Camera Technique Captures New View Of Space And Time

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What if you could compress a video clip into a single image? That's what Jay Mark Johnson, an artist and visual effects director, has accomplished through the use of a special camera technique. He calls the images "photographic timelines," and his collected works offer quite a shift to conventional perception.

Pictures ordinarily taken with a regular still camera make the exposure time short but the field of view large. For his images, Johnson does the opposite: a narrow field of view is captured over a large period of time. To do this, he uses a technique involving an $85,000 slit camera designed to produce panoramas, in which a motor turns the camera as it takes high precision vertical images and stitches the images together. A modified technique involved blocking the rotation of the motor, which allowed the resulting slices to be strung together in progression. A single composite image then is a sliver of space captured over an extended period of time.

In the image, anything that is stationary is repeated throughout the sequence (that's the horizontal lines across the image), but objects that move are only in part of the scene. Furthermore, the faster they move, the thinner they appear. In this way, a single image is capturing objects and their rate of motion through a sliver of space. The leftmost edge of the image is the furthest back in time.

"The effect is like stepping 'through the looking glass' with Alice," wrote Johnson in a statement describing his work in that what is stationary appears across the image, as a blur would look in a traditional photo, and what is in motion is clear.

Surprisingly, Johnson has been using the technique since 2005, refining his method and capturing more complex scenes since then. In his earliest attempts, images were unrecognizable, but through experimentation he was able to resolve objects and visually divorce them from the background. Further describing the images, he stated, "Because they seamlessly blend visual depictions of space and time into a single hybrid image they provide an altered 'spacetime' view of the world."

Along the way Johnson has worked on the visual effects of music videos, television series, and numerous films, including The Matrix.

Visually interpreting the images is reminiscent of trying to see objects embedded within a Magic Eye computer-generated image, which in their hayday pushed the boundaries of visual perception. Others have also ventured away from the conventional uses of cameras, such as the Descriptive Camera that produces written summaries of what is in the field of view. At the same time, improvements in camera technology and digital processing are opening up a whole new way of viewing the world through the use of high speed photography to capture water balloons bursting, tilt-shift photography that transforms real scenes into miniatures-scale models, and high dynamic range imaging that reflects more of the highlight and shadow details that the human eye captures.

Johnson's work serves to challenge notions of space, time, and human perception of both. While the work is shown in exhibits, it would be a brilliant way to teach physics or philosophy as it is a beautiful mashup of art, science, and technology. It's definitely worth taking some time to explore the full set of his collected works at his website.

To learn more about the camera technique and thoughts on what the images say about human perception, check out this panel discussion video from 2010 in which Johnson gives more background and insight:

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 16 Responses

  • abc123321 October 29, 2012 on 2:02 pm

    Um … try google’ing LineScan camera

  • llamahunter October 29, 2012 on 2:05 pm

    Uh.. isn’t this how they’ve been doing photo finishes for races for *years*?

  • why06 October 29, 2012 on 3:48 pm

    So wait… how exactly is he doing this?

    “A modified technique involving blocking the rotation allowed the resulting slices to be strung together in progression to make a single composite image of a sliver of space spread over an extended period of time.”

    wut?? 😐

    • David J. Hill why06 October 29, 2012 on 7:25 pm

      thanks for pointing out how unclear that was stated.

      funny how it makes sense in your mind until you see it through someone else’s eyes.

      • why06 David J. Hill October 31, 2012 on 8:19 pm

        Thanks for the edit. I think get it now.

  • Joseph Lust October 29, 2012 on 3:57 pm

    Ever heard of FinishLynx? They’ve been selling these timing systems for a few decades. So much for “novel” and “new.”

  • timc October 29, 2012 on 7:12 pm

    David — called ‘timestacking’, this image processing technique dates back to the mid-1980’s (documented in scientific papers/journals, etc.) We’ve been using the process since 2002 from live beach cameras around the world (coastalcoms dot com & coastalwatch dot com, via grant-backed research work out of Australia) to measure wave heights and other patterns in the environment to track environmental change/hazards.  We started making images of everyday things like cars and people several years ago, and when our surveillance cameras captured a unique, panning view of Huntington Beach Pier we thought we’d start posting what might look good on the wall on a website.

    Any digital video and the right software (open source btw) works. We regularly use iPhones and other portable devices (like MacBooks) during art installations to show people how they can create digital art on the fly with timestacking and some cool filters.

    Links to the scientific papers, user generated videos, and our own work from over the years… at timestackart dot com.

    • David J. Hill timc October 29, 2012 on 7:21 pm

      awesome stuff – thanks for sharing your site!

      bringing this technique to light was one of my goal’s in writing this article, but clearly there’s an enormous amount of interest in this area. These images really challenge our perception of space and time in ways that are intriguing and increasingly relevant.

  • Michael Aschauer October 30, 2012 on 7:11 am

    The technique is not new at all, it has been used in rotating panoramic cameras back in th 19th century (Jay Mark Johnson seems to use a digital one), Photo finish is another long standing example. It’s strange it is not as commonly known. Also it is interesting, that there is a broad range of terms describing – basically – the same principle: Slit scan, line scan, photo finish, time stack, time slice, push broom scanning (in satellite imaginery), etc..

    I really like some of Johnson’s images. A very good overview and collection of slit scan based artworks is Golan Levin’s “Informal Catalogue of Slit-Scan Video Artworks and Research” (

    I am using this method myself for years in capturing long river panoramas (<a href="River Studies – next to other projects (for an example: 7 C-Days)

    • timc Devin Palmer October 30, 2012 on 10:11 am

      very relevant. cool site.

    • David J. Hill Devin Palmer October 30, 2012 on 11:34 am

      nice! thanks for sharing

  • Anders Tell October 31, 2012 on 5:29 am

    Try this in photoshop; with vertical 1 row marquee tool mark an area where its mostly background only, Ctrl or Cmd+J for a new layer from the selection, free-transform (ctrl/cmd+T) the layer horizontally to the ends of your image and press enter; VOILA 🙂 , similar effect as on some picts here, now from here you of course just need to brush in parts from foreground again with a layer mask

  • Peter French November 5, 2012 on 7:48 am

    San Antonio’s Ansen Seale is another remarkable slitscan photographer. He built the camera that he uses himself and produces an amazing variety of images. If you enjoy the genre (or photography in general) then you’ll enjoy seeing Ansen’s work.

  • Ivica Kis November 11, 2012 on 5:26 am

    This “Camera Technique Captures New View Of Space And Time” has name. Name of this technique is cinegraphy (short of cinematophotograpy), and it was promoted in 2001. by Željko Sarić with his work “Prolaz Karla Draškovića”. ( Željko Sarić is son of late Hrvoje Sarić, the inventor and constructor of the first panoramic 360° synchro_roto_photo_camera that is used for taking of cinegraphyc images ( Cinegraphy spreads horizons of perception as well as horizons of artistic creativity.

  • Sarah Welch November 14, 2012 on 2:21 am