Have you ever had your picture taken with a flash? Did you see an after-image of that bright light when you closed your eyes?
Although it is possible for bright lights to damage a person’s eyes, a photography flash is not harmful to the vast majority of people. Even when you can see the after-image, which is called “flash blindness,” the condition is typically temporary. If you have ever looked directly into a strobe light or spotlight, then you may have experienced this condition already.
If you blink a few times, the spots in your vision return to normal within a few seconds.
The reason why this question about a camera flash being harmful to the eyes keeps being brought up is because of a 2015 article published by the Daily Mail in the UK. They ran a story that came from China where a 3-month-old baby was allegedly blinded because of a flash when a photographer took a close-up image of the child’s face.
Snopes took up the task of fact-checking the article at the time. They went back through several different versions of it, reviewed the sources that were deemed to be questionable, and could not find a specific link or reference to a diagnosis offered by a doctor.
It is interesting to note that in the United States, the United Kingdom, and most other countries in the world, a camera with a flash is allowed for taking those first pictures of life. Some hospitals even encourage the use of flash photography.
Doctors even use a bright flashlight to check on the health of the eye using an exposure that is much longer than what a flash provides. This activity does not create a permanent injury either.
The only exception to this rule is the use of a flashlight to create a light source in a dark room when you also use a flash. This combination of light sources can place stress on the retina which could create an adverse effect for children and adults.
Please note that I am not a medical professional. I do not have any experience in the field of ophthalmology. What you will find here is substantiated evidence from numerous sources that suggest the flash of a camera is not harmful. It should not be treated as definitive advice for everyone or anyone.
It is merely the result of personal research pursuing this subject.
How Can Light Harm Your Eyes?
There are two primary ways that your eyes can receive an injury because of light. The first involves a thermal reaction that the light causes when contacting the eye. This process creates a heat source that can cause a burn to the retina, cornea, or other structures that help to create your vision.
The second option involves a chemical reaction when the photons in the light source are powerful enough to break the molecular bonds in the eye. This action causes the free radicals in the body to damage the cells as they travel through, creating an injury that can adversely impact a person’s vision.
Have you ever been told not to look directly at the sun? The reason why this is excellent advice to follow is that the brightness of this light, combined with the ultraviolet wavelengths it emits, can cause damage to your eyes. It overstimulates the retina, making it more challenging to convert the information it receives into an image that the brain can process.
It operates like a camera sensor in a lot of ways. If the lens receives too much light exposure at the same spot, then it can damage the equipment to create an inferior image. This process can happen to your eye as well.
Once you receive the input, the retina sends the image to your brain via the optic nerves. If the light is too bright over prolonged exposure, then the back of the eye receives damage that interrupts the quality of the image.
Another example to consider is the light from a welding torch. Welders use a darkened helmet to protect themselves from this source for the same reason that you would not want to look directly at the sun. The prolonged exposure to the brightness is what creates the potential for possible energy levels that could be harmful.
We can use a highly-focused like (like a laser) to repair injuries to the eye. Light can be beneficial when we use its energy in specific ways.
A camera flash may offer a powerful light source that can create an after-image for some people, but it is not a long-term event. Even though the current technologies can create a powerful light source that some people may find to be bothersome or briefly painful, the risk for long-term vision damage from this equipment is extremely low.
If you have blue eyes, come from a Caucasian background, and have freckles, then you may be more sensitive to the light from a flash than others. Some medical conditions can increase susceptibility as well.
Unless the exposure is repetitive and frequent, the use of a flash is generally recognized as safe.
Does a Camera Flash Hurt the Eyes of a Baby?
According to information offered by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, there is no proven damage from a camera flash that occurs with the eyes of a baby. It does provide a diagnostic implication for some children that is essential to consider.
When a child is older than 4 months, which is when eye alignment begins to establish itself, then the red-eye reflex that occurs from a flash can indicate a problem that requires attention. You would see this issue when taking a picture of an infant with a flash, but then seeing only one red eye consistently appear in the images that the camera captures.
The health issue to consider when this occurs is called retinoblastoma. It is one of the rarest forms of childhood cancer, affecting about 50 children each year in each developed country in the world.
