An Exploration Of Lasers In Images Various 

"Lasers are a solution in search of a problem." (Origin disputed, probably unknown...)

I have seen some great laser art, but seen far more dubious graphics that seem to reduce the fact of a laser's existence rather than add meaning to it. Also, I think it is possible to see entirely too many beam shows. There are people extending the art, but mostly the technology is arising faster than the art, so that old quote about solutions and problems is as true now as it always was.

After my first excitement with lasers, I decided that the cost and the limits meant that there was only so much you can do with a laser beam, unless you have one of the kind of quality you can do some serious exploratory physics with. I'm not a physicist, but the fact that superficial examination cannot easily tell a cheap laser beam apart from a very expensive one allows for some liberties to be taken.

There is only one rule I stay with when making laser images: If it looks obvious, forget it. Wait till something happens that makes it weird, or funny, or otherwise a way to apply a laser in a way I haven't seen before. If it is obvious, then I keep it only if something about the context makes it memorable. Most of these images are old, kept because I still liked seeing them long after they were made. There were many more, but anything here has survived several culls over several years, usually because it found reason to exist beyond the various caches I found and destroyed.

Melons are for Munching.

This silliness probably got more respect than it deserves.

Who decides the Worth of a Thing? Not me, apparently, given that I'd sent several things to the BBC's picture-posting decision makers, all of which I thought were better than this, but I do at least get to indulge a bit on my own web site... I'll keep it short though, the BBC's weird choice is partly what led me to be ruthless about what was worth keeping. It MUST be for some reason beyond my own like or dislike of it. Liking it is a good reason to make it, but to keep it when all else changes is another thing entirely. I'll post just one more related image based on my unspeakable indignities visited on that melon...

Hell hath no fury like a melon scorned...

It was a really great melon, one of the best tasting I have had, so why I rendered it illuminated, irradiated and zombified I do not know. Probably something to do with old memories of Halloween, but also I was listening to Bile (hardcore band from Manhattan Island, New York) at the time. Krztoff has a knack of finding real beauty in greater ugliness than most of us ever encounter. I have seen that done often before, but rarely as effectively as he did it. How this caused me to mess with lasers and a melon I am not entirely sure, but it did. Out of a bit of caustic minded fun can come something that tells us more than we thought it would. Philip Pullman says that a good story often starts with fun rather than any obvious effort to make meaning. The BBC seem to think so too, so I'll let this stand as a way to remember that.

A 50 mW 650 nm diode, beam collimated with a tiny lens.

As lasers go, this one is almost insignificant, but it's wise to learn to handle one as if it were a weapon, to take similar care about aim and range, to be aware of what it is pointing at, to know its capability in the context it's used in. If a person cannot learn that with a small laser like this, they will be a hazard to everyone including themselves with some of those available now... 50 mW is enough to damage an eye at close range, and while it's not always apparent how strong a punch such a small thing can have, a picture like this can reveal that power. The beam terminates in the canopy of woodland a few hundred yards behind me when I took the picture. The beam source is over half a mile away from the camera. I had to run for a while after setting it up to get to a good spot to make this image. I did this a few times while learning to build small laser modules, but this is one of the strongest images I've got. It looks as if it's pointing upward, but it's passing low over land which slopes downward away from the source. The beam was so narrow even after half a mile that it makes it easy to grasp how much power density can exist in even the smallest laser beam. One obvious deduction is that a beam that 'travels for twenty miles' has as much to do with the optics as with the laser source.

Maybe the biggest application of lasers is to inspire. Useful things can be done with them, but something has to drive the invention, and looking at what they can do and thinking about why they can do it is one of the best ways to start with that.

Ghost of a Samurai, seen through a glass darkly...

Silver Machine, with a ghost rider.

Someone called Terri Blakeley liked that Samurai. She didn't say much about it but I sensed she liked it the same way I do, and it matters to me that she liked it. It's a lurid dream, it's like the phosphene visions I deliberately caused when I was a kid, alone in the silent and total darkness in a house near Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. The visions were amorphous, but the colours and intensity were what I wanted for this image. Phosphene visions caused by pressure on closed eyes are elusive, it's hard to know whether they'll persist or be gone in moments. Chasing phantoms projected by a laser beam through frosted glass is very similar...

I start with a bit of glass, the type with wires running through its plane in a grid pattern, and with bumps on one side. I set it in front of a beam source, either focussed or collimated, to project the result onto a wall. When animated this is called a 'lumia', and the effect is as old as lasers are, likely older, but the frozen moment is what caught my attention. It's very compelling, chasing formless angels and demons of light across a darkened wall, it induces a state that is already more deeply involved than the feeling of magic felt in stories read or heard. Something about actively chasing them, perhaps... Given patience, sometimes very unusual forms arise, half-human, unearthly. Photos do not do justice to the experience of a man-sized phantom irridescent on a wall, glittering with the weird specular pattern that only a laser has. Sometimes a good image does result, based on manipulations inspired by the original vision, and some of those are what I put here.

