Saturday, October 15, 2005

Camera Toss, Mini-HOWTO

Camera Toss: Mini-HOWTO

Author: Ryan Gallagher (clickykbd on flickr)
Last Updated: Nov 23rd 2005

Change Log:

  • 2005-11-23: First Version, unedited!



The concept is extremely simple, and the following summary is probably even more detailed than it should be. Basically just take pictures while throwing your camera and use trial and error to hone your results. That being said there is a whole spectrum of directions you can take this. It is after all, a photography technique, and can be applied however you desire.

Summary, just the basics

  1. Obtain a film or digital camera.
  2. Find a subject (they are everywhere).
  3. Use "timer function" or longish exposure setting.
  4. Depress the shutter button (timing depends on your technique).
  5. Throw your camera into the air during or just before it exposes.
  6. Catch camera (optional).
  7. Process film (optional).
  8. View results.
  9. If you like them and you didn't cheat, share them.


The current interest in this rather bizarre form of photography stems from the creation of the Camera Toss interest group on the photography sharing and community website called flickr. I (my flickr page) created this interest group after doing quite a bit of throwing my camera and enjoying the process and results. Essentially, I thought others might enjoy doing it or looking at the results so I shared them as I went. It also embodied some very core ideas about art that I find facinating.

How it went from there to getting linked everywhere, having a blog that at times attracts thousands of visitors a day, getting covered by the printed media, and needing this Mini-HOWTO is another story. If you are curious here is a good theory on such things. Regardless of everyone's individual reasons for viewing or participating, it apparently had all the right ingredients to capture imagination and continue spreading.

Why should you do this?

Using sound logic, you should NEVER do this. But obviously the world is not always logical. Some of the reasons people ARE doing this, but by no means a complete list:

  • It's simple.
  • It's FUN!
  • The results are often very pretty.
  • There is something innately hypnotic about the patterns created using this type of camera motion.
  • It's enjoyable to view your results because you don't know exactly what they are going to be until after the fact.
  • It's hard to understand without doing.
  • It often results in effects unattainable by any other photography technique.
  • It's addictive.
  • To prove you are crazy.
  • Because other people are doing it?
  • Why not!

Camera choices

Essentially any camera is worth trying. The results can often be suprising and every camera has different properties when it comes to how it behaves flying through the air. Some good guidelines follow, but there are definitely exceptions to every rule.

  • Small and compact means easier to catch (if you intend to catch).
  • Inexpensive is good, considering there is risk involved to the equipment in this activity.
  • Support of longer "night" exposures is desirable if you intend to capture more of the motion.
  • The ability to manually set exposures and other functions such as focus and aperature size allow for more specific technique and experimentation, but are not required.
  • Cameras with moving/protruding parts such as lens barrels for zooming are more prone to being damaged, even when carefully catches and soft landings.
  • Battery and memory card compartments should be relatively shock resistant. Many cameras exhibit shutdown problems due to loss of power when they are jolted too hard.
  • A timer function or noticable "shutter lag" are useful features that allow you to get the throw off in time before the exposure starts. This can apply to both digital and film cameras.
  • Obviously it should complete taking a photo even if your finger leaves the shutter button. I know of some toy cameras that would be very difficult to throw because they don't exhibit this property.
  • If you intend to use a safety line secured to the wrist strap or neck strap ring, make sure it is a very strong part of the camera. These often aren't designed for preventing intentional throws, just accidental drops.
  • Where the lens is relative to the center of gravity will affect how the image is composed, the more centered, the tighter your loops and spirals can be. More off-set yields other equally interesting results.
  • The ability to disable the flash is important if you intend to do night throwing without draining your batteries, otherwise you can always tape over it but it may not adjust the exposure accordingly.

So far a whole spectrum of compact digitals have been utilized by folks, some digital SLRs, hybrid DV camcorders, and a smattering of film cameras including some "LOMOs" and even a polaroid! Every camera seems to have it's own quirks and benefits, so far no camera has been attempted that proved absolutely un-usable.

Best cameras are ones you can afford to destroy...

Most importantly, CAMERAS HAVE BEEN DESTROYED, if you frequently undertake this activity you are playing with fate and eventually you will drop it. Whether it survives or not depends largely on the equipment and conditions. If you are working with equipment you cannot afford to lose, take serious precautions (see Catching, crashing, and landings).


