The Red Eye

The red-eye effect in photography is the common appearance of red pupils in color photographs of eyes. It occurs when using a photographic flash very close to the camera lens (as with most compact cameras), in ambient low light. The effect appears in the eyes of humans, and of animals that have tapetum lucidum.

Theatrical followspot operators, positioned nearly coincidentally with a very bright light and somewhat distant from the actors, occasionally witness red-eye in actors on stage. The effect is not visible to the rest of the audience because it is reliant on the very small angle between the followspot operator and the light.

Because the light of the flash occurs too fast for the pupil to close, much of the very bright light from the flash passes into the eye through the pupil, reflects off the fundus at the back of the eyeball and out through the pupil. The camera records this reflected light. The main cause of the red color is the ample amount of blood in the choroid which nourishes the back of the eye and is located behind the retina. The blood in the retinal circulation is far less than in the choroid, and plays virtually no role. The eye contains several photostable pigments that all absorb in the short wavelength region, and hence contribute somewhat to the red eye effect. The lens cuts off deep blue and violet light, below 430 nm (depending on age), and macular pigment absorbs between 400 and 500 nm, but this pigment is located exclusively in the tiny fovea. Melanin, located in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) and the choroid, shows a gradually increasing absorption towards the short wavelengths. But blood is the main determinant of the red color, because it is completely transparent at long wavelengths and abruptly starts absorbing at 600 nm. The amount of red light emerging from the pupil depends on the amount of melanin in the layers behind the retina. This amount varies strongly between individuals. Light skinned people with blue eyes have relatively low melanin in the fundus and thus show a much stronger red-eye effect than dark skinned people with brown eyes. The same holds for animals. The color of the iris itself is of virtually no importance for the red-eye effect. This is obvious because the red-eye effect is most apparent when photographing dark adapted subjects, hence with fully dilated pupils. Photographs taken with infra-red light through night vision devices always show very bright pupils because, in the dark, the pupils are fully dilated and the infra-red light is not absorbed by any ocular pigment.