does camera flash hurt birds eyes

Using flash when photographing animals is something of a controversial subject. It’s an advanced technique, bringing benefits for the photographer, such as the ability to capture unique photos at night, freeze high-speed action, and fill ugly shadows. Yet as soon as you mention flash and animals in the same sentence, you’re probably going to be met with lots of comments about it being ‘unethical’ or ‘harmful’.

But these comments are often speculation, born from a passion for wildlife rather than based on an actual understanding of an animal’s physiology. As both a photographer and zoologist, this makes me realise there is a definite lack of understanding. In this article, I am going to address the issue of flash photography with wildlife by looking at scientific research and observations made in the field, alongside comments from an expert in sensory ecology.

Flash Photography with Animals

Scientific studies on the effects of artificial light on animals are sadly lacking. Therefore, the answer to the query, “Does flash photography harm animals?,” is essentially pure conjecture. Consequently, no one really knows a definitive answer. Despite this, some truth can be inferred from our current understanding of the eye and the scattered research that is available.

When using flash on animals, photographers almost never use it at maximum intensity. With a flashgun, you can control the power output; in fact, most of the time, photographers will shoot between 1/8th and 1/64th power. When a flashgun fires at these lower powers compared to full power, there is a noticeable difference. When I flashed myself in the face at about 1/16th power, I noticed that my vision wasn’t blotchy and that it was tolerable even though it was dazzling up close.

Read more: A Guide to Using Flash with Wildlife

Dr Martin Stevens is an Associate Professor in Sensory and Evolutionary Ecology at the University of Exeter, England. When I asked his opinion on the matter he said, “different animals have different sensitivities to light, and this will depend on how bright the light source is and how adapted their eyes are to the current light conditions”. Clearly the effect that flash photography may have depends on the ambient light conditions too.

“Obviously, it varies by species, but nearly all nighttime birds have photoreceptors that are adapted to dark environments, making them extremely sensitive to bright lights and possibly momentarily blinded by sudden bright light sources,” Dr. Stevens. But it’s highly unlikely that an animal would die from the flash itself. This raises worries that flash could make it more difficult for nocturnal birds to hunt effectively.

It’s also important to remember that, unlike lasers, flashguns emit a diffused light beam rather than one that is highly focused. In actuality, strobe lighting is frequently used to test for retinal diseases. It is true that using a flash does not cause long-term eye damage.

Their large, round, forward-facing eyes, which are a common subject for wildlife photographers, contribute to their allure. However, owls’ nocturnal habits, which have been associated with black magic, also make them challenging to photograph. Some photographers use flash to get around this issue, but it’s debatable whether it’s morally right to flash an animal whose primary means of hunting is acute, night vision.

People have always been fascinated by owls. In early Indian folktales, the birds were endowed with wisdom and prophecy. In ancient Greece, they were revered as protectors, and during the Middle Ages, their “eerie” after-dark activities led to their association with witchcraft.

Photographer Mia McPherson discovered this a few years ago while utilizing flash with Florida’s barred owls. She discontinued the practice after observing that they frequently woke up or were startled, changing their behavior. “The subject is more important than the photo,” she says.

Although the precise impact of flash on owl vision remains uncertain, other photographic techniques, like luring owls and causing them to flee their roosts in an attempt to capture striking shots, have more observable negative consequences. These practices only serve to raise the overall stress levels of owls when paired with environmental problems like habitat loss. As a matter of fact, a large number of species were listed on the State of North America’s Birds 2016 Watch List due to their imminent extinction in the absence of coordinated efforts to mitigate various threats.

Some experts, like Denver Holt, the director of the Owl Research Institute in Montana, contend that these photos have more educational value than possible—that is, if they are used to raise public awareness and encourage conservation, for example, and the photographer collaborates with scientists who study and comprehend the specific species. In the evening, when his team bands owls, he permits a restricted amount of flash photography.

The Structure of the Retina

the effect of flash on animalsThe retina is a light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye, made up of photosensitive cells that convert light energy into signals that are carried to the brain via the optic nerve. There are two types of these photoreceptors: rods and cones. Rods are responsible for vision at low light levels, and cones are responsible for colour vision at high light levels. The ratio of rod to cone cells, and the actual structure of the eye, varies greatly between species.

Different pigments found in photoreceptors absorb light energy and enable it to be converted into electrical signals. However, excessive light exposure causes the pigments in these photoreceptors to bleach, necessitating recharging. This is what occurs when you stare at a bright light and discover that your vision is momentarily blurry. When considering the impact of flash photography, keep this in mind.


Is camera flash bad for birds?

7 Do not use a flash. If you do, it may startle the bird and cause injury.

Do flashlights hurt birds eyes?

But Loew thinks that repeated flashes at night might cause “flash blindness”: The photoreceptor cells might sustain temporary damage and would not “dark adapt” to the same level of sensitivity. This could lessen the bird’s visual acuity at night, and it could take longer to recover from being flashed.

Does camera flash hurt animals eyes?

Using most camera flashes and monolights on dogs are perfectly safe. In fact, flash light is much safer and substantially less powerful than even natural light. Flash may temporarily disorient a subject and cause spots to appear before their eyes. But it will not damage your eyes like staring into the Sun would.

What happens if you flash a bird?

If you studied the physiology of the flash-startled birds you may find a short-lived spike in heart rate and even a change in stress hormone levels in the blood. However, again I suspect that this does not cause any permanent damage in most situations.