How to make and use a light painting device
Words and Pictures by Edwin Devey
The trouble with light is that you can't hold it and there's often either too much or not enough. Flash is too brief to see its effects and continuous light such as tungsten gets too hot and melts the subject while you literally, sweat it out. But what if you could take a little ball of light out of your pocket, hold it, then squirt it (short blast of light) or pour it (longer blast ) just where you want it? What if you could also add colour and illuminate for as long as you want without it burning you or the subject and without it spilling everywhere? Well now you can do all this and have a great deal of fun at the same time. Best of all, it won't cost you 1000s, like the professional kit does.
For about the same cost as a letter from your bank manager, you can make your own 'fluid light' unit that will have more versatility than a universal accessory with extra facilities. Everyone else is making good use of fibre optics - it's about time we photographers benefited too.
Making a fluid light gun
First you'll need to dig out your old slide projector or buy one from a car boot sale, approx. 15 (one with a cooling fan is best) and then you'll need to purchase your fibre optics (approx. 1/metre - 10 worth should do) according to how large a light source and how much 'walk-about' you want.
Complete 'Fluid Light' unit showing fibre optics packed in a red cotton reel then further packed out with foam sheet to make snug fit within the lens housing.
The rest is what most creative photographers seem to spend a lot of their time doing - pottering about in the garage collecting bits & bobs of useless junk together (my wife's words). Then with ordinary household tools and their creative hands crafting something of extraordinary value (my words).
The fibre optics need to be cut into equal lengths and bound together with insulating tape. When you have cut the individual lengths of fibre optic, you should treat each end as follows: Hold the end over a flame briefly until it clears and goes slightly domed. This renders it most efficient at picking up and transmitting, maximum light.
One end is then pushed into the centre of a cork (the cork being about the same diameter as the projector lens housing) and the assembly then taped to the front of the lens housing so that the fibre optic cluster is aligned with the centre of the projector lens. I used a cotton reel instead of a cork and built up the diameter with foam rubber sheeting, but only because a cotton reel and foam rubber sheeting were under my nose and a cork wasn't.
The fluid light pistol grip holding the ends of seven gathered fibre optics.
The other end can be used as it is, although I went to the trouble of making a pistol grip. I also built into the pistol grip, a switch to interrupt the on/off switch of the projector (running the wires alongside the fibre optics) so that I could operate it remotely but if you are working in the dark it won't matter where you switch it on and off. If you do get involved with altering the electrical circuit you should get it checked by a qualified electrician before you try to use it, or better still, get an electrician to do it for you. You can even stick the light emitting end of the fibres in your pocket (leaving the projector switched on) just taking it out to apply the light. Remember, there is no heat at the output end, but leaving the light on too long may result in melting the protective cover of the optics within the projector lens housing, so be careful.
Using your fluid light gun
In a darkened room, set the camera aperture to the desired stop, open the shutter on the camera's B or T setting and 'squirt' or 'pour' the light where you want it for the required length of time. Always point away from the lens towards the subject so that you record the illuminated subject and not the fibre ends. Don't forget to close the shutter before putting on the room light. Some experimentation will be necessary until you're familiar with the power of your particular 'fluid light' gun. Power depends on the projector used and the quality of your treatment of the ends of the fibres. The pictures shown here had seven fibre optics pouring for about two seconds/sq. cm at f/32 on Fujichrome ISO100 slide film. Backgrounds can be added with a separate exposure, leaving the subject in silhouette.
There are two areas of use where using a fluid light gun is ideal. The first is being able to 'squirt' light into the smallest of recesses, relieving the worst of shadows. The second, and, I believe the most exciting, is the creation of imagery by 'pouring light' only where you want it, in whatever colour takes your fancy, over whatever texture you choose, the subject being static or moving. The possibilities are endless.
However, it does mean that for some applications, such as filling in deep shadow areas, planning, preparation and positioning are imperative to avoid disturbing areas already properly exposed. In more freely creative applications, results are not always predictable and this can often add to the resulting image and certainly to the enjoyment. It's relatively simple to make small caps (I use 35mm film cassettes) to contain various coloured filter gels, to slip over the light emitting end of the fibres.
Now the artist in you can really be given free reign. The only rules are what you make up as you go along and the only limitation is that you have to work in the dark (don't we all at some time?). There's nothing quite like building a picture with fluid light. When you start to move the fibre ends around the subject in a rotary manner, shadows dart to and fro. You become a kind of bizarre choreographer, the subject seeming to glow with life and its shadows dancing to your tune. The sensation makes you smile because somehow the fluidity of the light makes it tactile and renders it malleable. You are building up the image and moulding its contours in a way that must be akin to squeezing clay on a potter's wheel. It's a thrilling form of photography to indulge in.
Once you've mastered your 'fluid light' gun you will also want to explore other possibilities with fibre optics, such as using single fibres as pin point lights for creating highlight reflections on objects or as 'stars' in a night sky. Both examples can be used with star filters for added effect. Try 'morphing' objects by moving the object with the gun during exposure or even signing your name in light by using a single fibre as an 'illuminpen'. You can find all sorts of other uses for your 'fluid light' gun and I'm sure you will thoroughly enjoy viewing the results and 'wowing' your friends.
Left shows a nest of marble eggs without enhancement and right shows fluid light poured on one egg to add 'special' effect.
Vase of 'honesty' before fluid light improvement and after livening up with fluid light. A squirt on several leaves and beads etc lifts the vibrant quality of the shot.
A cyclamen lit only by pouring fluid light all over. Because the method requires working with a very small aperture, this gives great depth-of-field.
A white narcissus with straight fluid lighting and with fluid lit with a red filter, changing the natural colour of the flowers.
Morphing' a hand in motion produces an elongated digit.
Here's a fun idea to create a human zip.
This shot of the back of an alarm clock illustrates how difficult it can be to see the inside of closed boxes etc unless, of course, you add a squirt with fluid light.
Here's a difficult subject to light with an inner object effectively screened by the glass casing. This shows you can illuminate through an otherwise light screening shell.