Whether you consider yourself an avid herp keeper, a wildlife photographer, or a little both you may be concerned about the impact of flash photography on our reptile and amphibian friends.
So does flash photography hurt reptiles or amphibians?
There’s no scientific evidence that flash photography causes damage to the eyes of reptiles and amphibians. Additionally, there’s nothing about the specific anatomy of the reptile or amphibian eye to suggest that flash could be damaging, and real-world scientific studies have found no harm from flash.
Still, some herps may not like the bright flash so if your individual reptile or amphibian reacts negatively then it’s best to skip the flash photography.
After all, who likes having a bright light flash in their eye? But most herp keepers will find that their snakes, lizards, frogs, and other critters don’t even move when the flash goes off.
That’s the quick answer but we’re going to dive a little deeper into everything you need to know about reptiles, amphibians, and flash photography.
Why Does Flash Bother Our Eyes?
If you’re wondering about the eyes of reptiles and amphibians, then you’ve probably had your own experience with a powerful flash that left you blinking, possibly seeing a few spots and probably a little annoyed.
But you also recovered after a few minutes or even a few seconds.
This is called “flash blindness” and it occurs when the photoreceptors in your retina get too much light. Within the eye, these photoreceptors are broken down into two categories: rods and cones.
Rods are responsible for vision in low light while cones are more active in high light settings. It appears that both react to a flash from a camera and I haven’t found evidence to suggest that having more or fewer rods could impact a reaction to a flash.
How Are Reptile and Amphibian Eyes Different?
The reptile eye and the amphibian eye contain a retina with photoreceptors that take in light. When it comes to rods and cones, the reptile and the amphibian world are very diverse with some species having only rods, only cones, and many having both.
Snakes and geckos have a mix of rods and cones and many nocturnal reptiles have more cones which make sense considering their lifestyle.
Overall, the reptile and the amphibian eye aren’t so different from our own, at least in some cases. All types of eyes can be sensitive to things like bright lights, UVA rays from black lights, and similar stimulation.
Can Reptiles and Amphibians Experience “Flash Blindness”?
So while it would be very difficult to test, it stands to reason that our herp friends could also experience “flash blindness” that lasts for a few seconds.
However, “flash blindness” is most likely to occur when you’re staring directly at the source of the light. For humans, that’s just part of taking photos and we’re trained from an early age to look directly at the camera.
But our herp subjects probably aren’t staring directly at the camera- even if they’re looking at us their gaze isn’t directly on the source of the flash.
It’s also possible that reptiles simply aren’t reacting to the flash even if they do start seeing spots.
Is It Possible For Flash To Damage Reptile or Amphibian Eyes?
So is it possible for a flash to be so powerful that it doesn’t just cause some fuzzy spots but instead causes real damage?
According to the experts, there are only two ways for this to happen:
First, the flash would have to be so powerful that it increases the temperature of the eye enough to burn it. Even when dealing with the much smaller eyes of your reptile or amphibian, that’s not likely to happen with any at-home camera or even professional equipment.
Second, a light would have to be so powerful that it breaks down molecules. For this to happen, a light would have to be focused and sustained- in other words, not a flash at all.
These scenarios occur when you stare at the sun or welder’s torch but not when your leopard gecko gets his photo taken. Not only is a flash not focused (but instead dispersed) but it’s also only active for a fraction of a second which means the chance of causing damage is very low.
What Does Scientific Research Say About Flash Photography Safety For Herps?
Believe it or not, there have been studies that evaluated the impact of flash photography on reptiles!
More specifically, the lovely and smart little West Indian Anole (Anolis cristatellus) was studied to determine if flash photography from ecotourists was as harmless as it was assumed.
Interestingly, the study found that the anole did show a response…to the sound of the shutter! The anoles reacted the same way that they would if they were faced with a predator.
But what they didn’t react to was the visual impact of the flash and anoles seemed to completely ignore the flash from the camera.
As you might expect, there aren’t a massive amount of studies related to flash photography and herps so we’re left with only the study of anoles. However, combined with a basic understanding of anatomy and accounts from thousands of reptiles keepers it seems that the vast majority of reptiles and amphibians aren’t bothered by flash.
Mammals have been studied extensively and research regarding camera traps found that foxes didn’t react at all to either the camera or its flash.
Flash was also found to be harmless in studies of benthic fish, seahorses, and a variety of other species.
In my research, I wasn’t able to find a study that found flash photography to be damaging for any species- reptile, amphibian, or otherwise.
Some Reptiles and Amphibians May Be Sensitive
Just because the flash isn’t damaging your herp’s eyes doesn’t mean that some reptiles and amphibians won’t be sensitive to it or startled by the sudden flash.
If you’re a wildlife photographer, there is plenty of evidence that suggests you won’t be harming your subjects by using a flash.
But if you’re someone who keeps reptiles and amphibians, then make sure to pay attention to how your individual critter reacts to flash photography.
Some reptiles and amphibians may run away or hide in response to the flash. For those individuals, don’t push it and skip the flash. Even if it isn’t damaging their eyes, if it’s causing them stress then the flash just isn’t worth it.
However, most reptiles and amphibians don’t seem to react all to the flash which means you’re ready to take the perfect photo!
Frequently Asked Questions
We’ve covered the big picture (pun intended) questions but let’s get into the nitty-gritty with some frequently asked questions.
Are flashing lights bad for reptiles?
While a single flash from a camera hasn’t been shown to cause any harm, steady flashing lights are a different story. These could be disorienting for reptiles and are best to be avoided. If you’re throwing a party and breaking out the strobe light, put your reptiles in another room!
Are camera flashes bad for snakes?
While there hasn’t been a specific study done on snakes, there’s nothing about the anatomy of a snake’s eye to suggest that a camera flash could be harmful. Some snakes may not like the sudden flash of light but most don’t seem to care at all.
Are snakes scared of flash?
Some snakes could be started by the sudden flash of a camera but most won’t react at all. If your snake is stressed out or scared by the flash, take your photoshoot to areas where flash isn’t required. But after the first flash, most snakes are smart enough to figure out that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Does flash hurt leopard geckos?
Flash photography won’t hurt a leopard gecko’s eyes though it could startle some. However, most leopard geckos won’t mind the flash at all and it would be almost impossible for the flash to cause any damage.
Does flash hurt lizards?
Just as with other reptiles, there’s nothing particular about the anatomy of the lizard eye that would make flash harmful. Additionally, field research on the West Indian Anole found that the flash was harmless and that the little lizards didn’t even react the flash.
Does flash hurt frogs?
There’s no evidence to suggest that flash photography is harmful to frogs, even when done in dark conditions. Some frogs may be startled by the sudden light but most won’t even react and there’s nothing to suggest that any lasting harm will occur.
Does flash hurt bearded dragons?
As with other lizards, there’s nothing to suggest that bearded dragons can be harmed from flash photography. Some beardies may not like the sudden flash but the majority of them won’t react to the flash at all.
Most experienced herpetoculture enthusiasts won’t be surprised to hear that flash photography isn’t harmful to reptiles or amphibians.
I’ve photographed hundreds of reptiles over the years and I’ve only had a handful even respond to the light.
Still, that doesn’t mean that damage isn’t being done but studies on both reptiles and other animals along with some basic anatomy suggests that there’s no long term from flash photography.
At least no physical harm and if your reptile or amphibian is frightened by the flash then it’s best to stop taking photos or go somewhere with better lighting.
What do you think? Are you excited to start taking photos of your little herp friends?