New publication: Flash photography impacts on fish – To flash or not to flash?

The final paper of my PhD thesis has just been published online in the journal Scientific Reports. The paper, titled “Behavioural and pathomorphological impacts of flash photography on benthic fishes” explains the effects of typical diver behaviour while photographing small critters such as seahorses or frogfishes.

The paper itself can be a tad technical, so with the help of two co-authors (Dr. Ben Saunders and Tanika Shalders), I wrote this summary of the research, which was published first at The Conversation (original article here).


We all enjoy watching animals, whether they’re our own pets, birds in the garden, or elephants on a safari during our holidays. People take pictures during many of these wildlife encounters, but not all of these photographic episodes are harmless.

There is no shortage of stories where the quest for the perfect animal picture results in wildlife harassment. Just taking photos is believed to cause harm in some cases – flash photography is banned in many aquariums as a result.

But it’s not always clear how bright camera flashes affect eyes that are so different from our own. Our latest research, published in Nature Scientific Reports, shows that flash photography does not damage the eyes of seahorses, but touching seahorses and other fish can alter their behaviour.

Look but don’t touch

In the ocean it is often easier to get close to your subject than on land. Slow-moving species such as seahorses rely on camouflage rather than flight responses. This makes it very easy for divers to approach within touching distance of the animals.

Previous research has shown that many divers cannot resist touching animals to encourage them to move so as to get a better shot. Additionally, the high-powered strobes used by keen underwater photographers frequently raise questions about the welfare of the animal being photographed. Do they cause eye damage or even blindness?

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Does flash harm fishes? Photo: Luke Gordon

Aquariums all around the world have taken well-meaning precautionary action. Most of us will have seen the signs that prohibit the use of flash photography.

Similarly, a variety of guidelines and laws exist in the scuba-diving community. In the United Kingdom, flash photography is prohibited around seahorses. Dive centres around the world have guidelines that include prohibiting flash or limiting the number of flashes per fish.

While all these guidelines are well-intended, none are based on scientific research. Proof of any damage is lacking. Our research investigated the effects of flash photography on slow-moving fish using three different experiments.

What our research found

During the first experiment we tested how different fish react to the typical behaviour of scuba-diving photographers. The results showed very clearly that touching has a very strong effect on seahorses, frogfishes and ghost pipefishes. The fish moved much more, either by turning away from the diver, or by swimming away to escape the poorly behaving divers. Flash photography, on the other hand, had no more effect than the presence of a diver simply watching the fishes.

For slow-moving fishes, every extra movement they make means a huge expense of energy. In the wild, seahorses need to hunt almost non-stop due to their primitive digestive system, so frequent interruptions by divers could lead to chronic stress or malnutrition.

The goal of the second experiment was to test how seahorses react to flash without humans present. To do this we kept 36 West Australian seahorses (Hippocampus subelongatus) in the aquarium facility at Curtin University. During the experiment we fed the seahorses with artemia (“sea monkeys”) and tested for changes in their behaviour, including how successful seahorses were at catching their prey while being flashed with underwater camera strobes.

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The aquaria were the seahorses were housed during the experiment

An important caveat to this experiment: the underwater strobes we used were much stronger than the flashes of normal cameras or phones. The strobes were used at maximum strength, which is not usually done while photographing small animals at close range. So our results represent a worst-case scenario that is unlikely to happen in the real world.

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West Australian seahorses (Hippocampus subelongatus) in their aquarium at Curtin University

The conclusive, yet somewhat surprising, result of this experiment was that even the highest flash treatment did not affect the feeding success of the seahorses. “Unflashed” seahorses spent just as much time hunting and catching prey as the flashed seahorses. These results are important, as they show that flashing a seahorse is not likely to change the short-term hunting success (or food intake) of seahorses.

We only observed a difference in the highest flash treatment (four flashes per minute, for ten minutes). Seahorses in this group spent less time resting and sometimes showed “startled” reactions. These reactions looked like the start of an escape reaction, but since the seahorses were in an aquarium, escape was impossible. In the ocean or a large aquarium seahorses would simply move away, which would end the disturbance.

Our last experiment tested if seahorses indeed “go blind” by being exposed to strong flashes. In scientific lingo: we tested if flash photography caused any “pathomorphological” impacts. To do this we euthanised (following strict ethical protocols) some of the unflashed and highly flashed seahorses from the previous experiments. The eyes of the seahorses were then investigated to look for any potential damage.

The results? We found no effects in any of the variables we tested. After more than 4,600 flashes, we can confidently say that the seahorses in our experiments suffered no negative consequences to their visual system.

