The Physics of Photography > Introduction: An Integrated Approach

Cover photo, digital art of a camera, for my article, "The Physics of Photography: An Integrated Approach"

The Physics of Photography: An Integrated Approach

Driven by my love for physics, science, and photography, I felt compelled to document the intricate relationship between these fields. There was a time when I served as a teaching assistant for a modern physics course, one of my fonder memories from graduate school. I reveled in crafting detailed lesson plans, from elucidating the principles of optics to demystifying the concept of an electron’s charge. My aim was always to present this information in a comprehensible and enlightening way to students who had already taken their general physics courses and were looking to explore beyond.

Since then, I’ve often found my thoughts drawn back to this intersection of science and art. Photography, I realized, is a tangible manifestation of numerous physics principles, from electromagnetic theory to geometric optics. At the same time, science heavily relies on imaging and photography for data collection, observation, and communication. It’s a symbiotic relationship, each field enriching and being enriched by the other. And at the heart of it, creative minds harness this science, turning unseen equations and principles into breathtaking art.

Should you ask whether this series is primarily a physics text or a photography guide, I would hesitate to box it into either category. It is both, yet it transcends the traditional boundaries of both fields. The approach I’m adopting is to start from the basics and progressively build up concepts, interweaving science and art in a manner reminiscent of my undergraduate studies, where I fondly recall taking a unique Studio Course that elegantly fused Calculus and Physics. The teaching methodology was anchored in the idea that Newton had to invent Calculus to describe the physics he was exploring effectively. This holistic approach to learning was transformative and left an indelible mark on me, for which I’m deeply grateful.

Inspired by this experience, I’m approaching photography from a scientific perspective, demonstrating how each physical concept applies to the scenes we capture, the equipment we use, and the final image or print we admire on our walls. No topic is off the table; every aspect of photography, from the mundane to the complex, has a place in this exploration. This series bridges the seemingly disparate worlds of physics and photography and highlights the unexpected and beautiful ways they intersect and inform each other.

This series’ structure is currently fluid, with only a working outline serving as a guide. Expect changes and frequent additions as the series unfolds. My initial attempt at tackling broad photography concepts such as exposure, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focal length led me to realize the immense depth of these topics. I penned thousands of additional words, trying to explain the background theories and principles needed to understand each topic. It quickly became evident that a more systematic approach was necessary to do justice to these intertwined disciplines.

The core topics planned for the series include Light and Electromagnetic Waves, Refraction, Geometrical Optics, the role of lenses in photography, understanding focal length, and the physics of exposure. We will also explore the roles of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO in shaping our photographs. Moreover, the series will shed light on how photography has been and continues to be a powerful tool in scientific exploration and discovery. This is but a glimpse of the journey ahead; the synergy of physics and photography is vast and captivating, and our investigation is only just beginning.

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The following two articles in this introduction serve as the foundation for our exploration. First, Physics & Photography Entwined jumps into the fundamental physical principles that underpin photography. This piece provides a basic overview of how concepts such as electromagnetic waves, geometrical optics, and exposure inform our understanding of the photographic process, topics that will form the core of this series. Subsequently, The Role of Photography in Scientific Exploration explores the integral role photography and imaging techniques play in scientific discovery and communication. From astronomy to photogrammetry, we will explore how photography does more than just document the world around us—it also broadens our understanding of the universe. These introductory articles pave the way for an in-depth exploration of the confluence between physics and photography, promising fresh perspectives on both disciplines.

The next two articles in the introduction will be coming within the next week, as well as the first chapters in the series. Be sure to subscribe for weekly updates!

Next Article: Physics & Photography Entwined

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