Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Camera Tossing Demystified

First of all you read it right. I am talking about throwing the camera into the air and letting go with reckless abandon. Watching my expensive gear do somersaults whilst capturing an image of the resulting chaos. Why would anyone do this? Maybe you are the shake tester at a camera manufacturer. Maybe you just want to check on that warrantee to see if they really do take the camera back no questions asked. Maybe you've totally lost it and this is proof positive that you need to have your head examined.

A little group was born on Flickr (almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing application in the world) circa 2005 that presented beautiful flowing abstracts that were different from anything I had ever encountered before. They weren't simply blurs or bokeh, zoom pulls, or camera waves. These were highly defined geometrical streaks, Spirograph-esque forms, and lush shapes that resulted from the process of applying kinetic motion to the camera as it exposed the frame.

I was a lurker (someone who watches without participating) for some time just enjoying the show thinking "yeah, that's cool stuff but I'm not going to do it!" Then when my Olympus point and shoot started to develop some problems out of warrantee I thought that maybe I'd give it a go. If I break this I thought, no worries it's on its way out anyway.

Most of my initial attempts were not very pleasing, you could tell where I had released the shutter making the first part of the spin irregular as seen in "Seven Flags Amusement Park."
 Seven Flags Amusement Park

Still, it was more interesting than any blur or wave I had tried.

Then I started achieving some nice smooth spins and experimenting with various light sources and I became hooked. The mantra had now become: But I'll never toss my DSLR! The more I tossed the more I noticed some limitations in the dynamics and balance of my point and shoot, and the lack of noise reduction that could be achieved. I had always practiced "safe tossing" meaning avoiding a chance of a drop on hard ground. So slowly but surely I worked up the nerve to toss my DSLR. Tentatively at first and now with reckless abandon. I am in no way condoning that you do this yourself without evaluating the risks. But the rewards are ample and yes I've even dropped the Mark II a couple times without adverse affect. Your mileage may will vary. It is a pretty tough little tank but there is a still a very good chance something could get knocked ajar. I'm probably approaching half life on the shutter activation count ~250,000 and if the camera died tomorrow it would have done its job.

String Toss #10
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let's get down to techniques. First, unless you use a timer and are good at judging the exact moment of release, you will no doubt have irregular shapes that lead in to the frame. This is not desirable and can be rectified a couple of ways. One way to achieve this is just practice. If your hands can start the motion before clicking the shutter, the motion can become seamless. You can also get better at timing the release if using the timer. The best method I've found is to use a bead bag chair for the landing pad and also to block the starting point of the spin. Stairs work well for this set-up. Position your light source(s) at some point possibly 2nd or 3rd rigger up, then yourself behind the bag at the landing. With the camera behind the bag, start the exposure and toss. Once the camera clears the bag it should be in stable flight, and as a bonus it will also land in comfort.

So you've got your flight path down, now you need to play with exposure times. Generally, I like .5 to 1 second. You will be able to judge from a few tests whether you like the length of the trails or not and adjust accordingly. Since you know about the golden triangle of exposure, you will know how much aperture you need and if that's not enough how much more ISO to boost.

Seaform #1
Next is your light source/sources. The sky is the limit. I find choosing fixtures with relatively equal luminosity is best, but it depends on what you are after. Then go for different textures. How do you get a texture from a light you might ask? Well, LEDs tend to generate defined streaks and neon bulbs are softer. Experiment with whatever you use to light paint with, it's all good.

After that you can go for perfectly circular spins to chaotic flips that resemble something an olympic diver might get high scores for. The possibilities are endless.

I have dedicated a store to these abstract light forms over at Zazzle. Postcards to stretched canvas, the collection includes all of the techniques I have noted here. Enjoy!
Check out the official Camera Toss Blog for more info, pointers and examples.

And I would be remiss in not mentioning some of the pioneers of tossing that you should visit to get a true taste of what the cutting edge of this crazy technique can result in. I owe many thanks to them for the support, encouragement, and continued inspiration: Ryan Gallagher, David Hull, and Jens Ludwig.

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