Proliferative diabetic retinopathy is a rare condition likely to lead to severe visual impairment. It is characterized by the development of abnormal new retinal vessels. We describe a method for automatically detecting new vessels on the optic disc using retinal photography. Vessel-like candidate segments are first detected using a method based on watershed lines and ridge strength measurement. Fifteen feature parameters, associated with shape, position, orientation, brightness, contrast and line density are calculated for each candidate segment. Based on these features, each segment is categorized as normal or abnormal using a support vector machine (SVM) classifier. The system was trained and tested by cross-validation using 38 images with new vessels and 71 normal images from two diabetic retinal screening centers and one hospital eye clinic. The discrimination performance of the fifteen features was tested against a clinical reference standard. Fourteen features were found to be effective and used in the final test. The area under the receiver operator characteristic curve was 0.911 for detecting images with new vessels on the disc. This accuracy may be sufficient for it to play a useful clinical role in an automated retinopathy analysis system.