Friday, 7 June 2013

Pretty Rubbish

Mikumi Zebra, through a polythene bag (and no, it's not photoshopped!).

Rubbish isn't normally viewed as pretty. A huge proportion of modern waste is plastic, and it is only recently that biodegradable plastics have become common, leaving a world filled with plastic waste. Plastic bags line trees, beaches are swamped with bottles. There is even a country sized patch of fragmented plastic waste floating in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Rubbish is not normally viewed as pretty because it simply isn't.

Coke Exhibit, through an Evian bottle.

Our eyes are pretty rubbish. They can only see light in a narrow range of wavelengths/frequencies (if our hearing was like or vision we would only be able to hear one octave) and can only detect wavelength and intensity. We just can't see other properties of the light, which includes phase and polarisation. Polarised light is all around us; if you have ever tried to look at an LCD screen while wearing polarising sunglasses or 3D glasses from the cinema you will have seen wierd effects. These happen purely because of the  polarisation of the light.

Oxford Narrowboats, through a ziplock bag.

Polarisation can make rubbish pretty. Plastics are made of long linear polymers and when plastic is stretched or stressed these line up and start interacting differently with light whose waves are traveling at different orientations. As polarised light is light whose waves travel at only one orientation this means it interacts strangely with plastics. Because our eyes can't see polarisation we don't normally notice this, but using tricks with polarised light to look at plastic we can reveal these effects. This can transform the appearance of rubbish.

Riverside Path, through a magazine wrapper.

Sadly pretty rubbish is a big PR statement. The spread of plastic waste is destroying pretty parts of the world, not just in appearance but though damage to ecosystems. The tragic case is that in the future the beauty of nature may be lost, preserved only through artificial images in artificial materials like plastics. Now that would be pretty rubbish.

 Iffley, through a tonic bottle.

You can explore the full set on Flickr.

Software used:
UFRaw: Raw to JPEG conversion.

None of these images are photoshopped in any way, they are 100% photo and could have been capture on a film camera. 


  1. These are beautiful images. I'd love to know a bit more about how you made them. I imagine you had the rubbish on top of a polarising filter, with another filter at 90degrees to it in front of the lens.

    1. Pretty much, but I cheated slightly! I displayed the background image on a large horizontally mounted LCD screen (which emits polarised light) and set up the camera with a cross polarised filter. I then just put the plastic object on the screen and snapped the picture!