It seems a simple enough concept, but relative to cameras in flight, it has numerous different facets!

Throw and Motion Styles

The object here is not height, although some people attempting daytime aerial photography have found that an interesting challenge. Camera Toss is about applying motion to the camera that is otherwise impossible if you keep it in your hands. A short wildly spinning throw is one good example. Experiment with as many types of throws as your camera seems to allow. Some common ones are: flipping end over end where the lense sweeps a full 360 degrees or more, spinning on the lens axis facing the subject, chaotic (a mixture of motion), and flat (simple up and down with as little rotation as possible).

Also consider that lateral motion plays a part, simple up and down throws are a good starting point, but other results are possible if the camera and lens are traversing a scene/subject while spinning. For serious traversal throws a partner might be needed for catching, or a very soft landing zone so that you don't have to chase the flying camera, a very difficult situation to effectively catch anything. A little bit of traversal goes a long way when working very close to a subject (macro style camera tossing).

Fluidity and Non-Fluidity

Perfectly fluid patterns in camera tossed images are a beautiful thing, and this is a DIRECT result of your hands and other things not affecting the camera's free motion while it is flying during exposure. For truely fluid results it is important that none of the exposure where light is reaching the film/sensor be before or after the camera is airborne. If possible adjust exposure times accordingly or experiment with using your hand to manually cover the lens before launch. This technique has been used to produce fluid results with exposures as long as 15 seconds, granted the actual time light was entering the lens was much shorter!

That being said, non-fluid elements intermingling with the rest of the fluidity can create interesting effects and variety. Most often the start of the throw, or catch, or both are apparent as anomolies in the otherwise fluid image. Other strange things can cause these anomolies too, such as hanging on to the neck strap while throwing and having it get tangled up or jerk the camera unintentionally, or the camera bouncing off the ceiling accidentally! Perhaps it even ricochets off your subject!

Another interesting example of mixed fluidity is the "delayed throw". Using a relatively long exposure, start as if you were taking a normal picture, but somewhere during the exposure send it flying! This often has the effect of capturing a bit of unfocused reality while still providing enough air-time to get an image based on chance results. Similiar, but much more dangerous is to leave the flash ON! The flash will capture an instant of reality in the middle of the fluid blurry smear, but catching a camera that has just blinded you can be very very difficult!

When is it a Camera Toss versus some other technique?

By no means is this a copyrighted technique or something, so does it really need a definition? You can call it whatever you want! However we've struggled with the details in our flickr community since creating a visual theme to the photo pool was part of the objective...

A camera toss is a very very hard thing to define concretely. But so far our community on flickr has concentrated "mostly" on images created from airborne cameras where the motion during exposure is undisturbed by foreign influences, including the photographer! The tendancy at first is to not trust your ability catching, triggering many to tie something onto the camera or hold on to the strap. This works but put provides the link to the camera that could easily influence it's motion. There is nothing wrong with experimenting with all types of crazy camera motion! But for purposes of the flickr group and definition, is it really an flying camera if it is tethered to the ground? I suppose it depends on how obvious that influence is in the resulting image.

Catching, crashing, and landings

There is some skill and forethought involved in using this technique in a way unlikely to destroy your equipment.

The obvious, just catch it.

In it's simplest form you have a camera you don't care a whole lot about, and you just throw, followed by a gentle and skillful catch slowing it's downward progress by bending at the knees.

Being able to do the simple throw and catch confidently enables you to explore this technique while you are out and about, not just in prepared environments at home. Practicing with non camera objects may actually help you with this. I imagine that part of my early success was due to that I am also a pretty competent juggler, certainly a wonderful training excersize for all this.

That being said, even a very gentle catch can harm some systems on a compact camera. Many have experienced focus and zoom problems after a catch on cameras that have protruding moving lens barrels. Often it was fixed with simply power cycling the equipment.

Alternative landing zones

When you can prepare your environment, a very functional approach is to use a very soft landing surface such as a bed with pillows and comforters. This allows you to ignore catching entirely and just focus on the throwing and spinning.

Outdoors, tall grass has been employed as a precaution, but often leads to very dirty optics and cleaning between shootings.

Use your imagination, there are probably lots of ways to create a portable system for safely doing this. If you have photography friends with you, perhaps simply just carry a medium sized sheet or blanket to stretch out between 4 people holding the corners.

