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Laser effects on cameras and camcorders


 
Lasers emit concentrated beams of light, which can heat up sensitive surfaces (like the eye's retina) and cause damage. Camera sensors are, in general, more susceptible to damage than the human eye.

For large scale shows, such as on a televised concert, laser show producers work with clients to avoid TV camera locations and video projectors (ILDA Members, see this page for details). However, it is not possible for laser show producers to be responsible for all cameras and camcorders which might be at a show.

Therefore, if you attend a show as an audience member, you should take reasonable precautions not to let a laser beam DIRECTLY enter your camera lens.

  • You can photograph the beams in midair, or doing graphics on a screen. If you can't see the laser source (projector output aperture or bounce mirror) in your viewfinder, this means you're not getting the full beam power into your lens. Indirect viewing like this should not cause damage.

  • Avoid beams which are coming straight into your lens (or bounced off a mirror or other reflective surface and then into your lens). The damage potential is much greater when the entire beam power enters the camera lens.

Eye safety is first

The primary safety concern for laserists is that the show is eye-safe. A good working definition of "eye-safe" is that everyone leaves the show with the same vision they entered -- there is no detrimental change to a person's vision. International safety standards  such as IEC 60825 and ANSI Z136 set "Maximum Permissible Exposure" levels for laser light. Shows done at or below the MPE should cause no problem for human eyes. Even shows which exceed the MPE have remarkably safe records (eight documented or claimed eye injuries out of 109,000,000 persons viewing continuous-wave laser shows over 30 years).

However, there are no MPEs for sensors such as CMOS or CCD chips. This means a show may be perfectly safe for eyes, but could possibly damage a camera sensor. One reason is that camera lenses may gather more laser light, and concentrate it to a finer point. Another reason is that a CMOS or CCD sensor may be more easily damaged than the eye.

Due to the many varying factors involved with lenses and sensors, laser show producers cannot be responsible for audience-member damage to cameras or camcorders.

Type of damage

The degree of damage can vary widely.

  • We have seen cases of minor damage, such as small areas of a few pixels which no longer work. The pixels are not noticeable unless in an area of uniform color such as a blue sky.

  • Click to see full-size (100%) crop from original photoIn more extreme cases, there may be larger or more extensive dead-pixel areas. Or there may be "burn in" of a laser image. The damage is readily noticeable in most photos or videos. In this case, the camera is ruined for quality use.
        The image at right shows numerous laser-caused spots on an HP Photosmart 945, a 5-megapixel camera. Click on the image to see a full-size (100%) crop from the original photograph. (Photo courtesy Aljaž Ogrin.)

  • Damage to one spot may result in a horizontal or vertical line. In this case, data from the entire row or column of sensors can no longer be read out properly.

Search YouTube and other internet sources for videos and pictures of laser-caused damage. See for example Laser light kills Canon 5D Mark II, or Lasers killed my CMOS.

Note that not all claims of laser damage are valid. In March 2009, we reviewed a case where it was claimed that a Fuji F60fd 12-megapixel point-and-shoot camera was severely damaged by a laser. ILDA analyzed video from the camera, and determined the probable cause to be a very bright white light. This YouTube video shows a standard camera flash (speedlight) causing severe damage to a CCD sensor in an instant.

More information on laser eye safety

ILDA has presented information about audience-scanning laser shows in the scientific paper "Scanning Audiences at Laser Shows: Theory, Practice and a Proposal". This gives some reasons why even shows which are well above the MPE have not caused any apparent eye changes in millions of audience members. Some of the reasons may also be relevant to why some camera sensors are damaged while many others are not.

More information for Members

ILDA Members can get more specific information on avoiding camera and video projector damage, on this page (password required). There is a discussion as well, on the ILDA Forums beginning at http://www.laserist.org/forums/showthread.php?t=156 (or search for the three words DLP, projector and damage).

More information on protecting cameras (for producers)

A producer asked ILDA if there were any filters available that fit camera lenses, to help protect them from laser light. Below is ILDA's reply:

We are not aware of any such special lens filters made specifically for cameras, that will protect a sensor from laser damage.

There are filters for camera lenses which can reduce the total amount of light coming in. In other words, the filters darken the entire scene. Such Neutral Density or ND filters are widely available. Unfortunately, no one can say without testing how strong an ND filter is needed to stop a particular laser from causing damage to a particular sensor.

For example, ND2 will reduce the light to 50% (half) of its normal intensity. An ND8 filter will reduce it to 12.5% (1/8) of its normal intensity. An ND8 filter may help, but with a powerful laser and a long enough exposure, even ND8 may not be sufficient. (A direct laser beam can also damage or burn through a ND filter, since it absorbs light.)

It is possible to purchase glasses, goggles, and sheets of plastic or glass that can protect against laser light. The manufacturer would need to know what specific wavelengths of laser light are being used, and at what power, in order to provide adequate defense against the laser.

If the laser is green only, then the protective material would block green light of that wavelength. This will distort the colors seen by the camera -- green will be reduced. A very high quality filter can knock out only the exact laser wavelength, allowing some green to be seen, but such a narrow-band filter is more expensive.

If the laser is multi-colored, then the filter must block red, green and blue laser wavelengths. Obviously, this affects many more colors than just a green-only filter. It is even more expensive.

Finally, it still is necessary to know how much the laser light needs to be reduced (how much ND) in order to protect the sensor. Without testing the laser and the sensor (e.g., knowing how much laser light damages your sensor), this is just a guess.

My recommendation is to simply make sure that no direct laser beams go into the camera lens, or close to the camera lens (within an inch or two at closest). It is the direct laser beams that will cause sensor damage, although damage is also possible if the camera is looking at the laser "dot" or a laser drawing on a surface and the dot or drawing is very bright.

Keep in mind that accidents can happen. In one situation, 12 expensive (>$100,000) Barco projectors were on truss. The laser operator set the beams during rehearsal so they missed the Barco projectors. But during the show, the truss operator did not lift the projectors to the rehearsal height. All 12 Barco projectors were damaged, through no fault of the laser operator.

You may want to consider using less expensive cameras for shots where the beams are coming towards the camera. You may also want to discuss with the laser operator who will be responsible for sensor damage if it occurs. For example, if your cameras are at fixed heights on tripods, then the laser operator would be responsible for keeping the beams so they cannot enter the camera lens. But if the cameras are moving, then it becomes the camera operator's responsibility to not be in a known laser beam area.

 


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