It's a bird

by Vian Esterhuizen

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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:

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,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.

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
@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
@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): –  Reid Oct 19 '13 at 20:45

8 Answers 8

up vote 26 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.

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
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
Yes, definitely bounce it if you can! –  ysap Oct 15 '11 at 20:10
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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