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  • Writer's pictureMaxwell Fazio

Physics Photo Project

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

A great way to have your students connect their learning to real-world phenomena and beautify your room at the same time.

Want to skip straight to the student assignment sheet? Here it is!


Student Exemplars: Some of The Most Outstanding Work From This Year

Oscillating Helix

Theme: Change

Artist Statement: This photo illustrates a standing wave in a spring with evenly spaced lights over a 30 second long exposure. A standing wave is a phenomenon in which one end is the source of oscillations and the other is fixed, and the waves from the source interfere with the waves reflected off the fixed end to form a special pattern. The pattern formed has certain points that do not move, called nodes, and certain points that move between the maximum amplitudes, called antinodes. The photo is brighter at the narrowest points, the nodes, because at those points the spring does not move, so the light builds up in the long exposure photograph. At the antinodes and other moving points, the photo is brighter at the edges than near the center because at the edges the oscillator changes direction, which means it slows down and spends more time there.

We took a long-exposure photo of 30 seconds to be able to depict the motion of the spring in one photograph. By utilizing a dark room and lights spaced throughout the spring we were able to capture the harmonic motion of the spring.


Liquid Chandelier

Theme: Force Interactions

Artist Statement: The piece's composition is symmetrical, giving it a balanced look in midst of the unpredictable flow of the fluids. The green centerpiece is a different color as the background and is concentrated and darker, allowing it to stand out. Portrait view puts focus on the motion of the dye traveling down the water-filled tube. The parallel beams of light further emphasize the motion by leading the viewer's eyes in a vertical direction.

As the food dye enters the cool water, the water applies macroscopic forces and causes the dye to diffuse. This macroscopic force is from Brownian motion–water molecules erratically bouncing among each other–which is a result of the vibration of individual molecules interacting with other molecules in the fluid. While Brownian motion is occurring, the individual water molecules would exhibit an electrostatic force upon the food dye and the dye would exhibit an equal, but opposite electrostatic force upon the interacting water molecule.



Theme: Conservation

Artist Statement: This art piece captures the conservation of momentum in a closed system as well as the conservation of kinetic energy in an elastic collision. Due to the hardness of the billiard balls, and because they do not stick to one another, this is almost a perfectly elastic collision (assuming no friction). As the cue strikes the ball, it is propelled forward. This ball now has momentum transferred from the cue to the ball. When this ball strikes the “pyramid” of balls, this momentum is transferred over to the other balls and the total momentum is conserved. Due to the elastic nature of these collisions, the total kinetic energy can also be assumed to be conserved. To capture the movement of the ball, we intentionally lowered the shutter speed. Low shutter speed didn’t allow the camera to capture clear movement, showing the direction of the balls' movements.



Theme: Conservation

Artist Statement: With this photo we hoped to demonstrate the relations between rotational inertia and angular speed.

As we spin the ⅓ full water bottle, the water that used to be concentrated around the bottom with a comparatively low rotational inertia splits into two relatively equal sections at each end of the bottle due to inertia. This increases rotational inertia as the mass is distributed much farther away from the axis of rotation. Since gravitational doesn't provide any torque on the bottle, the total angular momentum must be conserved, so as the rotational inertia of the bottle increases the angular velocity must inversely decrease. We can see this happen within our photograph: As the bottle goes upwards, it makes one rotation, but as it falls down, it needs to cover almost twice as much distance to make one rotation.

Our primary artistic quality present is the use of an overlay. We developed this through slow motion video and burst photography to pick out individual frames and overlay them over a single background.


Nocturne No.3

Theme: Change

Artist Statement: This long exposure photograph, including still shots of the pendulum at equilibrium & maximum displacement, shows a pendulum over 30 seconds. This pendulum is not perfect and frictionless; thus, the energy of the pendulum-earth system is not conserved. The energy loss reduces the amplitude of the pendulum over time, and so again it spends more of the 30 seconds nearer to equilibrium, making the photo brighter there. There are two fainter outlines that naturally formed around the equilibrium; this is likely due to certain overlaps in the period of the pendulum(0.822s) and the 30 seconds over which the film was exposed.


Paldang Dam 2.0

Theme: Conservation

Artist Statement: Paldang-dam 2.0 is a recreation of the Paldang river. The picture on the left depicts the water current of the river, the picture on the right is the Paldang hydroelectric dam, and the background of the collage is a front view of the mountain that surrounds the river. The scientific concept portrayed in this piece is a water-dam-earth system that contains kinetic energy from the water current and potential energy from the water in the reservoir. The water current from the river, consisting of water molecules with kinetic energy, results in water to be collected in a reservoir inside the dam. The collected water drops due to gravity, signifying that the water contains potential energy, and rotates the turbine propeller so that the shaft from the turbine turns the generator, which produces electricity. The artistic technique employed in this piece is the contrast between the black and white background and the picture of the dam and the water current. Contrast is a crucial element for this collage as it provides emphasis on the water current and the dam although the background consists of many elements.



