Does Flash (or Strobe Lighting) Hurt the Animals?

A recent blog of mine was about photographing seahorses and, despite the reference to the research work of Dr. David Harasti in that blog, I received a protest from one reader that a photographer's flash will stress and kill them. All wild animals are paranoid. They are continually stressed. You only have to watch a bird or a squirrel feeding in your garden to be aware of this. Constantly facing the possibility of attack by a predator, wild animals are always alert and ready for flight. Flight or fight – but fighting usually happens only between males of the same species competing for territory, or is the last desperate attempt of an animal, attacked by a predator, to save itself. Man has conditioned domesticated animals to some of the excesses of his activities, but they still have an underlying paranoia too. A horse might rear, a cat might scram, a pet parrot might fly up into the rafters. When I was an advertising photographer, I photographed animals, from dogs, cats and horses to chickens, chameleons, toucans and chimpanzees. All needed time to become accustomed to the new surroundings of the studio or special location in which they found themselves, but once this had been achieved, the huge output of light from the amount of flash commonly used in a studio in those days seemed to be ignored. Thanks to the technology available at the time, we needed to use around a thousand times more flash output than is produced by a typical underwater flashgun or strobe. I present a long-running poster campaign for Whiskas cat food as my first item of material evidence, and the relaxed cats portrayed as my first witnesses.

Whiskas cats look relaxed despite a vast amount of flashlight used to photograph them. Whiskas cats look relaxed despite a vast amount of flashlight used to photograph them.

Animals with quick responses see the flash as a slow pulse of light. Most animals have quicker responses than we do. For example, a saltwater crocodile has a reaction time 60 times quicker than ours. It may be disturbed by you, but it certainly isn’t startled!

Saltwater crocodiles have fast reaction times. Saltwater crocodiles have fast reaction times.

Approaching a wild animal under water, we are both intruder and possible predator. However, in the marine world we are so far removed from what animals are expecting that they usually tend to ignore us unless we get too close. We are simply big, dark shapes vibrating with noise as we breathe. My experiments with bubble-free closed-circuit equipment tell me that it is our noise and our movement of which animals are wary. We are not invisible, but keeping as still as a rock and making no sound will give you the best chance of a skittish scalloped hammerhead shark coming close. So what happens when we take photographs? First of all, to be closely approached by a huge dark shape will alarm any smaller creature.

Batfish do not retreat despite repeated flashlight exposures. Batfish art Puerta Galera do not retreat despite repeated flashlight exposures.

There seems to be a rule under water that size matters. Small animals are eaten by larger ones. It’s a war zone down there. Everything is eating everything else, or at least trying to. A big dark animal is a threat. A well-known marine wildlife photographer based in the USA is famous for his yellow wetsuits. They may look garish on the aft deck of the boat, but he believes that they are less disturbing for the animals he photographs. Each animal has a strategy for survival so your very presence will be alarming, and it will take time for an animal to forget about your sudden arrival. The seahorse will turn its back, and the turtle may swim off in a hurry. Luckily for us, most marine animals have a short attention span, so if you stay still long enough, they will eventually ignore you. Of course a large number of these dark shapes, all moving in different ways, will be exponentially more alarming. Large numbers of divers crowding round a single hairy frogfish must be very frightening for it. It frightens me! What happens when you approach closely with a camera? The big eye of the camera looks down at the creature. All animals are tuned to know when they are being looked at, which is why hunters wear masks. It is disturbing for them to be watched, but if they are not equipped for a high-speed escape, like, for example, a jack, they stay put and soon get used to the fact that they haven’t been eaten. The camera is fired and two things happen. It makes a noise, and there is a pulse of light from the flash.  (To put things in context, the pulse of light from a typical underwater flash is probably equal to one-thousandth the amount of light that I used to photograph those cats for Whiskas – 20 joules of light as opposed to 20,000j.) As my next witness, may I introduce the octopus. The octopus is an intelligent mollusc and it has a variety of strategies for use when threatened by a possible predator, including camouflage, diversion by way of an ink cloud, and finally flight, using the jet-propulsion of its siphon. The octopus also has a complex eye, which I suspect allows it to see well what happens when the camera is fired. I use a big camera, and at the moment the eye of the lens opens and shuts, there is a loud clatter as the mirror mechanism works, and the flash emits a pulse of light. Under these circumstances the octopus usually appears to flinch, clearly indicating that it is disturbed. But what is actually disturbing it? My experiments lead me to believe that the octopus reacts firstly to the close approach of a large dark object – my body – and secondly to the vibration of the camera mechanism operating.  However, after a few of these moments the animal either settles down and decides that there is no threat, or it will attempt to flee.

These mating octopus were not disturbed by the camera's flash light. These mating octopus were not disturbed by the camera's flash light.

I have spent more than 45 minutes with two octopuses that were courting, and my noisy camera, dark body and light-emitting flashgun had no obviously detrimental effect on the course of events. I was able to take hundreds of close-focus wide-angle pictures of the whole procedure, from beginning to end.

A green turtle is undisturbed in its daytime roost although it sleeps with its eyes open. A green turtle is undisturbed in its daytime roost although it sleeps with its eyes open.

Similarly I have spent long periods with turtles that have simply got used to my presence and allowed me to take multiple flash exposures from very close indeed. It may be different if you have a constant light source shining in their eyes, as when shooting video. If an animal decides it is not under threat of predation, it will simply tolerate you. Of course, an animal that is nocturnal will not enjoy being lit up by a bright light. Fitting a red filter over the aiming light of a flashgun when photographing animals at night appears to mitigate this problem. Some continuous light sources come with a red light function too. The pulse of light from a flash is either too slow to disturb those animals with very quick responses or, I suspect, with lower life-forms too quick to evoke any response at all. It’s annoying that when you line up a camera on a macro subject such as a pygmy seahorse, or any seahorse for that matter, it tends to turn away shyly. This is because predators detect the presence of prey often by the existence of its eye. Many coral-browsers have developed a defence strategy of displaying a false eye on a less vulnerable part of their body.  The eyes of the seahorse must be kept hidden when the animal feels threatened – but don’t think it only does this to photographers!

The sea snake approaches the camera relentlessly despite having its photograph taken The sea snake approaches the camera relentlessly despite having its photograph taken.

So do we stress the animals? The immediate answer is, yes. Just as the marauding jack stresses the anthias, fish stress the browsing octopus and the whitetip reef shark stresses the little fish hiding among the rocks at night, so all divers stress the animals by our sudden arrival. Slow movements and plenty of patience go a long way to getting good pictures. Fish are not frightened by big rocks, and I have noticed that a still group of divers huddled together in an area of sandy seabed, testing regulators for example, can actually attract some sedentary predators such as frogfish, which see the black shape as a useful dark place to hide. Does the camera’s flash disturb animals? I have serious doubts. As my last material evidence, I’d like to present my picture library, with hundreds of sequences of pictures of animals that did not take the option to retreat in a hurry.

A collection of cats undisturbed by 20,000joules of flashlight. A collection of cats undisturbed by 20,000joules of flashlight.
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