A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use
If your camera is hit by a laser beam
The following information has been provided by the International Laser Display Association (ILDA). It is primarily about camera sensor damage at concerts, but also applies to using laser pointers “around the house” and aiming them into a camera.
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 televised concerts, laser show producers work with clients to avoid TV camera locations and video projectors (ILDA Members, see this page for details; login required). However, it is not possible for laser show producers to be responsible for all cameras, smartphones and camcorders which might be used at a show.
Tips for audience members with cameras when lasers are in use
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 CMOS or CCD sensors are 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.
- 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. The image below shows numerous laser-caused spots on an HP Photosmart 945, a 5-megapixel camera. Click on the image to see the full-size (100%) 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 Concert lasers destroy RED EPIC image sensor.
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. Also, this YouTube video shows a standard camera flash (speedlight) causing severe damage to a CCD sensor in an instant.
More information on sensor damage
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.
A July 2014 Master’s thesis by Sacha Casken goes into detail about the effect of lasers on common point-and-shoot camera sensors. This appears to be the first published laboratory test of lasers on consumer-type sensors. A summary, reprinted by permission of Cranfield University, is available 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. The authors looked at both pulsed lasers and continuous wave lasers. Since CW lasers are more common for consumer uses such as pointers, handhelds, and light show projectors, we are presenting only the CW laser beam results.
This graph shows that damage to a color CMOS sensor starts at around 40,000 to 60,000 watts per square centimeter for an exposure of 0.25 seconds:
However, a color CCD sensor is much more vulnerable. Damage begins to occur at around 16 W/cm2 for 0.25 and 0.1 second exposures (black and red lines) and at 9 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.
To give an idea of how this works in practice, 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.
A camera system will include a lens that, like the eye’s lens, will focus the laser light. For the CMOS sensor, the 5 mW laser pointer’s lens-focused irradiance of 440 W/cm2 would be about 100 times less than the power that could cause damage (40,000 W/cm2). However, for the CCD sensor, the damage would start at just 16 W/cm2. So clearly a 5 mW laser pointer focused by a lens to 440 W/cm2 could cause damage to the CCD sensor.
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 ILDA Members
ILDA Members can get more specific information on avoiding camera and video projector damage, on this page (login required).
In September 2014, a leaked copy of Apple’s guide to iPhone damage, furnished to its authorized repair centers, listed “Damage due to laser contact with camera” as an Out-of-Warranty Service item. See this LaserPointerSafety.com news story for more information.