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 onto your lens. The damage potential is much greater when the entire beam power enters the camera lens.
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.
SLR camera and binoculars warning
Photographers who use an SLR or DSLR camera should not look through the viewfinder directly towards the laser projector output.
The camera lens will gather much more light than the human eye. This is focused by the mirror in an SLR or DSLR camera into the viewfinder, thus increasing the amount of laser light. (This is not the case for any camera or camcorder where a person views the image on a screen.)
Similarly, persons should not use binoculars, a telescope or similar optical light-gathering devices to view audience scanning lasers.
The severity 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.
• In 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.
This photo shows numerous laser-caused spots on an HP Photosmart 945. Click for a larger view. (Photo courtesy Aljaž Ogrin.)
Damage to one location may result in a horizontal or vertical line. In such a 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.
In another case, this YouTube video shows a standard camera flash (speedlight) causing severe damage to a CCD sensor in an instant.
A webpage called “Analysis of Laser Light Threat to CCTV” gives a good general overview of what power ranges and usage patterns might damage camera sensors.
Sacha Casken's Masters thesis describes laboratory experiments on how consumer point-and-shoot cameras were damaged by blue, green, and red laser beams. An excerpt from his thesis is here.
A March 2017 article in the journal Optical Engineering looked at laser damage to CMOS and CCD sensors, and to digital micromirror devices (DMDs) used in video projectors. A summary is below (blue button) of the damage threshold to these sensors and devices.
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).
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. See the reply below.
Also below is brief information on a line of Epson video projectors that includes a mechanical shutter to protect the lens from laser damage.
The following was written in response to a video producer who wanted to know if there was a filter that could protect cameras from laser light.
However, a color CCD sensor is more vulnerable. Damage begins to occur at around 16,000 W/cm2 for 0.25 and 0.1 second exposures (black and red lines) and at around 9,000 W/cm2 for exposures of 5 and 10 seconds (blue and green lines):
Incidentally, the authors found that a digital micromirror device (DMD) commonly used in video projectors had a damage threshold of about 19,000 W/cm2.
For comparison, a 5 mW laser pointer at a 1 foot distance has an irradiance of 0.374 W/cm2. After magnification by the lens of the eye, the same laser’s irradiance on the retina is 440 W/cm2.
So, assuming a camera has a lens with similar magnification as the eye's lens, an irradiance of 440 W/cm2 is well below the damage threshold of 40,000 W/cm2 for a CMOS sensor or 16,000 W/cm2 for a CCD sensor. (This assumption may not hold since camera sensors have been known to be damaged by relatively low powered lasers aimed directly into the lens.)
Jan 14 2019: Corrected CMOS text description which was previously off by a factor of 1000. Thanks to Dominik Jančik for pointing this out.
More on the claim, and links to lidar information, is here.
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