Imagine waking up one day and realizing you can’t see right out of one or both your eyes. It would be pretty terrifying, right? But not likely to happen to you because bad eye trouble and loss of vision happens to old people and you’re not old, right?
Well, partially right. Some eye diseases such as macular degeneration, cataracts, and glaucoma are more common in the elderly. But they happen to younger people as well. Those of us who photograph outdoors may be doing some things that may increase the risk of eye trouble down the road. I’m blogging about this to alert you to a few of the things that you might be doing inadvertently that could increase your risk for eye trouble later and to warn you about symptoms that you must pay attention to immediately or risk permanent eye damage. (I learned the hard way and hope that by sharing a few things, perhaps my experiences will help one of you somewhere along the way.)
The chances are that most of you wear sunscreen if you’re going to be outside for any length of time. But do you wear sunglasses when you’re photographing? Polarizing sunglasses - which I love for driving - are a pain when you look through the viewfinder, especially if you have a polarizing filter on the lens. The resulting cross polarization makes it challenging to fine tune composition and nearly impossible to manually focus. The result for me is that when I’m out photographing I often skip the sunglasses. That leaves my eyes open to all the UVA and UVB rays - which are thought by many to contribute to cataracts. And the damage is cumulative. UVA and UVB protective non polarizing sunglasses are in order while photographing.
Another partial solution is to wear a hat with a wide brim. Until recently I considered hats to be a nuisance. Brims get in the way … so you see people turn the brim backwards. And that once again leaves your eyes unprotected. After some effort I have found a couple hats with brims that I can position so they go over the camera.
A quick glance at Nature’s Best magazine annual photo contest winners, or the websites of some prominent nature/outdoor photographers, will reveal shots taken with the sun directly in the viewfinder - often near sunset or sunrise. When you look at the sun through the viewfinder, the intensity is magnified by the lens. One popular approach for nature photographers is to shoot macro shots wide open so that that sun appears as a large out of focus sphere behind a subject such as a flower that is in focus. The safest approach to this type shot is to set your camera initially to the smallest possible aperture (f22 or larger) and hold the depth of field preview button down while you are composing and focusing. That limits the amount of light coming through. After you have composed and focused, you can reset the aperture and look away from the viewfinder as you take the picture. It’s a little harder and a little more time consuming, but …
The longer the focal length you’re using the more important it is to not look through the viewfinder directly at the sun. I used to work with a bird photographer who encouraged people to take dramatic silhouettes of birds flying directly in front of the sun with a 500 or 600 mm lens combined with a 2x teleconverter. He advised people to manually focus on the area the birds were flying to the side of the sun and then recompose with the sun in the image. He cautioned people to hold down the depth of field preview button and stop down all the way while composing the shot. Stopping down limits the intensity of the sun that comes through. He recommended looking above the camera and to the side of the sun, blocking the sun with a finger or two, and firing when you see the birds approaching the sun. However once I forgot and fired while still looking through the viewfinder. Of course when the shutter opens you get a magnified view of the sun directly into your eye. I saw purple for a few minutes out of that eye. That was several years ago, but that’s the eye that’s having trouble. I can’t help but wonder what sort of damage I might have set into motion. So if you like taking pictures of sunsets and sunrises, be particularly cautious and look away from your viewfinder before pressing the shutter release button.
If you ever notice that your vision seems distorted out of one eye get your self to your eye doctor immediately. It’s an emergency. Timely treatment can make the difference between recovery and permanent damage with some problems. Distortion can be due to a variety of causes, some of which usually go away after a few weeks. My first symptom was a lingering “after image” that would appear in my eye as if I had looked at something too bright although I hadn’t looked at any light source. It appeared and then disappeared but kept returning. My initial reaction was along the lines of, “Hmmm, that’s interesting.” When the doctor checked I had fluid in the back of my eye that was causing the problem. Apparently that’s a relatively common problem, especially among males age 20 - 45. I’m female and just slightly out of the age range. Go figure. For about 80% of people that condition, (Central Serous Retinopathy) goes away without permanent damage. I was in the other 20% and eventually had laser treatment to seal up the leak. The laser did seal the leak and my sight improved for a few days. Then I was riding in a car and noticed that straight lines appeared wiggly. Once again I thought, “Hmmm that’s odd. Oh well. It will go away in time.“ That was probably my biggest mistake. I should have contacted the doctor immediately. My body had created extra blood vessels to try to help heal my eye (a choroidal neovascular membrane). The trouble is that those blood vessels are poorly formed and leak blood. That’s what happens in the wet form of macular degeneration. Immediate treatment is imperative. The treatment is scary (injections directly into your eyeball) but they work in most cases. They saved my sight. Today I’m having surgery for a cataract in that eye. Hopefully in the very near future I’m going to see a lot better than I have for a long time.
Other symptoms that warrant immediate attention are flashes, new floaters, intense pain that doesn’t go away quickly, and/or a blind spot when you look out (for example a person’s facial features seem to be missing.) If your vision appears blurry, you need a check-up. Any sudden and significant changes are reason to contact your ophthalmologist.
Although medicine has progressed and has better treatments for a lot of eye problems, it makes sense to do what you can while in the field to protect your eyes. Do you have any other tips to share?
Added10/11/07: I wanted to add that surgery went well and today when they removed the patch, I CAN SEE!! It feels nothing short of miraculous. And I’m amazed at the difference in color perception between my new eye and my other eye - which had been my “good eye.” The difference is astounding. My other eye sees things with a strong yellow/gray cast. It will be interesting to see what happens as I look back through my photos to see the color differences. Perhaps that will be part of a future blog!