to be an easier tool to use for basic solar and solar eclipse viewing, you can use an eclipse as the catalyst to get a telescope and start doing some serious nighttime astronomical viewing.
B&H does sell a full line of dedicated solar telescopes that are designed for viewing the sun's chromosphere. These are single-purpose telescopes for solar—not necessarily solar eclipse—viewing and cannot be used for terrestrial or other astronomical uses. Note that a few telescopes in that category are multi-purpose optics that come with removable solar filters to allow nighttime viewing of the heavens.
A total solar eclipse is as family-friendly as any event can be. Having the right gear to share and use with your tribe will make the show even more memorable! Be prepared, be in a good location, protect everyone's eyesight, and enjoy the show!
For a closer look at our solar viewing gear, click here.
Do you have questions about solar or solar eclipse viewing? Ask away in the Comments section, below!