Engineering News

October 6, 2006 Vol. 77, no. 8F

NIGHTLIGHTS: MA sunset photo taken by Interdisciplinary Studies junior Sean Carey in CS 39J. SEAN CAREY PHOTO

Drawing with light
Professor Brian Barsky teaches the art and science of photography

With the proliferation of point-and-click digital cameras and camera phones, taking a photo has never been easier. But that doesn’t mean pictures are better. “As cameras have become smarter, people may not be learning about photography because they’re relying on the camera to do everything for them automatically,” says EECS professor Brian Barsky. “Technique, lighting, composition, an aesthetic sense, storytelling — these are all elements that people sometimes skip.”

But in Barsky’s CS 39J, “The Art and Science of Photography: Drawing with Light,” students skip the automatic mode to immerse themselves in f-stops, apertures and the darkroom. They study the work of great photographers. They strive to develop an “eye.” They practice taking photos based on principles covered each week in class, and their assignments are critiqued by the group the following week. In this freshman/sophomore seminar, Barsky teaches his students not only how to take better photos, but how cameras work, the science behind photography, and the art of seeing and producing a good photograph. It’s that blend of art and science that makes the class unique — and popular. “I really like [the class] a lot,” says Undeclared sophomore David Wang. “We learn so many concepts that we really can’t learn anywhere else.”

In a recent class, Barsky led a lively discussion of student work involving depth of field (how much of the background behind a subject is blurred or in focus). He teaches this and other photographic techniques as problem-solving exercises, not surprising for an engineering professor. “We learn about ‘previsualization,’ which is seeing problems in a photograph before taking it, recognizing the constraints and solving the problem,” he says. “We learn to think, ‘What do I want to do here?’ and how to make adjustments when taking the picture to obtain the desired photographic result.”

“ This class made me a better close-up and sunset photographer,” says Interdisciplinary Studies junior Sean Carey, a former student. “It was a lot of fun and a great way to meet people who share an interest in photography.”

Barsky first began teaching the seminar in 2002. “Freshman/sophomore seminars cover topics beyond the confines of our normal academic concentrations. I thought, ‘Why don’t I teach my passion, which is photography?’” It also meshed well with Barsky’s own research interests: computer graphics and design and human optics. (He’s an affiliate faculty member of the School of Optometry.)

Barsky first began taking pictures at the age of four with a Kodak Brownie camera. At age seven, he graduated to a fully manual camera. As a teen, he explored different darkroom techniques and exhibited his photos in shows. Today, he continues to shoot as a hobby. “I want to help students appreciate photography because it’s a wonderful blend of analytical thought and aesthetic sense. It’s about learning to really see the world.”

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