Laser conditioning has been shown to improve the laser damage threshold of some optical coatings by greater than 2x. Debate continues within the damage community regarding laser-conditioning mechanisms, but it is clear that nodular ejection is one of the byproducts of the laser conditioning process. To better understand why laser conditioning is so effective, photothermal microscopy was used to measure absorption of coating defects before and after laser exposure. Although a modest absorption reduction was expected due to the lower electric field peaks within a pit and the absence of potentially absorbing nodular seeds, surprisingly, absorption reductions up to 150x were observed. Photothermal microscopy has also been successfully used to correlate laser-induced damage threshold and absorption of defects in hafnia/silica multilayer optical coatings. Defects with high absorption, as indicated by high photothermal signal, have low damage thresholds. Previously a linear correlation of damage threshold and defect photothermal signal was established with films designed and damage tested at 1(omega) (1053 nm) and Brewster's angle (56.4 degree(s)), but characterized by photothermal microscopy at 514.5 nm and near-normal angle of incidence (10 degree(s)). In this study coatings designed, characterized by photothermal microscopy, and damage tested at the same wavelength, incident angle, and polarization did not have a correlation between defect photothermal signal and absorption.© (2001) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.