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I just got a new off-camera flash, and the instruction manual says:

Never fire the flash unit closer than 1 meter from infants.

This was a little startling to me, since one of the main reasons I bought the flash was to take photos of my newborn son.

On the other hand, knowledgeable sources on the internet seem to say otherwise:

http://www.medhelp.org/posts/Eye-Care/infant-flash-photo/show/432284

Q: What long/short term risks are there to using camera flash in photographing a 2-month old?

A: None, shoot away. -- John C Hagan III, MD, FACS, FAAO

http://carefirst.staywellsolutionsonline.com/Library/AsktheExpert/Children/72,ATD011008

Q: Can a camera flash harm an infant's eyes?

A: No, it cannot. Actually infants have more protection from a flash than adults since they are usually not interested in being photographed and do not look right at the camera. Also, they typically have smaller pupils. This means less light reaches the retinas. -- Don Bienfang, M.D.

http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH?d=dmtATD&c=367698&p=

Q: Can a camera flash harm an infant's vision?

A: The flash of a camera, even if used to take many, many pictures of your newest family member, should not harm an infant's vision. Although the flash seems very bright, it actually isn't much different from normal daylight. -- Leann M. Lesperance, M.D., Ph.D.

So what's going on here? Are the makers of the flash just avoiding a lawsuit? Is this a myth? Or are the doctors just thinking about little on-camera flashes and neglecting to think about more powerful flashes?

(And if it's NOT a myth, can I assume that bounce flash is acceptable?)

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Only if they swallow it... –  ysap Oct 15 '11 at 20:09
    
@ysap -- The way my baby cries, it wouldn't surprise me if his was the first case in America where a baby swallowed a camera flash. Nikon had better prep their legal team. –  anon Oct 16 '11 at 1:54
    
If the battery compartment is easy to open, swallowing the batteries might be something to worry about. –  Imre Oct 21 '11 at 22:37
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@Imre - ... Maybe I should change the title to "Is the light from a camera flash actually harmful to infants or newborns?" =) –  anon Oct 21 '11 at 22:50
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@James, I assume you're alluding to the McDonald's case. This was in fact not a frivolous lawsuit, despite its reputation as the "classic" example of such. One link (there are many): lectlaw.com/files/cur78.htm –  Reid Oct 19 '13 at 20:45

10 Answers 10

up vote 28 down vote accepted

I think you've answered the question yourself pretty well, with citations and everything. There's little real risk, and the flash manufacturers are erring on the side of caution in order to protect themselves from litigation. To add to the background, here's a quote from the website of a neonatal intensive care unit — if there'd be a case where it might matter, presumably at-risk newborns would be the most vulnerable. But they say:

We encourage you to take pictures of your baby. Flash cameras are allowed and will not harm your baby.

For further citation, see this other Q&A site, where ophthalmologist Dr. Richard Bensinger (a graduate of the highly-regarded Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine) says:

In brief: No effect; the light from a flash is too unfocused and of low intensity that it cannot damage a baby's eyes.

The question has other doctors saying the same thing, as well.

Note that neither of these statements are couched in wishy-washy covering-all-bases language, but instead say unequivocally "no effect" and "will not harm your baby".

That said, I don't think being flashed right in the eyes with a bright flash is very nice, especially from up close. And I'm not even a baby. Bounce flash is the way to go for this and for a number of other reasons as well — it's an easy way to provide nicer-looking light and more natural shadows.

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Bounce flash is definitely the way to go: in fact, that's why you bought a 'proper flash'. As for flash in the eyes, I've heard several cases of retinal cancer being caught early because of an abnormal reflection (white rather than red) in a child's eye in a photograph. –  ElendilTheTall Oct 15 '11 at 16:44
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I'd think that the real danger is psychological rather than ophthalmalogical -- a large, dark after-image in someone too young to associate cause and effect might be distressing. (Remember flash bulbs and the big purple tear in the universe they'd leave you with for a quarter-hour?) If the baby has no problem with flash, then you probably shouldn't either. –  user2719 Oct 15 '11 at 18:15
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Yes, definitely bounce it if you can! –  ysap Oct 15 '11 at 20:10
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After taking some test shots of myself, I realize now that the flash is WAY bright. I agree -- it's not nice at all. For shots of my son, I'm pretty sure I will only use flash that is both bounced AND diffused. –  anon Oct 16 '11 at 19:36

I would never use my flash on full power less than 1 metre from my face, for the simple fact that it's so frikkin bright. The issue isn't that it's only as bright as daylight, but that it can be miles brighter than the surrounding light, so your eyes will not be accustomed (the aperture will be fully open) and the light will be far more than your eyes can handle (you'll get a huge spot in your eyes 'blinding' you for a while from the overexposure).

I doubt using a flash normally would be dangerous to infants, but using one so close to their face would be no more clever than giving them a torch to look into. Just use common sense and they will be fine.

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I dunno. I've done plenty of welding with my acetylene torch right in front of my son's face, and he seems to be... Oh. You mean THAT kind of torch. Never mind. –  anon Oct 16 '11 at 1:56

There is a very real danger of producing a very low quality photograph of your baby while disturbing them at the same time if you use a flash from less than 1m away.

Bounce the flash off a white ceiling or a large reflector to avoid the danger of having to shake your head every time you look at these pictures 10 years from now.

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In article "Flash Photography and the Visual System of Birds and Animals", Dennis Olivero, DVM, and Donald Cohen, ophthalmology MD, speak of studies performed on humans and animals where it has been found that to cause permanent damage, bright light has to be focused (quite likely for an on-camera flash when subject is looking at camera) for extended period of time (which a photographic flash is luckily not capable of). A fill flash should cause no effect and flash as main light might cause discomfort by temporary vision impairment, but no permanent damage.

Unfortunately, no references to the studies accompany the article.

Tim Solley, portrait photographer, has researched the topic and also came to conclusion that flashes are safe for babies. Again, only hints to scientific studies.

However, eye damage is not the only possible effect. Bright light might activate symptoms of chronic diseases. Epilepsy is the classic example; a photosensitive epileptic has attested to triggering effect on the disease of even single flash, more so with red-eye reduction or repetitive flash. There are other diseases that come with photophobia, such as migraine (a person close to me can attest to that).

While these health conditions are rare, they do exist. Watch your subject and stop using flash if you see signs of discomfort.

Bouncing (or some other way of softening) the flash is a good idea from light quality standpoint, and reduces any effect on comfort and health when the subject is looking at you instead of the bright surface.

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As your question covers in great detail, medically there is very little risk of any damage to an infant's vision. Whether it has any affect on the way you and your child bond, on the other hand...

From a photographic standpoint, why would you want to fire a bare flash at full power less than one meter away from your subject? Maybe if you are doing macro work, but that is an entirely different kind of flash or one heavily modified to soften the light.

They're all older now, but back in the dark ages of film I photographed most of my nieces and nephews when each were only a few days old. Without exception the ones that I still see framed when I visit my siblings are the ones I took from almost directly overhead them when they were sleeping and illuminated with nothing but diffused natural light from a window with a shear on it. I can't handhold at 1/10-1/5 sec like I could in my younger days now, but I have learned how to use a tripod and cable release. That's not to say you shouldn't try to use flash also, but bouncing it off a white ceiling or passing it through a modifier to soften it will likely give you more of the type of results you are looking for.

If you are interested in learning how to get the most from your new flash, hop over to Strobist and work through his lighting 101 series. That is the best free on-line course on any photographic subject I've come across.

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If you look into the general field of safety and new borns, you will see that there have been zero scientifically rigorous studies of anything. No one will risk doing "actual harm" to an infant. Instead, we have a consensus of very conservative positions.

The good news is that parents and grandparents are more than happy to carry the infant around, and you can talk them into going to windows where you can get natural light.

My daughter, who is an enthusiastic photographer herself, would not let me use flash on her child until the kid was about 6 weeks old. And then, it was all indirectly bounced off the ceiling.

The good news is that all kids look great in natural light, or in light bounced off the ceiling.

