My Three Laws to Making Photographs

There are some certainties to making a photograph:

  • seeing or viewing the scene,
  • framing the scene in the camera,
  • clicking the shutter button to expose and capture the scene, and
  • admiring the image of the scene.

But make enough photographs, and three realities make themselves known. These arrive gradually, surprising you with their frequency and constancy. But you’ll eventually recognize the universal truths behind what it really means to make a photograph.

And this is where physics is a useful analogy, without the math.

Hot and Cold

When I was at university, one mandatory course was thermodynamics, the study of relationships between heat (thermal energy) and other forms of energy including mechanical, electrical, or chemical. It’s a way of understanding how heat transfer is described, and the various ways energy can be transformed or exchanged within a physical system.

What does this have anything to do with you? Thermodynamics is a driving factor behind weather in the atmosphere, water currents in the oceans, how refrigerators, heat exchangers, water kettles work, among other applications. Thermodynamics plays a role in our everyday lives.

In words, the Three Laws of Thermodynamics are:

  1. “Energy can be changed from one form to another, but energy cannot be created or destroyed. The total amount of energy and matter in the Universe remains constant.”
  2. “Entropy, a measure of a system’s energy that is unavailable for work, or of the degree of a system’s disorder, in the universe always increases. Heat does not by itself pass from a cooler to a hotter body.”
  3. “It is not possible to reach a temperature of absolute zero.”

The poet Allen Ginsberg created theorems, restating and applying the three laws of thermodynamics to “the game of life”:

  1. You can’t win.
  2. You can’t break even.
  3. You can’t get out of the game.

Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia, fotoeins.com

My Three Laws to Making Photographs

I attempted to photograph large waves pounding the rocks at Sydney’s North Bondi. As I hunted for the “perfect crash,” I began to think a lot about thermodynamics. In a crazy wave of thought, I got down to my “Three Laws to Making Photographs”:

  1. If you want that shot, someone already made it to worldwide acclaim.
  2. That ideal shot is a fraction of a second too early or too late.
  3. You can’t resist the urge to try and try again.

It’s good to know I’ve put some of that physics training to good use, and I’ve been responsible in raising the “total entropy of the photographic universe” by a small amount, after amassing 75000 exposures with a single camera.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time I headed out to continue my futile search and photograph that elusive moment of pure clarity …

I made the photo above from Bondi Icebergs at South Bondi in Sydney, Australia on 3 June 2013. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com.


Minding the Physics

Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman provides a beautiful treatment of thermodynamics in his renowned 1963 Physics Lectures, complete with the math.

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