Monthly Archives: August 2013

Vision training: breaking the rules

“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun” — Katharine Hepburn

It is taken for granted that you should keep the camera from moving when you take a photograph. You definitely won’t get hired again if all your photos from a business portrait session are blurry because of camera shake. General rules are very useful, but sometimes there is an ‘exception to the rule’ that produces interesting results.

This is true in fields other than photography. My physics PhD thesis was on the spin fluctuation theory for high temperature superconductivity. Initially, it was not well received because the experts in the field had arrived at the conclusion that such a mechanism for superconductivity would only yield low temperature superconductors. But it turns out that this rule was only correct in a general sense, i.e for the majority of cases. In the years following the initial proposal, we showed that the class of new superconductors that was discovered in 1986 by Bednorz and Mueller was the exception to this general rule. Our findings were published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. (Nature 450, 1177-1183 (20 December 2007)).

My experience with the ‘exception to the rule’ in science really stuck with me. So now when I’m taking pictures it is always at the back of my mind. And when it comes to keeping the camera still when taking a photograph, the following exceptions are worth noting. Breaking the ‘keep the camera from moving’ rule can produce an interesting result when your subject is moving. By following your subject while pressing the shutter, you can keep it relatively sharp and only blur the background. This gives your image a sense of motion, as in the picture below.

Moving the camera along with the subject produces a blurred background while leaving the subject relatively sharp.

Moving the camera along with the subject produces a blurred background while leaving the subject relatively sharp.

Another potentially interesting way to break the rule consists of slightly moving the camera while taking a picture of a stationary object, like a forest. In this case, while no area of the photograph remains sharp, the subject is still recognizable. The camera movement gives the image an impressionist look, as in the following photograph.

Moving the camera up and down during the exposure gives an impressionist look to this forest scene.

Moving the camera up and down during the exposure gives an impressionist look to this forest scene.

Finally, one can totally break the rule and move the camera so much that the subject becomes unrecognizable, like some flowers in Princes Street gardens, Edinburgh, in the photograph below. One is left with an abstract image of color only.

Really moving the camera during a long exposure totally blurs the subject and leaves one with an abstract picture of color.

Really moving the camera during a long exposure totally blurs the subject and leaves one with an abstract picture of color.

 

 

 

Nearly everything is interesting

“Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.” — Richard Feynman

Would you spend any time watching water freeze? Probably not. It’s not that interesting, you might think.

But if you look at the phenomenon deeply enough, the freezing of water has something to do with the quest by theoretical physicists to unify all the forces in Nature.

When water is liquid, its density is uniform throughout. No matter where you are in the liquid, the density is the same. This symmetry is referred to as ‘translation invariance’ by physicists. As the water cools and turns to solid ice, the water molecules form a regular array and no longer move at will. In a crystal such as ice, every molecule vibrates around a fixed equilibrium position. The density of matter is therefore high near the equilibrium positions of the water molecules and low in between. It is no longer uniform, and the complete translation invariance of liquid water is broken. In simple terms, ice (really cold water) is less symmetrical than room temperature water.

We live in a cold universe, and by analogy with the freezing of water, the universe today is likely less symmetrical than it used to be billions of years ago, when our universe was much hotter. Today we have four kinds of forces. The gravitational, electromagnetic, weak and strong forces. What if these forces used to be one and only one force when the universe was hot and that symmetry was broken into the four kinds of forces we observe today as the universe cooled down? This is a question at the forefront of current scientific research.

Now that I am a photographer, I still abide by Feynman’s quote. I strive to look at mundane objects and see if I can find a way to make them look interesting. How about a couple of forks and an aluminium container?

Two wet forks. Lit with a small torch and color gel, using the technique of light painting

Two wet forks. Lit with a small torch and color gel, using the technique of light painting

Side of aluminium container reflecting an orange object (Seth Godin's book Linchpin)

Side of aluminium container reflecting an orange object (Seth Godin’s book Linchpin)

This is not simply an academic exercise. I believe that if I can find ways to make really simple objects like forks and aluminium containers look mildly interesting, I should definitely be able to serve my clients better by making them and their businesses look really interesting.