What this means for scuba divers

A potential explanation as to why flash has no negative impact is the ripple effect caused by sunlight focusing through waves or wavelets on a sunny day. These bands of light are of a very short duration, but very high intensity (up to 100 times stronger than without the ripple effect). Fish living in such conditions would have evolved to deal with such rapidly changing light conditions.

This of course raises the question: would our results be the same for deep-water species? That’s a question for another study, perhaps.

So what does this mean for aquariums and scuba diving? We really should focus on not touching animals, rather than worrying about the flash.

Flash photography does not make seahorses blind or stop them from catching their prey. The strobes we used had a higher intensity than those usually used by aquarium visitors or divers, so it is highly unlikely that normal flashes will cause any damage. Touching, on the other hand, has a big effect on the well-being of marine life, so scuba divers should always keep their hands to themselves.

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Look, take pictures, but don’t touch!


NOTE: I realise that this is a controversial topic in underwater photography. If you have relevant questions, comments, or thoughts you want to share, feel free to add them in the comment section below. If you are interested, I would highly advise you to read the original research paper via this link. The paper is open access, so anyone can read and download it. If you have specific questions about the paper, you can always contact me via email here.

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Flamboyant Cuttlefish

It’s been a long time since I put a critter in the spotlights, so it’s time for one of my personal favourites: the Flamboyant Cuttlefish! I am definitely not the only one to like this amazing little animal, for most divers it is high in the top 10 of critters to see. With good reason as well, Flamboyant Cuttlefish are one of the most beautiful and intriguing inhabitants of sandy dive sites.

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Flamboyant Cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) striking a pose

The small cephalopod many divers call “Flamboyant Cuttlefish” are in fact two species: the Flamboyant Cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) and the Paintpot Cuttlefish (Metasepia tullbergi). The first one lives in Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the north of Australia. The Paintpot Cuttlefish is found further north, from the Gulf of Thailand all the way up to southern Japan. Both species are classic muck dive critters, they only occur on muddy or sandy bottoms, so you will have to move away from coral reef to encounter them.

flamboyant-cuttlefish3So why does this animal deserve the effort of searching sandy plains for days on end, in the hope catching a glimpse of it? To start with (the name is a bit of a give-away) they are very flamboyant critters. We are talking yellows, pinks, blacks and whites, all at once! If that wasn’t enough, they often change their colours into “traveling waves”, even more so than normal cuttlefish or octopuses. From my experience, smaller Flamboyant Cuttlefishes have the brightest colours and make the most extravagant displays. When I write small, I do mean really small: adults do not grow much bigger than 8cm. They ideally sized Flamboyant Cuttlefish for the best colour-show  would be around 3-5 cm!

If finding an animal that size seems difficult, you might also want to consider the following. When they are not disturbed, hunting, or mating, Flamboyant Cuttlefish are anything but flamboyant. In their “standard” state, they blend in perfectly with their background, so they will be a mottled grey, brown, or black. For this reason some divers or photographers are tempted to disturb the animal to better see its colours. It is obvious that this is a bad idea, as it will stress out the cuttlefish. Be patient  instead, observe it for a while and you might even be rewarded by seeing it hunt small shrimp, lay eggs, or even mate!

Another thing that is special about them is that they do not swim, but walk across the bottom. To do so they use two of their arms and an adaptation of their mantle. They can swim, but only do so when they’re startled and over short distances. I could easily spend an entire dive watching these guys wander across the seafloor, little blobs of colour on a quest to eat as many shrimp as possible. It might be because of the awkward way they walk, but I always imagine them to be mildly grumpy animals. A bit like an old man with stiff joints who can’t walk that well, grumbling to himself about how the terrible weather…

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A juvenile Flamboyant cuttlefish (M. pfefferi) walking across the rubble

An interesting mystery surrounding these animals is whether or not they are toxic. Their colours would suggest some form of aposematic colouration, in the same way nudibranchs advertise their toxicity with bright colours. Some authors have even suggested flamboyant cuttlefish might mimic nudibranchs such as the Ocellate Phyllidia (Phyllidia ocellata). I have however, not read a single bit of conclusive evidence of this. It seems to be one of these “facts” people have assumed, written about and then it just got copied. To date there seem to be no papers out their describing whether or not Flamboyant Cuttlefish really are toxic, and which toxin they would produce. If anyone would have come across that information, I would be very grateful if you could share it with me and the rest of the world.

As is often the case with small critters, we don’t know very much about them. But that doesn’t have to stop us enjoying looking at them. Which is why I couldn’t resist adding a video of one of these guys. The title is a bit too sensational, but the footage is great, enjoy!