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Campus Expert Provides Insight on Upcoming Solar Eclipse

This month, on August 21, a nationwide phenomenon will inspire awe across the United States, a total solar eclipse. Before the big day, William Gutsch, Ph.D. ’67, distinguished professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, photographer, astronomer and northern lights expert, provides some advice.

Q. What makes this eclipse special?

A. A total solar eclipse is one of the two spectacular things you can see in the sky. The other is the northern lights. This is the first total eclipse in almost 100 years that will go clear across 48 contiguous states. Because the United States is densely populated and many people have cameras, it will without a doubt, be the most observed and photographed solar eclipse in history.

Q. Will we be able to see the eclipse in New Jersey?

A. Folks in New Jersey will be able to see a partial eclipse. The moon will cover part of the bright disk of the sun. The total eclipse takes place in a narrow band that stretches from Oregon down to South Carolina. People in the path of totality will see the total phase of the eclipse, a different experience than seeing only the partial eclipse that will be seen in New Jersey.

If you want to see the real spectacle, you have to be in the path of totality. In that narrow zone, for up to two minutes and forty-five seconds, the sun will take on the appearance of a black hole in the sky surrounded by a pearly white glow and framed by red tongues of fire. The brighter stars and planets will also come out in the middle of the day.

Q. What does the average viewer need to know about this solar eclipse?

A. The number one point to make is to ensure your safety. This is both true for looking at the eclipse and photographing it. Proper eye protection is essential for viewing anything except totality. During totality the eclipse is safe to look at. All other times, you need to have the proper filter material.

In addition, make sure you leave yourself enough travel time. The path of totality includes some rural towns in the western U.S. These places may not have the infrastructure to handle massive crowds. So, if you are planning to drive into the path of totality, make sure to leave early and bring a bagged lunch.

Q. How should viewers protect themselves?

A. Special “eclipse glasses” or filters made to screen out the vast majority of visible light plus infrared and ultraviolet are essential for viewing all the partial phases of the eclipse. Look for the letters CE as well as a globe logo with the letters ISO on the glasses or other filter material. The American Astronomical Society has issued a list of suppliers whose products they have tests and declared safe. The list includes American Paper Optics, EclipseGlasses.com, Celestron, DayStar (Solar Glasses), Explore Scientific (Solar Eclipse Sun Catcher Glasses), Lunt Solar Systems (SUNsafe SUNglasses), Meade Instruments (EclipseView Glasses & Viewers), Rainbow Symphony (Eclipse Shades) and Thousand Oaks Optical (Silver-Black Polymer & SolarLite).

Q. For those of us trying to photograph the eclipse, what do you recommend?

A. Your camera needs protection like your eye. Make sure you use the proper filters for your camera. To complicate the situation, some filters that are safe for the camera are not safe for your eyes. Serious eye damage or damage to the camera can occur if the wrong filters are used.

The camera also needs special equipment such as a telephoto or close-up lens. The focal length necessary typically exceeds what many people have in their “photographic toolkit.” The minimum focal length to get images of the sun of a decent size is about 500mm. This can be achieved either through the use of a long focal length lens or coupling a long focal length lens to a teleconverter which typically boosts the focal length of the lens by 1.4 to 2 times. In addition, you need a tripod because the camera needs to be steady. You can rent long focal length lenses, teleconverters and tripods at some high end camera stores.

As noted above, the camera also needs the right filter. The filter should be a solar neutral density filter for pointing at the sun. Such filters typically only allow 1/10,000 to 1/100,000 of the sun’s light to pass through. Without the proper filter, the sun will burn out the sensors on your camera.

Q. What is the number one piece of advice for getting a great shot?

A. Practice before you go out and narrow down the range of settings that you will probably want to use. Also, you would be wise to bracket the shots. Use manual focus and live view. Remember that during totality, all the filters should come off the camera and then immediately put back on as soon as totality ends. For those not in the path of totality, the filters, both for your camera and your eyes, should never come off.

Q. Where will you be observing the eclipse and what is special about that location?

I will be viewing the eclipse in Oregon with family. Kathy Wydner, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, and her family will also be joining us. You can’t determine a weather forecast more than several days in advance so, for planning purposes, we look at climate data. Climate data is essentially an average of pertinent weather variables over a period of 10 or more years for various locations and periods of time. In particular, we looked at how clear or cloudy day time skies tend to be in August along the path of totality. Not surprisingly, the west is favored over the southeastern United States because the weather in Tennessee and South Carolina is hot and humid and there is frequently cloud build up during the day because of the heat and humidity. In the west, the air tends to be drier and the prospect for the sky to be clearer is better. The eclipse takes place in the west in the morning, so this also favors the west.

Exactly where we will be will be decided the day before the eclipse. I have cousins who live near Portland and, in turn, they have friends who own a farm within the path of totality. That has some advantage because the towns and main roads will be crowded. Our hopes are on that location, but time will tell.

Interested in speaking with Dr. Gutsch? For media inquiries, please contact Angeline Boyer at aboyer1@saintpeters.edu or (201) 761-6238.

Eclipse composite shot. Credit: Fred Espanek.