Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The many faces of photography

'Sunset writ small' by
bgblogging under a CC license.
This is not supposed to be a regular post. It's rather an addendum to my previous one, 'Photons & imagination'. You see, while I was going through that a second time (a hard-to-explain masochistic thing that I find myself sometimes doing), I felt the urge to add several other things on photography. No, the lot of additions I had in mind would hardly make the topic complete but, also, that was never my original intention.

Photography is one of the things that has many different functions in our lives. For some, it is art. For others, science. Also, it forms a kind of expression, in a way an equivalent to speech, in the sense that it can convey messages to specific (or not-so-specific) audiences. Some consider it a visual tool merely accompanying written or oral speech. At the same time, photography is a means for art, science and communication. And, on top of that, there are the ones that embrace photography as passion.

A few days ago, I made a reference to light field photography, which seems to be slowly emerging as niche in photographic consumer-oriented products. I described it as exciting and challenging but also divergent from the traditional spirit of photography that most hobbyists and professionals carry. I now consider that I may have been a bit too harsh on that.

It's no secret that the photography world features considerable diversity: a variety of technologies are being used for a variety of applications by a variety of people. Photography seems to me as a mainstream skill/ hobby that hosts an overwhelming number of hard-to-ignore niches. Just a couple of examples I recently came across:

a. Revisiting the old times of photography, a case of which is the resurrection of instant film cameras (Polaroids). The Polaroid (corporation) having itself shifted a bit to the modern era and seeing the entire film-based world slowly making the leap towards digital media there were voices that asked otherwise. The SavePolaroid movement (archived site: here) lobbied for the preserving the option to use Instant. "It grows up with you and becomes a part of you", as a visitor of said. I can see what she meant, although - myself - I was never an instant film user. That is passion! Now, the Impossible project offers the chance for people to meet or continue to use instant film Polaroids.

'Lomo' by
under a CC license
Lomography is another retro photography passion that is very much alive and still burns. Understandably perhaps, since it applies no specific rules for photography (apart for the 'there are no rules' rule) making it really dynamic, potent means of expression. Beyond that - I'm sure - there are many oldish photography branches that still enjoy support.

b. "Small world" photography. To be fair, that's by no means mainstream. Capturing images from the "small world" often requires specialised equipment and some skills in sample preparation. Especially when it comes to techniques like TEM (transmission electron microscopy), AFM (atomic force microscopy), BAM (Brewster angle microscopy) or - even - confocal microscopy, one needs specilised equipment that is (very) unlikely to be found outside the lab walls, in the hands of hobbyists. An encouraging exception to the rule has been a recent boom in the marketing of USB microscopes (such as VEHO or Reflecta), although I tend to believe that the trend doesn't persist much anymore.

Photos from the small-scale world, however, always attract attention. Be it insects, snow flakes, bacteria, crystals, phases of matter or molecules, the images of the world at such size-scale have always been associated with a certain kind of "cool factor". There several interesting sources out there. Apart from what one can find in Flickr or Picasa, Nikon "Small World" is certainly worth a visit. It is a corporate-supported website (Nikon Instruments) hosting several galleries with photos from the "small world", which were selected by open competitions. In most cases, the photos there are accompanied by (brief) information on the sample and the technique used to get the picture. As an example, a favourite of mine:

Charles Krebs, Wing scales of Urania riphaeus (Sunset moth) (100X),
available in the "2008 Winners" gallery of Nikon "Small World"

I guess that the bottom line is that the photography scenery is - fortunately - beautifully complex. It's certainly unlikely to feel bored there!

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