Law of Probabilities

Consider this fact: you will drop your camera if you use this technique often enough. You are gambling every time the camera leaves your hands, and the more expensive the equipment, the larger the bet. For those that enjoy gambling and pushing there luck, there may be some innate joy in throwing heavy expensive equipment. Certainly an adrenaline rush often results.

Thin line between landing and CRASHING

Regardless of your method for catching or dampening the blow a camera takes when it lands, there is always some strain applied to the equipment. How this affects the camera depends on the model. Doing this sucessfully is about using equipment with as few structural weaknesses, and employing a method that stays below the threshold of "crash" relative to what that equipment can take. Cameras certainly were not designed for this, and even in doing it safely it's likely you will notice slight design flaws. But no camera designer really expected anyone to put them through these extremes.

If you use your most expensive equipment, take as much care as humanly possible. Use a polarizing filter to protect lens glass, perhaps even leave the lens hood on to provide a first impact surface other than the optics. On single lens reflex cameras the lens mount is probably the weakest point, and long heavy lenses should most likely be avoided for tossing.


The rule here is experiment! Try anything, even things that hadn't occurred particularly interesting often produce lovely results.

Light sources in otherwise darkness

Most of the early examples in the flickr group were of this variety. It lends itself nicely to allowing the longer exposures that help produce the sweeping fluid lines and smears. The structure of the toss can often be revealed through repetative or linear light sources. The classic "spirograph" examples were mostly rope-lights or neon tubes at night.

Daytime scenes

More and more camera tossing is being done during the day too, there is a whole different effect achieved by a rapidly spinning camera and much shorter exposures. On some digitals, especially the DV camcorder and camera phones, an insane degree of image "warp" seems to result, separate from any blur, if the rotation of the optical path is fast enough.

Other topics

Worthy subject matter is evolving as we speak. Once you've learned the effects of tossing your camera more and more things come to mind that might be worthy exploring. The general rule is that the composition is controlled by physics, but you have direct control over the pallette available when it comes to color, texture, and even very slightly the forms that result. So look around you, try to think about things not as a picture, but as a painting created from just those aspects.

Okay so I did it, now what?

Camera tossing appears to mean something different to everyone who does it. What you do with your images is up to you, and largely depends on why you did it in the first place. Perhaps you just wanted to be able to say you tried it, and now you are done, never to look back. If you take alot of pictures, maybe it will work it's way into your repitoire of techniques.

At least one person has said they enjoy doing them when they are otherwise having a creative block. It's like rearranging the lines of a poem to see if something new jumps out at you.

Regardless of why you are doing this, we encourage you to share your results with the flickr community (see Appendix A: Public Community on Flickr).


All examples in this section are by members of the flickr community. To see larger versions and find out who shot them, click the thumbnails. Once on the flickr page click "all sizes" to see larger formats.

There are many more effects and techniques deserving of mention in this section, but this should be enough to give you a taste!

Light Spirograph Effects (axis spin)

All night time camera tossing mostly in front of neon light sources. Style of throw was spinning on lens axis facing the subject.

60Htz in motionwindow in timecomplexity of the simpleimplied directionality

Linear effects (end over end)

Flipping the camera end over end where the lens sweeps a partial rotation or more.

rainbows, a studylost highwaymuahahain the red #04

Intersecting Linear effects (chaotic throw)

Usually partially end over and but with some lop-sided aspect, maybe even some rotation mixed in. Generally a chaotic throw. The result is often the same light source streaking across the frame in different directions. Depending on exposure length this may happen several times.

drawing outside the linesneon screamsopposite

Traversal effects

Some simple traversal and some with spin included. The camera moving across a subject has a wonderful ability to reveal texture if focus is spot on.

ss #01ss #49fruit loops #29abstract seas

Short exposure and image warping...

My theory is that this is due to how the shutter or digital shutter intersects with the subject, when very fast spin is involved the combination yields a curve even if the subject was linear. This effect is separate from the motion blur that occurs. It also seems to vary greatly from camera to camera. These are the most pronounced examples...

Day Toss 19Day Toss 18I finally swung over the bar!fly island

Refresh rates and electrical cycle

Subjects that are electrical and use alternating current, or monitors that have certain refresh rates and scan lines, respectively reveal that property when camera motion is fast enough. Other types of camera motion or subject motion reveal this too, but it's one element that makes spirographic results so striking.

