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Can I damage my camera by pointing it at the sun?

Filed in Tips by 10 Comments
Can I damage my camera by pointing it at the sun?

Ever thought about pointing your camera up at the sun? Your immediate reaction is probably a lot like mine. NO WAY! Well not so fast. It depends on the kind of camera you’re using. If you’ve got a digital SLR, you’ll be totally fine. If you’re using a point-and-shoot model, you might get into trouble. Keep reading because you’re about to find out why.

Allow me to draw the analogy between what this kid is doing with a magnifying glass and what you might be doing with your camera. A magnifying glass is no different from a lens. It focuses light so you can see a little closer. If you hold a magnifying glass in just the right way, it focuses the sun’s light so much that it actually creates a laser powerful enough to make things burn.

The sun puts out ridiculous amounts energy. Even when it’s not focused, it can still burn us if we’re outside for a long enough period of time. There’s no doubt in my mind that we need to exercise some kind of caution with cameras and the sun. The real question is how much.

The difference between digital SLRs and Billy’s magnifying glass

Some of you might be thinking if you point your digital SLR at the sun, it must be focusing the light onto a single point and burning out your image sensor. It’s not quite like that – there’s a lot more going on than you might have originally thought.

For one, most digital SLRs have a mirror in the viewfinder, and it actually covers up the sensitive equipment most of the time. It also redirects the sun’s light away from the sensor and through the viewfinder. So when you’re looking at the sun through your camera, you’re only damaging your eyes. It’s not until you actually take the picture that you’re exposing your camera’s image sensor to the sun’s harmful rays.

So point one – Never look through the viewfinder of your camera when it’s pointed directly at the sun. You’ll do damage to your eyes.

The exposure time is important too (something I learned from pointing my magnifying glass at things as a kid – it takes forever for things to burn). Your camera’s shutter needs to be open long enough for the sun to do its damage, and that’s typically not the case with digital SLRs (although it is with point-and-shoot models as you’ll soon see).

How much sun exposure time does a single picture amount to, and is it enough to cause any damage to your camera? It depends on the shutter speed you pick. If you’re using automatic mode, your camera will probably pick a very fast shutter speed, so we’re talking hundredths of a second. That’s not nearly enough time to do damage to much of anything.


It’s okay to take pictures of the sun because your
image sensor isn’t exposed to the light for very long.
Photo By Flickr User comedy_nose

Be careful if you’re using a point-and-shoot model!

Unlike digital SLRs, most point-and-shoot cameras keep the shutter open the entire time you’re using them and there’s no mirror to redirect the sun’s light. The image sensor and the screen on the back are linked together. It sees what the sensor sees. So if you’re pointing your point-and-shoot at the sun for any period of time, you’re probably damaging it.

There’s a simple rule of thumb for all of this. If something is so bright that it hurts your eyes to look at it, that thing will probably damage your camera too. Protect your eyes! Avoid looking at the sun in the middle of the day (sunset and sunrise are okay but still be careful). Practice common sense, and you’ll have your camera and your eyes to enjoy it for years to come.

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About the Author ()

David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

Comments (10)

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  1. Piet Coetzee says:

    I’m really glad I found this website, since it answers a lot of questions I have been having. This may sound a bit stupid, but there’s still one question that is haunting me. I have accidentally photographed the sun with a shutter speed of 1/80 s and an aperture of 5.6 in manual mode (I still sometimes forget to change my camera settings before i take a photo) at about 17:47. Could this have done damage to my camera? I used the viewfinder and it didn’t really hurt my eyes. I’m still new to photography and I’ve still got a lot to learn.

  2. @Chris,

    I would avoid pointing your mirrorless camera at the sun unless you specifically get the okay from the camera manufacturer. It’s going to be okay for short periods of time (and you would notice a problem if you had one), but why take a risk with your expensive camera without checking first?

    David.

  3. Chris P. says:

    What about the mirrorless cameras, like the Nikon 1 J1 I have, is that more like the point and shoot type? I have done some sun flares on purpose as well as some sunset shots because a different article I read (that didn’t explain it with as much detail as yours) said a digital camera is fine for quick sun shots. How do I know if my camera has been damaged? Or would it be obvious and I have been lucky?

  4. @James,

    Thanks for the comment. I wasn’t being literal when I said laser (I didn’t use all capitals as it should be used).

    David.

  5. James says:

    Focusing light with a lens concentrates the power to a smaller area increasing the intensity at focus; it does not create a LASER. LASER light is monochromatic, coherent and directional with a small divergence. The sun is a 5900K black body radiator. Temporary as well as permanent images (damage) have been reported from over exposure by astronomers using CMOS cameras.

  6. David Shan says:

    One thing this article doesn’t cover (although it covers pretty much everything else except Live Mode) is the autofocus on the DSLRs.
    You may have the mirror down, reflecting damaging sunlight into your eyes, but then you also have the autofocus system down below, which also gets light from the mirror (true, the mirror is only partly transparent in that area, but I would be thinking it still transmits a massive amount of light).

    Any thoughts on that anyone?

  7. CS says:

    Don’t forget that even DSLRs have what is called “Live Mode”, where your camera’s screen will actively display exactly what the shutter is seeing. If you’re shooting in this mode, you should probably follow the same rules of caution that you would for a point-and-shoot camera because it’s basically doing the same thing. Also, if you’re shooting video, it’s basically in Live Mode except it’s recording video instead of taking snapshots, hence Alan’s experience with a burn in the image.

  8. Alan says:

    i have a canon 7d and when i film near direct sunlight it puts a temporary burn in the picture. it’s really annoying, and can’t possibly be good for the camera, this is in all custom filming mode.

  9. Chris says:

    Sony has added a new variable to check into with their new SLT cameras. These have fixed, “translucent” mirrors which only reflect approx. 10% of the light to the metering and focus sensors. The rest of the light is passing full time through to the shutter curtain. How much direct and focused exposure to the sun can the shutter curtain endure before warping or melting? And the newer class of Mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses provide even less proctection to the shutter curtains. Do the materials used in the curtain blades dissipate heat rapidly enough to make this a non-issue?

  10. labro says:

    hallo,
    it is the question i asked myself for 10 years !
    i have never dared making a sunset picture or sun pointing thru trees.

    your post is very interesting but too short.

    can you please explain how to take shoots of sunsets, sun thru trees and flowers,… where to tune exposure (on sky ? on flowers with sun hidden by tree and offset when shoot to have sun,…)

    can a graduated filter help making a nice picture and save the sensor ?

    what is the recommended shutter speed for f16 200iso on a d300 to not burning sensor ?

    thanks for tips and tricks about shooting sun without burning sensor of my d300

    best regards
    marc

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