AP teachers do all sorts of different things after the AP exam. In the past I stuck with with doing end-of-year projects where students were given a lot of choice. However, due to COVID restrictions, a partially virtual schedule, and wanting to do something that might get students outside, I chose to pursue a photography project with my students. I took a lot of inspiration from AAPT's annual Physics Photo Contest.

This project was aimed towards the 7th AP Physics Science Practice:

Making Connections: The student is able to connect and relate knowledge across various scales, concepts, and representations in and across domains.

This is practice implicit in a lot of what I do throughout the year, but I never address it with much intention. Having this standard explicitly in the curriculum helped me feel justified in dedicating a few weeks to the project.

I also felt that students would appreciate the structured opportunity to improve their cell-phone photography technique. Cell phone cameras have really come a long way recently and given that you have sufficient light, you can take really great pictures. Most students like to take and share photos regularly, so I figured they would appreciate the opportunity to "up their game" a bit.


Project Description

Main Purpose: To find phenomena that embody key themes from this course and to capture and present them impactfully through photography.

Themes: Students were required to connect photos to three central themes from the course: Force Interactions, Change, and Conservation. I presented students with a list of some concepts from the class that connected to each theme as shown below.

Force Interactions: The interactions of an object with other objects can be described by forces.

  • Objects with Net Force = 0 are in equilibrium.

  • The acceleration of an object interacting with other objects can be predicted using a = F/m.

  • Objects interact through exerting equal and opposite forces on each other.

  • At the macroscopic level, forces can be categorized as either long-range (action-at-a-distance) forces or contact forces.

  • Massive objects interact over a distance through creating and interacting with gravitational fields.

  • Change: Interactions between systems can result in changes in those systems.

    • Work done on a system changes the energy of the system.

    • Impulse exerted on a system changes the momentum of the system.

    • Interactions with other systems can change the momentum or energy of a system.

    • Systems under the influence of restoring forces experience oscillatory motion governed by some of their properties.

  • Conservation: Changes that occur as a result of interactions are constrained by conservation laws.

    • The energy of a closed system is conserved.

    • The momentum of a closed system is conserved.

    • Systems consisting of multiple objects can contain potential energy and kinetic energy.

    • Energy can exist in both mechanical and non-mechanical forms.

I also encouraged them to consider topics that we hadn't learned about and to seek out new concepts that they could relate to the themes (like concepts in optics or fluids for example).


The First Day: Teaching Students to Use Their Phone Cameras

Most students have very basic familiarity with their phone cameras, but don't really know much more than how to adjust the zoom and maybe switch to portrait mode. On the first day of the project, I went over some basic cell phone photography tips. We discussed adjusting exposure, turning on the grid, and ensuring that you are shooting in the highest quality format that your phone will allow. After we went over the essentials, I turned them loose to watch YouTube tutorials that focused on cell phone photography tips. Here are the videos that I shared with my students.

For the last half of the block I sent them out with the task of taking one good photo--not a physics photo--just one photograph that they thought looked good. Then they all dumped their one good photo in a shared google folder and we went through them together talking about composition strategies or techniques that they tried and what improvements could have been made. It was a very short lesson, but it served as a great "crash course" and a good starting point from which they could do more research on their own.

For the rest of the project we had open work time with periodic check-ins.


Submission Requirements and Assessment

Students working individually were required to submit four final photographs with at least one connecting to each theme. Students working in groups needed to have more. Additionally, students were required to write artist statements, craft reflections, and submit process photos.

Artist Statement: An artist statement is a statement that is intended be hung on the wall next to a piece of artwork. The purpose of the artist statements was to address how the photo connected to the theme, explain any important physics concepts, and describe the most important photography/composition techniques that they used. Students were directed to keep the artist statements short (about a paragraph).

Process Photos and Reflections: In the process photos and reflections, students were instructed to show and tell me everything from their ideation to how they managed to snap their final photograph. The process photos included things like rejected shots and pictures of them setting up contrived phenomena. I repeatedly emphasized that the purpose of this portion of the assignment was to demonstrate that they came to their final ideas and photos through a careful, conscientious process.

Assessment: Students were assessed on two separate rubrics to address two distinct skill sets: "Selecting and Connecting Phenomena" and "Employing Photography and Composition Techniques." Rather than scoring each photo separately, I did my best to assess each group's (or individuals) portfolio holistically.


Student Exemplar: Process Photos and Reflection

Shown below are the process photos and reflection that were written by the group that produced the piece "Oscillating Helix." Note that student were expected to submit these for each of their pieces.

