Infinite Possibilities, Part 1

Photo by Harold Edgerton, © United States Government

{Editorial note: This is the first in a series of articles originally written in early August, 2006; then expanded and published on the old version of my website, on October 28, 2009; now expanded and republished, again, in December 2010.]


Saturday’s post, The Subject is Not the Subject, tangentially touched upon something that’s been sticking in my craw for a long time. It’s the notion which many photographers and viewers hold, that there’s only a small, finite set of different photographic compositions to create, and we’ve already exhausted all possibilities, or we’re pressingly near exhaustion.


Photography has existed for a century and a half; countless millions of people own cameras; and untold billions of pictures are made each year. In this environment – some are convinced – there’s nothing left unphotographed, nothing left uncomposed, nothing left undone in photography. Even more photographers accept a somewhat limited version of this belief, thinking we’ve exhausted certain types of subjects, like rainbows, or particular areas, like the Grand Canyon, or specific genres, like wedding photography.

This very day [as of when I first published this in 2009], I read a photographer say about wedding photography that “…99.99% of what all of us do has been done hundreds or thousands or even millions of times before. We may like to believe our work is unique but the truth is it’s not.” Within this last week [circa 2009], I read one photographer say, “There’s nothing new under the sun”, and another say, “Nothing is original”. Last week [2009], I read a well known and (deservingly) well respected photographer write that he asked his wife, “Is there anything that hasn’t already been shot?” And she replied, “Nope”.

Photographers and viewers who believe it’s all been done sometimes dismiss wide swaths of photography wholesale, such as flower photos or bird photos. They may look with a jaded eye at the rest, while uttering such declarations as, “If you think you have a truly original idea, it’s because you haven’t looked at enough photos”. They try to compile lists of “clichéd landscape locations: places to avoid at all costs”. They search for some area to photograph which hasn’t yet been “beaten to death”. They question themselves about why they bother to take photographs at all, when it is unavoidable that others have already made the same. They ponder what this shortage of new things to photograph will mean for the future of photographic arts, concerned whether there can be a future at all.

Despite the widespread belief, there is no shortage of photographic possibilities. There never has been, and never will be – not with any type of subject, not in any location, not in any genre. Running out is not possible.

This belief that “It’s all been done” rankles me, because it can negatively impact photographers’ works, and viewers’ appreciation.

So, herewith, I’m refuting this belief.

Part 1: The Technology Argument



The advancement of new technologies constantly unlocks new photography horizons which were previously inaccessible.

The photo at the top of this post is an example of this. It’s a photo of a fireball from a nuclear blast, one ten millionth of a second after detonation, made by Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton, for the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

The scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission wanted to study how the fireballs from nuclear bomb detonations expanded, but they were unable to, because the fireballs expand so extraordinarily fast that no camera from that time could record it. The problem was two fold: (1) no camera could start the picture’s exposure instantaneously enough after the detonation; and (2) no camera could take a brief enough exposure.

Harold Edgerton, already a pioneer of high speed photography at the time, invented a new camera design, called a “rapatronic camera”, which circumvented these problems. Since the movement of any mechanical shutter was necessarily too slow for the purpose, he invented an ingenious shutter with no moving parts. Instead, it had two polarizing filters set with their polarization angles 90 degrees from each other, to block all light from passing through. In between these, he placed a Kerr cell, an optic which shifts light’s plane of polarization when a strong electric field is applied. So, in the normal, non-electrified state, the shutter blocked all light; in the energized state, it flipped the plane of polarization of the light passing through the first filter so that it could also pass through the second filter.

This design allowed for the shutter to be triggered almost instantly, and also allowed for the shutter to let light pass through it for as briefly as a few billionths of a second. The invention of rapatronic cameras opened up possibilities for making photos of all kinds of extremely rapid phenomena which were previously unphotographable.

Additionally, this photo demonstrates another kind of technology argument in favor of the position that it hasn’t all been done. Besides a new camera technology to make the picture, a nuclear fireball could not have been seen nor photographed until humankind figured out the technology for nuclear bombs. This picture shows physics behavior never before seen, produced by a new kind of technology, photographed with a new kind of technology.

A decade before Harold Edgerton invented the rapatronic camera, he opened up new photographic vistas by inventing ultra high speed photography and stop action photography, through designing and synchronizing stroboscopes. He combined scientific curiosity with delightful aesthetic sensibilities to show motion and events in ways never seen before. You can see some examples here, here, and here. To see more of his work, see the book Stopping Time.

While Doc Edgerton is an extraordinary case, the technology refutation to the notion that it has all been done in photography applies in more mundane cases, too. The advent of underwater housings and waterproof cameras opened up the possibilities for underwater photography. Color photography was not well explored before the creation of color film. (It was done before color film through taking three photos of the same composition in succession, with different color filters over the lenses, and then combining the shots; this, too, was a newly applied technology which opened up color photography for the first time.) Both hardware inventions, such as lightning triggers and polarizing filters, and software inventions, such as depth of field stacking and high dynamic range image merging, constantly push the boundaries of what can be photographed. Non-photographic technologies open new realms for photography, too, such as Jacques Cousteau’s invention of the modern demand regulator, which greatly extended S.C.U.B.A. diving, thereby extending the possibilities of underwater photography.

Each advance in shutter speed, autofocus speed, resolving power, stabilization, flash brightness, light sensitivity, signal to noise ratio, optic clarity, shockproofness, and on and on, make new things possible in photography. And, while we may not be on the cutting edge like Harold Edgerton was, the combination of new technologies which finds its way into widely available camera gear, in sum, allow us to quite commonly take advantage of photo opportunities, today, which were far more difficult, seemingly impossible, just a few years ago.

These kinds of technological advances continue, apace, today. Both Canon and Nikon have announced cameras, in the last few weeks [circa 2009], with maximum ISO ratings of 102,400 – extraordinary light sensitivity! I remember, when I photographed the Leonids Meteor Storm in November 2002, that I was reluctant to use 400 speed film, because the results would be barely satisfactory. With the most recent generation of digital cameras, I could comfortably photograph a similar situation at ISO 6,400 or 12,800, today – 5 to 6 stops better light sensitivity (32 to 64 times as light sensitive) than was available at the time.

Just last week [when I published this in 2009], Vincent Lafloret got a hold of a pre-release sample of the newly announced Canon camera, and reported this on his blog about it:

“I think it’s safe to say that every single filmmaker and photographer has always dreamed of cameras that can see what our naked eyes can see. This time these cameras can actually see more. Sure – they may not have the dynamic ranges of our eyes just yet – but they see more than my naked eyes can see in low light.


And that’s qualifies as a paradigm shift in my book.

The next few years will see photography and filmmaking redefined by technology. While there is no substitute for exquisite lighting – artists will now be able to explore areas once thought impossible to photograph.”

The technological breakthroughs to unlock new realms of photography for you to explore are here. With this technology, all you need are the drive and the vision.


Rapatronic Photo of A Nuclear Fireball, One Ten-Millionth of a Second After Detonation

Photo by Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton, taken for the United States Atomic Energy Commission, © United States Government. Quote by Vincent Lafloret. All other text is © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.