Even a camera-tossed clock tells the right time once a day.Blue SpinbabylonDSCF6563

Simplicity and Structure of Toss

Simple subjects often reveal the structure of the toss. Pay close attention to your results and you can often picture how the camera was moving.

crescendo in the hue of blue #40anatomy of a toss 1untitleduntitled

Generative Forms

Closely related to uniform spirographs, are the generative forms that appear as a subject overlaps itself one or more times during the motion of the camera. These are often quite striking and one of my favorite aspects of this technique.

ss #44untitledconvergence

Non-fluid anomolies

These are good examples of what happens when the exposure starts just before it leaves your hands. Some part of the image is not fluid and reveals the jumpy start.

untitledsign creatureauroral vertebratetraces of reality

Leaving the flash on

We don't have too many examples of this, but the results are often amusing!

My first tossDinnerSpinnerG & G

Camera tossing self portraits

Definitely one of the most enjoyable activities to undertake. And this is all about having fun!

Multishot tossgotcha!

Subtle color and texture via motion

If your environment has interesting texture or color, you can often achieve wonderfully muted light paintings.

PestoBrainCamera Tossan experiment in camera-tossing

Revealing texture through motion

When you start to really take this seriously, you can zero in on just the texture of a subject, and wonderfully reveal it through the motion of the camera. As with many examples, these are definitely worth viewing LARGE.

ss #52ss #53exhaustcalligraphies #78

Appendix A

RSS and Atom Feeds

Watch the continuing developments by subscribing to our RSS feeds:

Public community on flickr

Also consider joining our group on flickr. This requires having or creating a free account on flickr.


Anonymous said...

OMG. I stumbled across your blog via a link from German news site "Der Spiegel". I've been sitting in absolute amazement at the beauty of your pictures.
Also, for the last 10 minutes I've been absolutely stunned, with the question going round and round in my head "Why on Earth has nobody thought of that before?!".
Dude, you rule.

Anonymous said...

Another "Kraut" ... Seems we are all over the place :-)
Seriously, this idear is one of the most rocking ones since Harddisk shotput. I love it and can't wait to try it myself.
Depending how hooked it still am later this week, I even use my loved D70 SLR for the first tests :-)
Thanks for beeing really creative!

Anonymous said...

"The Spiegel" definitely made you popular among us German folks. Can't wait to try this throwing thing myself. And indeed, it seems one can make great pictures with an amazingly simple technique. Thanks a lot!

Anonymous said...

Accidentally found your blog through the next blog link :) Im gonna click it everyday from now on. Amazing pics. Am gonna start meself this weekend :) Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

Can we have a "Camera Swinging" group for those of us less inclined to the Rock-n-Roll life-style of the Camera Tossers?

Anonymous said...

These comments have been invaluable to me as is this whole site. I thank you for your comment.

spelio said...

OMG, to quote the apt exclamation of frank here. This must be one of the most creative and elegant ideas and web sites I have come across. While sending the link to friends I thought of the daughter of one, who is a champion frisbee, ( player, and wondered if there are any game camera owners out there who have tried a game with a camera!!

Unknown said...

Thank you to everyone who has enjoyed this article since it was written two years ago. A lot of developments since then, think maybe it is time for an update?

Anonymous said...

Mini-HOWTO... Finally found really useful information on the topic, thank you.

Unknown said...

You're welcome New_auto. It's been here all along, though I'm afraid it is sorely in need of some updated information!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic Stuff. I never knew of such a thing. I just bought my first DSLR a week back, so I'd rather watch than play.

But hell, it just goes to show the possibilities are limitless.

Anonymous said...

Wow.... this seems like fun! I tried it a few minutes ago with my Olympus camera (which is shockproof up to five feet! making it perfect for this! It's not like I'm tossing it 20 feet in the air, just 1.5 or so feet.... and there are lotsa pillows anyway...) and got some interesting indoor shots from my day room. I even angled in down a little bit at the blanket i have spread out and got some rather interesting designs in my pictures thanks to it!

thank you for the guide! it was very helpful!!!!!!

Arcius said...

my god, you guys are nuts!
but I love it! :D

kamerasecond said...

thanks for article..

Ali said...

Fun! Fun! Fun! Thank you so much!