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I have been photographing my children since birth including a few minutes after birth. I have done my best to do it with bounce or off camera flash. there was only once where i used a studio kit with soft boxes to do a family shot.

I Found that if its somewhat bright for me, its too bright for them.

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Honestly i think that it doesnt hurt a newborn because i have alittle brother and he is 6 now and his eyes are perfectly fine he is has glasses but for far away and i have been taking camera flash photoes since he was a baby close up so honestly my opinion is that it doesnt harm newborns eyes.

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Interesting subject. Not only for me but it has many views on this forum; I'll add my 2 cents.

There is a chance of damage.

I am not an expert. And reading the answers on this posts, and the references quoted and linked, it seems that there is no real expert on the particular subject out there. (I'll explain the statement "no real expert")

Some links come on a discussion forum. Yes answered by ophthalmologists, but using the words:

  • "Not likely"

  • "is quite unlikely"

and

  • "the light from a flash is too unfocused and of low intensity" Which is circumstantial, becouse it can be very focused and inclusive for that fraction of a second can overpower Sun's light.

There is no real expert becouse no one will conduct a methodic experiment firing flashes to infants.

Flash blindness is a well known effect in military aplications. This article says that some sources say it can be temporal or permanent (the original link to the defense department is broken): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_blindness but also says

"temporary flash blindness" when discussing everyday flash photography emphasizes that the condition will disappear without ill effect.

So there is a condition. The point is that if it is permanent damage or not.

To make a methodical study it should be one that includes specific waveleinght's, duration, intensity, specific damage (burn on specific parts of the cell, or chemical unbalance of the receptors), duration of this effects, celular regeneration of the afected area, pupil's aperture on the moment of the exposure, etc. I do not know such a study.

Common mistake is that only UV light can hurt tissues. But a burn is not made only by UV light, but can be also becouse visible light and infrared light (among others). A light of the sun focused by a magnifier. The cristalline is a focus lens. Much smaller aperture than a magnifier but is one.

Can an empirical statistic study be this one?

"we would by now have an epidemic of damaged eyes"

I don't think so. But it helps.

If it is not a 100.000000% sure, there is a chance eyes (not only babies) hurted in some conditions, negligent conditions if you like.

So... Do take precautions

You do not want to be the exception to the statistics.

So take your precautions as everyone has mentioned. This also aplies to portrait photography.

  • Bounce the light.

  • Use a slight higher iso, like Iso 200.

  • Do not use f/32... Use a wider aperture, f/1x-f/8 perhaphs?

  • Turn on some abmient light too to help the pulil reduce its aperture a bit. If you are using a softbox on a studio flash turn the model light on.

Some aditional notes

This does not only applies to babies but to portrait photography. You do not want your model or client to feel too unconfortable with this temporary flash blindness. Talk to them and do not make your studio dark.

The flash easily overpowers the ambient light of a studio, so including the case of low key photography you do not need to be in darkness.

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Do you have any evidence that supports your conjecture that exposure to light from a photographic flash poses a risk? The only references I see to permanent flash blindness involve either lasers or nuclear weapons. –  Caleb 41 mins ago
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The point, though, is that this is an extraordinary claim. It's akin to me telling you that you shouldn't take pictures of babies because the sound of the shutter will hurt their sensitive little ears. I suppose maybe it could if you amplified it and put it right next to their head; likewise, if you put a focused lens over the baby's eye and flashed right into it, probably not a good idea. But in actual practice, there just isn't enough energy involved for damage. Even with "but think of the babies!" involved, the burden of proof is on your side here. –  mattdm 30 mins ago
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That's very silly. No one is suggesting doing that. –  mattdm 12 mins ago
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Nonetheless, you are disregarding the... actual quotes. –  mattdm 7 mins ago
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Look, the fundamental problem here is that proving a negative to 100% certainty is impossible. However, this one seems settled to all sane standards. On the other hand, proving the opposite would in theory be easy: find a case where it happened — with actual specific circumstances, names, and a medical report, not some story about it happened to some unnamed people in an unspecific location sometime. –  mattdm 5 mins ago

