Laser damage threshold energies produced from ultrashort (i.e., ⩽1 ns) laser pulses are investigated as a function of both pulse width and spot size for an artificial retina. A piece of film acts as the absorbing layer and is positioned at the focus of a variant on the Cain artificial eye [C. Cain, G. D. Noojin, D. X. Hammer, R. J. Thomas, and B. A. Rockwell, “Artificial eye for in vitro experiments of laser light interaction with aqueous media,” J. Biomed. Opt.2, 88–94 (1997)]. Experiments were performed at the focal point and at two and ten Rayleigh ranges (RR) in front of the focus with the damage end point being the presence of a bubble imaged at the film plane. Pulse energy thresholds were determined for wavelengths of 1064, 580, and 532 nm with pulse durations ranging from the nanosecond (ns) to the femtosecond (fs) regime. For the at-focus data in the visible regime, the threshold dropped from 0.25 μJ for a 532 nm, 5 ns pulse to 0.11 μJ for a 580 nm, 100 fs pulse. The near-infrared (NIR) threshold changed from 5.5 μJ for a 5 ns pulse to 0.9 μJ for a 130 fs pulse at a distance two RR in front of the focus. The experiment was repeated using the same pulse widths and wavelengths, except the water path was removed to determine the impact of nonlinear self-focusing in water. A vertical microscope imaging system was employed in order to observe the threshold event. The NIR fluence threshold of 0.5 J/cm2 remained constant within an experimental uncertainty for all pulse widths, which corresponds to values in the literature [C. P. Lin and M. W. Kelly, “Ultrafast time-resolved imaging of stress transient and cavitation from short pulsed laser irradiated melanin particles,” SPIE Laser-Tissue Interactions VI, Proc. SPIE2391, 294–299 (1995)]. The visible data also demonstrated a nearly constant fluence of 0.07 J/cm2. The disparity in thresholds between the two techniques arises from nonlinear optical phenomena related to propagation differences in the ocular fluid. © 1999 Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers.