Physiograms like no others

First publications

The September 1964 edition of "Practical Photography" published the above photographs. Months earlier, its sister publication "Photo News Weekly" had published similar photographs. (These were British publications).

These are "physiograms", but apparently like none that had been published before. They are possibly unlike any that have been published since. This is their story.


Physiograms have a very long history. Even in the 19th century, photographers would place a camera on the floor in a dark room, swing a light bulb on a pendulum above the camera, and record the trace over many seconds or minutes. Every so often, another photographer will have a go, and perhaps add a new technique, such as colour, or post-record processing in a photo-editor. The results can be beautiful, especially if the photographer takes care to ensure that the light swings with precision.

A friend (Peter Hunt) and I were studying "Mathematics, Further Mathematics, & Physics" at school. We set about applying mathematics to the topic. To do so, we had to swing the camera too. This transformed the possibilities, and this series of articles attempts to provide the basis for anyone else to build on what we started.


Swinging the camera may appear simply to be an extra concept that anyone can readily apply. But as is often the case, it needed advances in the technology being used. Once both the camera and the light source are moving, there is the problem of how to provide sufficient flexibility in the ratios of the periods of swing, (of camera and light), to generate all attractive combinations. And the results are so hard to predict that we needed a way of showing the results of a run soon after doing it. (Remember, "digital photography" was decades in the future! We needed to use "silver-film wet-darkroom" technology to show us the results of a photograph within minutes).

We couldn't use a conventional pendulum. We couldn't use conventional film and processing. We adapted both. See:

Shapes and curves

A good photograph is often one that brings order out of chaos. At their best, science and mathematics do exactly this. In the past, human beings needed to extract essential information from chaotic scenes in order to survive, and perhaps we have evolved by Darwinian natural selection to appreciate this. We still often see beauty within carefully-selected subsets of a chaotic scene. Scientists and mathematicians talk about "the beauty" of a theory or an equation, and this is always an equation that appears vastly simpler than the topic it is examining. Something simple and revealing "snaps into focus". Perhaps "art", "music", "science", and "mathematics", are linked at some deep level in the brain. (Note: I am not using "chaos" in the mathematical sense, but in the every-day sense).

Swing a light, and swing a camera, and the result is likely to be chaos! Only an infinitesimal proportion of all possibilities will prove interesting. "Climb Mount Improbable" - extract the beautiful essence from the infinite number of photographs that no one would ever want to see! Learn how to generate only those photographs that may be interesting.

Photographers don't all need to know the mathematics. It is enough that some do. Here is an article about the effects of the mathematics, such as Lissajous Figures and Twin-Elliptical Figures, without having to worry about the mathematics. There is no mathematics in this page. (But if you want to study the spreadsheet, it is there!)

Special effects

The original image may be just the start. They can be enhanced by filters, layer styles, Java applets, etc.

Fire storm

Photoshop filters


Tell me what you have. If it adds value, I will link to it. Let's push this topic forward, for the sake of future photographers!