Top 7 tips for observing the sun safely

With the new cycle of activity ramping up on the sun, you might enjoy looking for sunspots. Or a solar eclipse might happen in your area. Here are some safe – and unsafe – methods for viewing the sun.

Large solid green circle with small, black, labeled dots on it.

View at EarthSky Community Photos. | The sun is becoming more active again. Victor C. Rogus in Sedona, Arizona, captured these sunspots on November 24, 2020. Thank you, Victor!

We all know you should never look at the sun directly. Doing so can permanently damage your eyes, even causing blindness. But Solar Cycle 25 has now begun, and there are going to be an increasing number of spots on the sun worth seeing. Plus there are solar eclipses happening – perhaps near you – every year. Look below for tips on safe solar viewing.

1. Do NOT use these techniques. Whatever you do, never look at the sun directly without a safe filter in place to protect your eyes. Besides your unprotected eyeballs, here are some other things you should not use. Do NOT use sunglasses, polaroid filters, smoked glass, exposed color film, X-ray film, or photographic neutral density filters.

EarthSky moon calendar for 2021 now available. Going fast! Order yours now. Makes a great gift.

Man adjusting a telescope in crowd of other people; eclipsed sun high in sky.

View larger. | Fred Espenak – aka Mr. Eclipse – created this self-portrait during a 2006 total solar eclipse.

Daytime picture of people peering into the eyepiece of a filtered telescope.

Viewing the sun with a safe solar telescope.

2. Safe solar filters for a telescope. If you have a ‘scope, you’ll need a safe solar filter on the sky end of it in order to search for sunspot or watch a solar eclipse safely. Do not use a filter on the eyepiece end of your telescope. There’s too much to say about solar filters to include in this article, so we refer you to Fred Espenak’s article on safe solar filters. If you don’t have a ‘scope, you still have plenty of options, such as …

3. A home-rigged, indirect viewing method. Creating a pinhole camera is another great option, because it lets your family and friends get a good view of the sun, too. We recommend this article by the masters of do-it-yourself science at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Their article on how to view solar eclipses safely teaches you to make an easy pinhole projector. With it, you can shine the sun’s image onto a flat surface and impress your friends and neighbors while giving everyone (including yourself) a cool experience.

People wearing square-lensed eclipse glasses.

Big fun in Austin, Texas, at the May 20, 2012, solar eclipse when an EarthSky employee handed out solar eclipse glasses at a local restaurant.

4. Local viewing at an astronomy club, park or nature center. We highly recommend this route for any kind of eclipse, any daytime solar viewing, or any nighttime astronomical event. If you watch among other amateur astronomers and casual sky gazers, you’ll have fun, learn about astronomy and get a great view of the objects and events going on in the sky. SkyandTelescope.com offers a way to search for astronomy clubs in your area. Or try the NASA Night Sky Network, which is another way to search. Here’s a search page from Go-astronomy.com. And here are astronomy clubs and societies affiliated with the Astronomical League, one of this nation’s most established confederations of amateur astronomers.

5. Commercial solar eclipse glasses. You might find these online or at a local nature center, or museum. Solar eclipse glasses are super easy to use, and they’re sort of cool-looking.

Large black square held up to the sun with a glowing crescent on it.

Viewing the May 20, 2012, solar eclipse through welder's glass

6. Welder’s glass, #14 or darker. Be sure it is #14 or darker. The great thing about welder’s glass is that it allows you to view the sun directly. Plus welder’s glass is a bit more durable than commercial eclipse glasses. If you’re like me, between solar eclipses you’ll forget where you put your commercial eclipse glasses. With the welder’s glass, you can always add it to your rock collection. Search for a local “welding supply” company.

7. Online viewing. When there’s a solar eclipse, many organizations will offer online viewing. That might be a good option for you, if, when the eclipse is occurs, you’re in the wrong part of the world to see it (when it’s nighttime outside for you). The disadvantage of online viewing is that you don’t get the fun of seeing the event with your family, friends and neighbors. Online viewing is nothing like the full experience of a total solar eclipse, which is nothing short of mind-blowing. But any view of an eclipse is better than none.

Bottom line: Solar Cycle 25 has begun, and there are an increasing number of spots on the sun. Plus a solar eclipse might happen in your area. Safe solar eclipse viewing techniques, tips and links here.

Deborah Byrd