C. David Tobie: SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and its effects on Photo and Video Editors


Recent studies have found a new type of light sensor in the eye, in addition to the rods and cones we are familiar with for color, and black and white vision. This type of sensor has nothing to do with vision, but may have a big impact on photographers and videographers, as it relates to a condition commonly seen in those who edit images for a living. This article will describe that condition: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), its symptoms and its triggers, as well as offering suggestions to avoid SAD when doing photo and video editing work under controlled light conditions. Lets take a look at how SAD works.

Imagine that you are a caveman (or woman) who had been wandering the wilds for the last several months. Now it is the cold or rainy season, and you are staying in your cave, near the fire. In order to conserve energy, and help you make it through this season, your body triggers the “hibernate” signal, and several things happen.

First, you start craving carbohydrates. And the carbs that you eat start forming more fat than in other circumstances. This adds both insulation, and extra energy storage. You become more lethargic, with reduced energy, increased sleep cycles, even reduced libido. These changes allow you to stay in the cave, instead of feeling the urge to wander the countryside looking for more food, etc. This describes what happens, but it is also important to understand how it is caused.

The newly discovered sensors are simply luminance detectors, involved in setting our day/night cycle, but also our seasonal cycle. If multiple days go by without high light levels, then the detectors produce chemicals that are key to the hibernation response. There are other factors, though how they interact with the light level sensors is complex. Getting generous amounts of physical exercise also assists in avoiding the hibernations response, as does keeping mentally active and happy.

We still inhabit Stone Age bodies, and these responses are still lurking inside us. It would be easy to think of SAD as a medical condition afflicting some small percentage of humankind. But research seems to indicate otherwise. In the more northerly regions of Scandinavia, where there is little or no sun for months at a time in the winter, virtually all residents show symptoms of SAD. In the year-round sunshine of Southern California, on the other hand, most people aren’t aware of SAD ever triggering.

But SAD is not just for those arctic Scandinavians. Large areas of Northern Europe and the Northern West Coast of North America, while much warmer than the Arctic, are still very gray for months on end. This also increases incidences of SAD.

Now lets move on to the specific jobs of interest: those who spend much of their time in the low-light environments ideal for work on color calibrated displays, typically editing photos or video. It is easy during the shorter winter days to start work before the sun is high, and stay at it until it drops again. Unfortunately, this may be what triggers SAD. First, our eyes are not getting the bright sunlight that keeps the luminance sensors from triggering, plus we are not getting much exercise or physical activity. So we may find that we are gaining a bit of weight, feeling less inclined to go to the gym, and generally not being as active.

Medical options are available for SAD treatment, such as high-luminance daylight balanced light sources. It is important to be quite close to very bright light sources to reach the required dose, so don’t think that replacing the ceiling fluorescent tubes with daylight balanced bulbs will do the trick. But once you are aware of the issue, in many areas there is enough sun, on enough days, to use that as your therapy light source. Those places too gray, or too close to the Arctic Circle, will require artificial light sources instead.

Notice that it is short doses of high level sunlight that are the key here. So while working in a dim editing environment may be the problem, increasing the room lighting while you work is not the solution. That will make your editing environment less effective, while never reaching the brightness levels needed to avoid SAD. So think of SAD treatment, in the form of light and exercise, as something to be done in small doses on breaks, and especially at lunchtime, rather than something that requires changing your all-day work environment.

The best prescription for avoiding SAD turns out to be in-line with the best advice for healthy computer work in general:

  • Take frequent breaks; and by breaks, this means getting up and moving. Don’t eat your lunch in front of your screen.
  • Alternate sitting and standing. If you can’t do your editing work standing, then perhaps you can set up a laptop on a higher surface for other tasks such as email.
  • Get out in sunny locations for at least one longer session in the brightest part of the day. Ideally get outside and exercise at this time. If not possible, consider SAD lights as an alternative.
  • See that the others working in your environment are also aware of SAD, and the value of these methods to avoid its onset, as well as to improve health and energy levels in general. Happy Editing!

C. David Tobie

Published by cdtobie

This blog covers a range of issues of interest to photographers and those involved in the digital photographic workflow, digital tools and platforms, and fine art output.

One thought on “C. David Tobie: SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and its effects on Photo and Video Editors

  1. Very interesting. I try to do the prescriptive things you suggest, especially the breaks and the alternating between standing and sitting at the workstation.

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