After seeing Mr. Fazio demonstrate to us standing waves using a spring during a break, we wanted to capture this phenomenon in a photo. Initially, we tried to photograph the spring in regular daylight (photo 1). However, we found that it was difficult to see the spring, it did not illustrate standing waves well, and was not aesthetically pleasing. So we tried using a long exposure with a camera on a tripod high over the floor (photo 2). Again, visibility was an issue, because the spring was not sufficiently brighter than the background of the floor (photo 3). So we got a string of christmas lights and threaded it through the inside of the spring (photo 4). This made the standing wave motion of the spring visible in the dark conditions necessary for long exposure photography (photo 5). In order to maintain a consistent amplitude, we placed tape guides on the floor, and in order to maintain a constant period, we used a metronome.


Student Feedback

I got a lot of positive overall feedback from my students, however some students thought my expectations for aesthetics were a bit too high. One interesting idea that surfaced during while I collected feedback was that many students felt restricted by the requirement of using still images. Several students suggested that I allow GIFs next year. We had some discussion and they insisted that it would be much easier to illustrate objects in motion and systems undergoing changes.

Here are the feedback questions I asked my students and some of their responses:

What are some of the things that you learned by completing this project?

  • I learned that so many phenomenas are operated under the laws of physics. I also learned a lot of photography skills such as rule of thirds and Photoshop editing skills, especially since I have never taken an art course. It was a very unique experience to be able to integrate art with physics, and I was able to practice using the knowledge I learn in school to in real life scenarios.

  • I learned that almost, if not everything, can be recognized as a physics phenomenon. Everything is physics. I also learned a lot about the art of taking photos. I also learned just how creative my peers are!

  • It's difficult to identify a single physics phenomena in real life because so many different phenomena interact with each other. It's actually possible to take good photos without digital zoom. Background really matters (it can drastically change the mood of the photo).

  • I learned how to distinguish between trials and final images along with changing settings on my phone camera to take more professional and better photos. Along with learning about photographic elements during Mr. Fazio's Interesting/Fun Photograph Crash Course, I also learned how to precisely demonstrate and add onto ideas to show a unique physics phenomenon. In addition, I was able to write and develop the concepts gaining further connection of this class into the real life world.

  • By completing this project, I learned that there are many natural phenomena around us that we could apply physics concepts. Physics is all around us, and physics is a natural science that is really important.

  • From completing this project, I learned that there are a lot of physics phenomenons in our daily lives that we don't realize.

If I give this project again, what should I do differently? Are there other resources or pieces of advice that I should share with students?

  • If I work on this project again, I want to visit different places outdoors to take the photos. A piece of advice I want to share is try to focus on the physics concept. Sometimes we focused more on the artistic part of the photo. However, we must balance them to create a high-quality physics phenomenon photo.

  • I think you should give guidelines of a required # of contrived vs natural photos as most groups tended to stick to 1 theme, and weren't able to experience the nuances of each type photography.

  • One thing I would do differently is brainstorming more ideas first. I wish we had a bigger list because there were some ideas we had to ditch because they didn't look good on camera, so it would have been nice if we had some backup ideas. Also, I think we should've taken a bunch of photos first instead of asking for feedback after every photo. I wish we contrived a few more photos because after looking at some of my peers', I realized there are a lot of cool phenomenon I missed.

  • I don't have anything that I thought could be revised next year, but I would say that you should keep the instructions as flexible as possible so that students can be very creative with what they do.

  • I think if we can add videos as our submission, I think we can make more diverse results and portray the idea or concept better.

  • If I would do this project again, I would try to think of more creative phenomenon. The images I saw today truly inspired me.

  • I think that pointing them to the AAPT photo contest is a good place for examples (and also bc they can't copy them, because they're not about concepts taught in class).

  • I think we should be allowed to do GIF's - the single images limits us from choosing phenomenons of moving objects or unique phenomenons that cannot simply be captures in just one image.Overall, I thought this project was really engaging and fun to do- a great way to sum up this course. Advice: Start early and begin with a heavy list of brainstorming of phenonemons to test to see if it comes out the way you like. Pay attention to light source, exposure, and back/middle/and fore ground when taking the images.

  • I think showing an exemplary work can tell students as to how to approach the project; I had a hard time figuring out how to work on this project first. If giving exemplary examples should be uncomfortable, I felt like at least some exemplary photos would have been very helpful.


Dangers of the "we do it after the AP" mentality

In an AP course, teachers often tend to do fun and interesting stuff after the AP exam, but this can send the wrong message. When something is only done after the AP, we are implying that we don't value the associated skills as. I know that we need some way to fill the time after the AP, but it's also important that we show students that we value diverse skills throughout our courses. Integrating assignments like this throughout the year would emphasize that this kind of work is not secondary to what we do in a "typical unit." If these projects are sprinkled throughout the course, students will see that these skills are important and not just something that we do to fill the days at the end of the year.

I like the idea of requiring students to complete a "making connections" assignment at several different points in the year. Phenomenon photos could be one of multiple options for a project like this. Another option would be to have it as a standing opportunity for reassessment or enrichment.

As always, thanks for reading and I hope you found it valuable.


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