Gosh, the Daily Mail just posted an article blaming an infant's blindness on a camera flash. They quote unnamed "experts":

"The strong flash has damaged cells on the macula, which is the part of the eye where incoming light rays are focused. Damage to the macula can lead to the loss of central vision, which allows people to see straight ahead. The macula is not fully developed until children are four, meaning youngsters are very sensitive to strong light. Experts have said that while babies will shut their eyes when exposed to light on reflex, just milliseconds of strong light can cause permanent damage." --http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/peoplesdaily/article-3176237/Three-month-old-baby-left-BLIND-one-eye-family-friend-forgot-turn-flash-mobile-taking-photograph.html

I find it bizarre that one would be more obsessed with one's photography than with the health of one's children. Dismissing reasonable prudence doesn't make sense to me. Like it or not, the developing eye is extraordinarily sensitive to light, to the extent that premature infants suffer a condition from it called ROP--retinopathy of prematurity. Exactly when and to what extent the over-sensitivity of the eye to light abates is a matter of debate, but simple logic would dictate that infant eyes are not miraculously developed with the same capabilities as those of an adult:

"The progressive yellowing of the human lens with age provides some protection to adolescents and adults but not to babies. Babies are still aphake, that is their lens does not block the incoming light even deep in the still more damaging wavelengths below 435 nm where fluorescent lamps emit several additional concentrated energy spikes.

Furthermore, the clinical literature documents abundantly that cells still in their development stages are many times more susceptible to damage from radiation than cells already grown into stable structures, and that preemies lack a number of other adult protections." --H. Peter Aleff, Baby-blinding retinopathy of prematurity and intensive care nursery lighting, Iatrogenics, Volume 1, Issue 2, April-June 1991: 2: 68-85.

If you blind your child, it won't matter how good your photography was, now would it, since your child will never be able to appreciate it. Some would argue that Billybob down the street took pictures of his infant with a flash and that infant seems okay, therefore it is safe for everyone. Duh. Aside from the obvious fact that there is not actual measurement to determine whether any damage has occurred, only anecdotal "belief" that it hasn't, it might occur to some of us that individuals do vary physiologically, and that some are more likely than others to be sensitive.

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I'm extremely skeptical of this report. Following the links through Google translate, it appears to come from the society pages of a newspaper or web site. It seems to be a random anecdote blown up large into a scare, in other words. The comparison to intensive-care nursery lighting is not relevant, as flash bursts — especially from a cell phone as in this claim! — simply do not have that much energy. This isn't "reasonable prudence" — it's overreaction and fearmongering. And the counterevidence isn't "Billybob down the street"; see other answers for references from credentialed doctors. –  mattdm 23 hours ago
    
I actually voted up this question for one reason. There is a chance. In the other answers there is not 100% certainty, one doctor is using the words "not likely". Another one makes a statement "too unfocused and low intensity" which is circumstantial. Light can be very focused and more intense than sunlight. If there is a 0.00001 or less there is a chance. I'll post my answer further. –  Rafael 2 hours ago
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Well, there are also chances of an a bolt falling from an airplane and landing on your head, an asteroid coming from nowhere and destroying us all, or all the air molecules in the room happening to bounce to one side leaving a vacuum. There's probably a chance of your flash exploding and burning your house down. Compare this to, say, the very real chance of a baby dying in a car crash every time you drive somewhere. –  mattdm 2 hours ago
    
Yeap. The point is there is that chance. And yes. Buckle up when you get in the car. A lot of car accidents occur near home: esurance.com/info/car/where-car-accidents-happen-most –  Rafael 28 mins ago
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From Snopes: "The Daily Mail pointed to the unreliable People’s Daily Online as the source of this information, who in turn sourced their story from Guangming Daily, who sourced their reporting from QQ.com, who cited DAHE.com, who got their information from Henan TV. At no point in this game of misinformation telephone did any of these sources provide specific details about the story, such as where the incident occurred, the names of the parents, the identities of the “experts” quoted, or the name of the hospital where the baby was treated." –  mattdm 28 mins ago

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