Browsing a dusty used book store on the north side of Chicago in 2008, a familiar name caught my eye: Aldous Huxley. The Huxley book I saw there, published in 1942, had an intriguing title: The Art of Seeing.
Back then, I was a college freshman, studying photography and art. I knew Huxley (as did most art students then) from his famous 1954 psychedelic literary work, The Doors Of Perception. But I wanted to know what the Art of Seeing was about. Was this metaphysical like other of Huxley’s works, or something more practical? It turned out to be the latter.
Taking my field of study seriously, I knew that vision was a sense to be protected and cared for and that poor habits can jeopardize that sense. So, I began reading the book on my L-train commutes to and from school.
While The Art Of Seeing did help me with a visual issue I've had since childhood (extreme squinting in sunlight), its recommended practices tended to be drawn-out and excessive, and the book was received with some skepticism by the medical community. Regardless, this publication helped make me aware of techniques to preserve eye health.
Awareness of your own visual habits is the first step in protecting your vision. Recent studies have proved that exposure to a video screen (computer, etc.) can't immediately damage eyes, yet much current scientific opinion indicates that lengthened screen time together with reduced outdoor activity is a primary factor in the current epidemic of myopia (lengthening of the eyeball).
Theories aside, it’s plain fact that many photographers regularly encounter physical challenges produced by our work, ranging from mild discomfort to extreme irritation (I've run the gamut). Staring too long at any screen (which we all do so much) can cause a whole variety of maladies: blurry vision, dry eyes, neck strain, headaches, and other problems.
I'd like to share with you some effective habits to reduce eye strain, which were taught to me by the best professor in my photography program at Columbia College in Chicago. I hope they'll serve you well in your quest to protect your vision and help you avoid the dreaded eye strain that can be produced by long hours of editing.
1. The 20-20-20 Rule
This one is easy but important. Every 20 minutes during editing, take a visual break. Focus your eyes 20 feet away for 20 seconds at a time. Since drawn out close-range eye focusing causes strain, this will give your eyes a chance to refocus, providing much-needed relief. Adjust your own times as needed.
2. Adjust Your Screen Level
The general consensus of eye care experts is that the optimal screen position places the top of a screen at your eye level. This can easily be achieved with a laptop, but might prove more difficult with your home desktop setup. Adjustable chairs, monitor stands, and (standing) desks might help promote visual health. On the subject of screens, an anti-glare screen is a good investment if you're having issues with reflections on your monitor or device.
3. Combat Dryness with Eye Drops
We all know that eye drops can provide instant relief, especially helpful during a long editing session. Products differ, so you might need to try different brands before you find the one that suits you best.
I've had a couple bouts of excessive dry eye, which seemed to have been exacerbated by flying to and from gigs. I did a bit of searching and found a study that showed that air travel greatly increases symptoms of dry eye. So, next time you're traveling, bring some drops with you (especially if you plan to edit on the airplane).
Properly used, artificial tears (eye drops) can be helpful for milder forms of dry eye, but medical literature indicates that excessive use of these products actually strips away the natural protective layer of eye film. So, moderate use is best. Also, preservative-free drops are less likely to cause further irritation.
4. Blink Breaks
We tend to blink far less when staring at a screen, especially when focused on detailed work like retouching, so it's important to make a conscious effort to blink while editing. When done deliberately and frequently, regular blinks should become second nature.
A "blink break" is something that can be practiced on its own or as a supplement to the 20-20-20 rule. When I experience dryness, I typically do a short series of blinks to lubricate and nourish my eyes. If that doesn't do the trick, closing my eyes for 5-10 seconds or more will typically provide some natural relief. On days where I'm experiencing extreme dryness, I take the break more frequently. I've noticed that if I'm dehydrated or tired, I’m more prone to eye dryness. This justifies more frequent short breaks, every few minutes or so or until I feel that my eyes are sufficiently rested.
5. Prevent Problems by Visiting Your Ophthalmologist
If you notice a decrease in your vision, have eyesight conditions, are elderly, or already wear prescription glasses, it's important to make regular visits to your ophthalmologist, with the conditions just noted determining the frequency. My eyesight was nearly perfect as a child; it no longer is. Around age 28, I decided it was time to see how much my eyesight had degraded. I wasn’t surprised to be given a prescription.
More Vision Tips:
- Manage your (non-computer) screen time: Many people are using their devices nine hours a day or more. This frequent near-focusing often causes eye strain.
- Eat healthy and/or quit smoking for better eyesight. Nutrition has a direct affect on the health of your eyes and in turn, your vision.
- Have you ever noticed a little circular dial on the outside corner of your DSLR's eyepiece? That's an optical dial that you can adjust to compensate for your vision!
I'm sure many photographers out there suffer from regular eye strain. If you're one of them, I hope this article has given you some useful pointers. Feel free to leave more visual tips in the comments section below.
Note: These tips do not constitute medical adivce. See your doctor if you have any questions.