How to Destroy Your Eye in 8.2 Nanoseconds

UPDATE: “Destroy” in the title is being dramatic; two weeks after the events described below, I had some pretty fancy testing of my left eye—where they inject a dye into your blood and watch the dye pass through the blood vessels at the back of your eye—and no damage was done to my eye. But it surely hurt instantly and was sore for several days. Read on…

Sunday evening, May 20th was a annular solar eclipse if you were along a line from southern Oregon to northern Texas. I had planned on heading to northern Arizona for the shot, but ended up needing to be in San Diego on Monday morning and driving all night and arriving at my meeting with no sleep didn’t seem like the right plan, so I stayed in San Diego and enjoyed a partial solar eclipse with my family instead. Here in San Diego, the eclipse was about 83% (diameter) / 75% (area) and the sun and moon were never concentric.

I had a Nikon 400/2.8 lens rented for the annular solar eclipse and decided to keep it and just play with it around San Diego for the weekend. Down the street from us is a red-tailed hawk nest with three no-longer-very-small babies, so I put the 400 on my old crop-sensor camera body, plus a 2x teleconverter, for an effective 1,200mm lens… which was still not long enough for the hawk nest shots!

A sixth grade boy down the street had been talking with me about cameras and photography, so on Saturday I took the 400/2.8 lens on my full-frame camera and my 70-200/2.8 on my crop-sensor body to his football game and tried to get some shots of him… then let him use the cameras for the next two games. Lugging around the beast 400mm lens at a middle school football game got him lots of attention! Here he is tackling an opponent (he’s the one in grey in the middle). Turns out that I’m not the best sports photographer in the world—at least not on my first attempt!

Then I got set for the partial solar eclipse. I had done a lot of reading about solar eclipses and safely viewing/photographing them and ended up driving to a photo and telescope store in Oceanside to talk with them and buy supplies. I bought a bunch of eclipse-viewing glasses for the family to use and a sheet of Baader Optical-5 Solar Filter, which I used to fashion my own filter for the rented 400mm lens. Duct tape and a Priority Mail cardboard box have so very many uses! A test shot with my new filter worked just fine and nicely showed a series of sun spots on the sun.

We ended up with a small block party out front of our house for the partial solar eclipse. Everyone shared the eclipse-viewing glasses around and took turns looking through the big lens. I got a bunch of long shots during the eclipse, then the marine layer moved in right after the peak of the eclipse and created some fabulous moody sky silhouette shots of the eclipse, such as the one shown here. As it turned out, either something was wrong with my settings for the long shots (even though I checked them multiple times during the shoot) or there was simply too much atmospheric distortion—with the sun low in the sky and probably a bit of haze prior to the marine layer. All the long shots seem a bit out of focus. But the wider shots after the marine layer rolled in were nice!

The day after the eclipse, I went to do another test shot of the sun to see if I could sort out what happened, but just as I was getting the sun lined up in the camera eyepiece, the wind blew my solar filter off! I pulled my face off the camera as close to instantly as one can respond, but I still had a short moment of the sun at 800mm optical magnification directed straight at my left eyeball. It took about 8.2 nanoseconds for the highly magnified sun to turn my left eyeball to bacon that had been left on the grill for an hour. My eye hurt a lot and my vision for the first couple minutes looked very similar to Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone. The vision cleared up after probably 3-5 minutes, but my eye felt tender—as if it had been hit several days prior— for a couple days. On Tuesday, I saw the ophthalmologist, who took a close look at my eyes and said that I probably dodged a bullet and that the left eye would probably just be sore for a couple days, but she scheduled a fancy inner eye test in a couple weeks just to make sure. As of this writing, my eye feels pretty normal.

The morals of the story here? Never, ever look at the sun through a camera and use about half a roll of duct tape to ensure that your solar filter is well affixed to your lens before pointing it at the sun!!

One Response

  1. Hey John,

    Am a friend of Jim Leichter’s, who occasionally forwards some of the more interesting stuff he culls from the “All-at-SIO” list.

    Hadn’t had the chance to see the transit in person so checked out your “8.2 nanoseconds” recap. Gotta say this — the long shots don’t appear all that blurry to me. If anything, looking at “solar-eclipse-hillside-2281” for instance, the contrast between the edge of the disk shadow, and the brightness of the sun through the marine layer, is so sharp that it almost looks like post production!

    (FWIW also loved the use of USPS packaging to make the home-made solar filter; I’ve used leftover boxes to make a mouse trap, among other things! Reduce, reuse, recycle indeed. Later!)

    June 7, 2012 at 5:16 pm

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