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Toss a Camera

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Admit it: Sometimes abstract art makes you think that the artist merely threw a few buckets of paint on a canvas. Or that a photographer simply tossed a camera into the air and captured random images.

Well, in some cases, that is exactly what's done -- at least with photography, and I have my suspicions about some paintings. The photographic technique is called camera tossing, and it's become a way to show off extraordinary views of ordinary objects -- or at least ordinary light sources.

The basics of camera tossing are simple: Set a camera to a longer exposure time, press the shutter button and throw the camera a few feet in the air. Oh yeah, it's usually good to then catch the camera.

"The best thing about camera tossing is that you can pretty much toss your camera anywhere, and get incredible results," said Tiffany Johnson, a 26-year-old who lives in Washington state and showcases her tossing pictures on Flickr.com. "And you never get the same picture twice."

Ryan Gallagher, 28, is on the forefront of the camera-toss craze. The Austin, Tex., theater technician has posted more than 2,000 photos on Flickr.com and has started a blog for tossing fans. His "exercise in chance photography" produces abstract images that are beautiful and intriguing, familiar yet often undecipherable.

Johnson is among many online users who was influenced by Gallagher's success. Her own experiments also have drawn attention.

"Be prepared for strange looks from others if you plan to do this out in public," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "Most people aren't accustomed to photographers just throwing their camera around, so you might find yourself receiving a lot of attention from curious bystanders."

Thomas Lewis, 25, an IT professional in Wilmslow, England, is used to the odd looks he gets. He sees camera tossing as being part art and part performance art.

"I'm never sure which I prefer -- the process of creating the photos or the results themselves. I always find the photographs to be fascinating, and I love the smooth fluid lines which result from the unrestrained movement of the camera through the air," Lewis wrote in an e-mail exchange. "I used to think it was just something fun to do, but looking at some of them I don't see why they couldn't be considered art; I've seen worse in the Tate Modern."

Scott Moore

PICTURE Pointers

GEAR UP. The cheapest digital cameras often are the best. You don't want to risk damage to a high-priced model, and digital is much simpler and cheaper than film. Also, the infuriating shutter lag of cheap digitals actually is an advantage: It allows time for the camera to leave your hand before making the exposure. The camera's shape, weight distribution and shutter speed also will influence the final image.

KNOW THE BASICS. A shutter speed of about a second is a good starting point; much more than that usually results in too much activity. If you don't know how to change your shutter setting, read your manual or try your camera's "night" setting. Toss the camera straight up; the catch will be a lot easier. And make your first attempts over a soft spot, such as a bed or cushion. Some camera tossers keep hold of the wrist strap or a yo-yo string -- just in case -- and even the most experienced camera tossers have their share of drops. A three-foot toss is a good place to start, though some have tried tosses of more than 20 feet.

DEVELOP YOUR STYLE. Many tossers use a light source as the subject; a string of Christmas lights or a neon sign is a good choice. But as the Thomas Lewis series featured on the Sunday Source's cover shows, a sunny day at the park also can bring good results, blending or blurring elements. Also, different flicks of the wrist will produce different results. Johnson says spinning (keeping the lens toward the subject) produces a more fluid effect, while flipping (end over end) often results in a choppier, grid-like pattern.

TRY, TRY AGAIN. If you don't like the first results, try something else. One of Johnson's first tosses produced her favorite image, but most camera tossers take many shots to get a few good ones. Gallagher estimates he makes 30 throws to get a decent series of eight. "If your goal is to get a particular shot, it might be one in 100," he says. "But if the goal is to let chance and the random process produce something for you, you'll be satisfied with the results you get."

Resources:

Gallagher's Web site, http://www.cameratoss.blogspot.com , showcases many excellent camera-tossing photos, and discusses camera selection and techniques.

http://www.flickr.com contains thousands of camera-tossing photos. Search for "cameratoss." To find photos from the photographers mentioned here, search by their screen names: Gallagher goes by "clickykbd," Johnson is "TaGurit(SS/NB)" and Lewis is "Nod."

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