Plastic and Polarized Light

an exhibit on muellerworld

On a layover in Frankfurt, I picked-up the Christmas 2001 issue of Practical Photography ("Britian's best selling photography magazine"). It proved to be a great issue, offering ideas on some creative in-car night photography as well as a how-to about using poloarized light to take photos of ordinary plastic stuff.

CD Case Schoolkids Stencil

The magazine article presented methods that make ordinary cheap plastic stuff take on beautiful colors that were not expected based on their ordinary appearance otherwise. The technique was pretty simple: place cheap plastic between two polarized materials, and watch as rainbow colors appear in the clear plastic.

I went to a local grocery store and bought some cheap plastic picnic cups and smashed them up so that they would lay flat on the polarized piece of plastic I bought at a local photography store (12"x18" for about $75 USD).

I loaded my F100 with some Kodak E100VS slide film, and mounted a 60mm f/2.8 macro lens on the camera with a polarizing filter installed. A lightbox was placed on the floor with a tripod sitting over it, pointing straight down.

After some colorful yet uninspiring test shots, I got some interesting shots of a clear-plastic CD holder, a child's letter stencil and some crucnhed-up plastic cups. The author of the article had much better success, offering some fantastic photos of plastic eating utensils, but I haven't been able to locate any in the local New Zealand stores that have limited selections of clear plastic cutlery.

The photographer and author for the story, Jolyon Phillips, describes the reason for the patterns like this:

"The way that plastic objects, such as spoons, jelly moulds and geometry sets are made makes them constantly subject to stress. This stress isn't visible to the naked eye under normal light conditions, so there's no obvious photograph. But, add in that the magic ingredient - polarised light - and the areas of stress appear as quite beautiful, multi-coloured patterns.

The size and intensity of these patterns depends on how much stress each area is under. The most dramatic and colourful patterns occur at the point of maximum stress.

When you put an object - say a spoon - into position, you really don't know how good the pattern will be. The intensity of colour is only revealed when you look through your viewfinder. You have to try it to see what happens."

Matt Mueller
28 Feb, 2002