Sometimes the vision is not a humanoid form, but a landscape, or a machine, and whatever it is, it always has the same unearthly life about it. Silver Machine is probably not what Hawkwind had in mind when they made their song, and they were not what I had in mind when I saw this appear for the first time. It was red... After a lot of graphic manipulation based on a few slightly different images had by moving the glass just enough to create variations on the first form, as I tried to get it to manifest more clearly, I had something that while not likely resembling what Hawkwind had in mind, does capture the spirit of the thing, so I used their name for it. Whether it's tarnished silver, or pure light, or whether it travels through space, or time, is anyone's right to fantasise about, but I like how it looks like a skeletal organic motorbike that flies, complete with a ghost rider looking like something born of dark matter, seen only where the light of the machine makes it possible. This is not a fabrication of my graphic efforts, that form was already there.

And sometimes... The vision seems to be seen by others independently. I'm not sure how, but someone called Willowheart, on the DeviantArt website, has made an image called Dragonbane that looks as if it was inspired by the same phantom that appeared to me. Neither of us had any idea of each other's existence, neither image is based on any other image. I'm not trying to suggest these phantoms are 'real', but there's something very curious about events like these. When I discovered that, 7 years after I'd left DeviantArt and gone to look there for other stuff, I found that page and ended up posting stuff on it having found my login still worked. Uploading my own image failed though, which is partly why it now exists here. Never mind 7 years, another 13 have gone since then, so it's about time! Talking of dragons...

Here be Dragons that live under an alien ocean.

When I have a few closely related photos of phantoms, I use false colour to emulate the lasers I do not have, as well as those I have. This is not easy, and I have to keep some secrets, so I will not tell them here. The blue dragon is not cast with 405 nm light. No camera I can afford could catch that eldritch purple glow. Its light is shortwave, too intense to do anything but saturate a camera's sensor and distort the colour and detail completely. My aim was to emulate how the light looks to eyes and brains, within the limits of dynamic range imposed by 24 bit graphics. Cameras can and do lie. Strangely, GIF compression does not, while JPEG does! Some of these images are in GIF form because the compression (with dithering) not only makes the smallest files, but it also causes the least loss of form and intensity in many laser based images. It's almost as good as lossless storage.

The dragons were made by overlaying more than one image with different colours. Each has its own specular pattern, so the result is a lot more irridescent than each original single image used to make them. The effect is even more obvious in the Silver Machine, where enough differences allowed me to make red, green and blue layers and adjust them to get the effect of scattered white light. In more subtle variants, high resolution is vital. The more pixels there are, the closer the image gets to reality. This is obvious, but never more so than when making laser based imagery because the specularity is directly caused by interactions on atomic scales. No still image camera could catch the way the specular pattern moves as we move when we watch it, to capture that would defy the highest and fastest resolutions of any movie camera ever made, and storing the result would defy the largest hard disk ever made. Even if all this were possible, it could never recreate the unique binding of the event with our own being as we experience it, the best it could do is catch the experience of whoever was using the camera and replay it as a dead thing after the event. Quantum physics, writ large, is the weirdest phantom of all.

Sometimes individual forms, with false colour to emulate various laser light sources, have enough character to stand alone.

The Timeless Judge, casting ire on all we will ever be.

The Human Phoenix, in an appropriately fiery response.

There were many more, but these two together have the power of myth about them. Never mind that the colours emulate argon and sodium lasers, the impressions are mapping out the way a mind interprets the images. They lack the form of specific current events or people or anything else, so they become channels for the most ancient and powerful ideas we have ever had about ourselves and our place in existence. Some truths are so scalable that they work equally well, whether in a mighty trilogy written over a lifetime, or in two transient images found in light scattered through a bit of broken glass.

Whisky. And lasers. Some of the finer things in life...

Enough with phantoms, different spirits prevail here, and plenty of physics too. I started wanting to make the whisky look interesting (as if it didn't already), and I wanted to see if it scattered laser light as usefully as frosted glass can do it. I got more than I expected, by far. Most of the images weren't special until I had the bright idea of aiming the laser at the meniscus as it rose on the inside wall of the bottle. The first sign of fun was the way the light scattered on the curtain, but a better aim got better results. I saw things that made the image unique, powerful, like waking a genie in a bottle, but it got stranger yet when I realised that there were things there best seen with the light off.

Still the best demonstration of optical physics I know.

These pictures are large (if you open them in a new window or by clicking on them), but it's the only way to do justice to the event. At least four optical miracles are happening there. One is reflection, seen in the scattered light on the curtain, forming an intensely magnified image of the tiny irregularites in the smooth surface of the glass at the point where the beam hits it. Another is refraction, seen as the meniscus acts like a lens to cast a wide fan of light. It's all one colour (532 nm, highly monochromatic narrowband light), so a prism would not do this, but a lens would. The fan in real life was as irridescent as a peacock's tail, and it's not bad in the photo either. There is also diffraction, seen in the rings around the point of entry where the beam hits the whisky. Before I too decided to hit the whisky I noticed the best thing of all. That orange glow. At first I thought it was just the room light causing it, but it was still there when the light was turned off. Whisky is fluorescent. It glows with its own strong colour when lit by a shorter wavelength than it will emit, and may be one reason it is valued highly, because like diamond, it does things with light that make it its own. Normally we do not see it, or at least we don't do so consciously, but we probably respond to it even when we don't realise it's happening, or know what makes it special. It's possible that this image shows other strange optical physics which I know nothing about.