You can tell if a child has this condition because their eyes will not appear as “normal” when you take a photograph using flash photography. Some children may have a white reflection in their pupil instead of one that is red. Other colors sometimes appear as well, including orange and yellow. It may be noticeable in only one image.
There may not be a red eye in the flash photography at all either. You might see one eye with the red reflection, but then the other eye will look different in some way. This evidence is significant because it indicates that something is not right there. Some children may also squint without cause because of this condition.
Additional complications to watch for with retinoblastoma are a swollen, sore, or red eye that does not have an infection. You may see the iris color begin to change in part of the eye. It is not unusual for a child to have their vision start to deteriorate in the affected eye as well.
The good news is that retinoblastoma has one of the best cure rates for childhood cancers in the world today, averaging about 98%. Early diagnosis is the key to successful treatment.
That means you have an excuse to use more flash photography with your children.
What Are the Reasons Why a Camera Flash is Safe?
Although a camera flash does create a bright light source, there are numerous reasons why it is still safe. This information is based on the basic scientific principles of how light travels.
1. The length of exposure is brief.
Research published in JAMA Ophthalmology indicates that a minimum of 15 seconds of exposure is necessary to create the conditions that are harmful to a person’s vision. The average flash duration when using a full-power setting on a modern camera is just 1/400 of a second. It can be as low as 1/20,000 if you are using the lowest setting.
There are some models which may offer an even more powerful flash, but nothing is available right now that would create 15 continuous seconds of light exposure.
That is the minimum for people who have sensitive eyes and vision structures. The average length of exposure may be closer to 30 seconds for the “average” person.
Even if you stare directly into a strobe light, the flashing pattern will not give you a full second of exposure. You would be more likely to suffer from a seizure because of the on/off pattern of light instead of damaging your eyes.
Is it possible that you could experience discomfort or pain from this activity? Yes.
Will it cause permanent vision damage because you looked at a flash or strobe? No.
2. The intensity of a camera flash is not high enough.
The strength of a light source dissipates rapidly the further it is away from you. That happens because light waves must travel from their origin to reach your retina for processing.
If you were to be two feet away from a camera flash instead of having one foot of distance, then you could reduce the intensity of the illumination by 75%. Once you reach a range of four feet, then the light intensity is only 1/16 of what someone at one foot would receive.
When was the last time you stood 12 inches (30 centimeters) from a camera flash? Even with extreme close-up photography, the light source is further away.
Then you add in the various reflectors diffusers, photography umbrellas, softboxes, bounce cards, gels, and other tools that we photographers use to get a fantastic image and the intensity drops even more.
There are times when you could manipulate this process intentionally as a way to cause eye damage, but it does not create a problem under regular usage conditions because there is not enough power behind the camera flash to create an adverse impact.
3. The light of a camera flash is not highly focused.
You would find a spotlight to be incredibly bright if you were to look directly at it for a couple of seconds. Even if you were to place your nose on the lens to stare at the light, the lack of focus it offers reduces the intensity of your exposure.
Once the light waves escape from the source, they begin to bounce all over the place. Some will reach your retina for processing. Others will move into the environment around you.
When the light source is further away, then the diffusion effect becomes stronger. That’s why a camera flash is safe for use.
You would need to create a highly focused light source, like that of a laser pointer, for the camera flash to become potentially harmful to a person. Because such an action would negate the benefits of having a flash in the first place, this issue cannot occur.
Even when a child is young, this scientific principle remains the same. Parents have 18 summers to enjoy with their children. Taking photographs of each experience is one of the best ways to treasure these memories.
A Final Thought About Camera Flashes and Vision
There are times when you will see spots when a camera flash occurs in your scope of vision. This action, which is called photo-bleaching, causes the cells in your retina to go into overdrive. They get extremely excited by the stimulus, and it takes them a few seconds to calm down.
That’s why you can see black spots in your vision when looking at something with a standard light level after a flash exposure. It is a temporary loss of your “photopigment.”
Staring at the sun can cause permanent damage to your retina because you can burn a hole in your retina because of the heat that the cornea generates by focusing the light. Looking at the sun briefly does not cause the same effect, still, you shouldn’t do it.
That’s why it is time to put the idea that a camera flash causes permanent vision to rest – for good this time.