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Turning exposures into art

Turning exposures into art - Light painting or drawing is a photographic technique some photographers are finding very addictive and ePHOTOzine spoke to a couple of light junkies to find out more about it.

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Volswagen light painting
Taken by Andy on a five minute exposure in a single take.

Light painting is something that was once only done by professionals but now, thanks to sites like Flickr it's a technique more and more people are using. It's something which is mostly done at night and outdoors. It's a technique which can make a scene look dramatic or just create a great piece of art work.

"Judging by the diversity of light painting work I've seen, that's subjective. To me it's about controlling artificial light sources to enhance or manipulate an image in-camera. In practice that means using (usually handheld) light sources like torches, flashguns and home-made light tools (strings of LED decorative lights can be great) to create special effects or to apply light to specific areas of your composition. It's pretty common to use lighting gels to change the colour of the light you're applying and create a psychedelic image but my preferred technique is to use plain LED bulbs (which tend to give off quite a cold light) and use them to highlight an element of the subject," explained Andy, a professional photographer who uses light painting as the creative test-bed for his general photography. "It's easy to do but it may not be for everyone. Finding original locations can be a chore, often you end up trespassing or in unsafe locations, and it's largely a nocturnal activity so can get quite cold and lonely."

There are two techniques you can use when light painting. You can move light(s) around the frame when your camera is set on a long exposure or you can paint with flash. This method lights up areas or objects found in the photo rather than creating light trails or words. As Andy pointed out, sometimes people use coloured gels or filters to be more creative but this isn't a necessity.

What to do when the power dies
This was created by Andy with a Blue LED wand resting in upstairs windows, green-gelled SB600 fired four times downstairs windows, red LED string spun in a circle by front door. Taken on a 30sec exposure, ISO100, f/7.1, custom WB Sigma 10-20 @ 10mm.

"As well as flash you can use a torch and shine the light around the object or trace around the object," said Cindy who started light painting after she and her son started taking pictures of glow sticks.

The basic principle for light photography is you set your camera on a long exposure and move around, firing the flash gun around the object or scene you are photographing. Try not to get the light head on with the camera as this can cause dots to appear in the photograph.

The key to this type of photography maybe the light but this doesn't mean you can ignore the basics of photography.

"When I'm shooting, I go through a six-point check-list consisting composition, focusing, settings, lighting, test & review, and exposure. Composition and focusing are no different to other disciplines of photography though you'll sometimes need to shine a torch on (or from) your focus area so the camera can see it," explained Andy.

Set your camera to the lowest ISO and the longest exposure time and unless there's a lot of ambient light, you'll need to shoot around f/4 or f/5. For light doodling where the light is pointed towards the lens a narrow aperture is best.

"If you can't escape ambient light you're limited to reduced exposure times or narrower apertures to minimise its impact, and you may need to tweak your white balance settings to compensate for the ambient colour cast. You also need to plan your lighting based on direction," Andy added.

You need to know where you do and do not want light to fall, where you want shadows and how to achieve all this without getting your light source in shot. You need to work out how intense your light needs to be in order to get the right amount of light in or on different areas of your photograph and you also need to know if you want colours to compliment or contrast each other.

"Just note that using gels taped in place over the flash head can reduce the intensity of a flashgun by a couple of aperture stops so you'll often need several bursts of flash to achieve wide coverage and vivid colours," explained Andy.

Shooting a test shot is always a good idea so you can make sure you are getting exactly what you want from your lighting.

Light painting by And Why not
Andy Lit the outside of the truck with multi-bulb LED lantern. Also used purple gelled lantern (cab) and red gelled strobe.  

"Your test shot can often end up as your keeper and once you've nailed the subject, you might want to reshoot and leave your exposure running to capture different detail in the sky or surroundings," said Andy.

You can also create light trails or even write using this technique. Once you have your frame set-up and composed as you want it set your exposure and walk into the scene as quickly as possible to prevent ghosting then start your painting. Standing in the scene too long can also do this so practise your writing before you step into the scene to make sure you can do it fast as possible. If you're facing the camera when writing you have to write from right to left and remember you have to write as if you were writing on a window. The text is flipped, which can take some practise and if your hand-writing isn't all that great you could always use a stencil. If you're writing on a wall draw an outline in chalk. Of course you could always write the normal way and flip the image in post-production too.

"Light painting isn't that difficult but it may be hard for someone who's never had to go and set things such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc. It does take a while to understand it and learn which settings work and which ones don't for each method," said Cindy.

Cindy uses a DSLR for her light painting as a non DSLR camera doesn't allow exposures over 30 seconds which is not very helpful for this technique.

"Some ideas may take minutes to truly put into place on a picture. I personally use a Canon Digital Rebel XSI," said Cindy.

Andy uses a Nikon D80: "It's robust and reliable and records really honest shots during the day but I can't recommend it for long exposure work. It suffers horrendous sensor noise that visibly taints the (landscape orientation) top two corners of your shot if it's longer than, say, 2 minutes. The D80 has a noise reduction function which reduces but doesn't eliminate the problem, although it doubles your exposure time due to processing - and that's no fun on a dark, cold November night. I also use a cable release (no batteries to fail unlike a remote control) for bulb exposures. Sigma 10-20mm lens is always with me at night and hardly ever away from the 10mm end. The perspectives and distortion that a UWA lens gives seem to go hand-in-hand with this style of photography."

Shot taken by And Why not (Flickr)
Andy parked the car in a dark corner of a car park and doodled the man, then pushed the car into a lit area.
As light painting involves long exposures a tripod is a necessity for static shots. It not only helps with stability but it allows you to shoot the same shot over and over so you can practise and refine your lighting until right.

Cindy says a good creative imagination makes pictures more interesting, something Andy agrees with: "You have to visualise your shot, so imagination and creativity are useful qualities. That said, experience is perhaps not so critical - the hit-and-hope approach, often left behind by seasoned light painters, can yield great results."

A variety of lights can be used to create your pictures. Strings of LED lights fastened to sticks (light wands), LED's tapped around a hoop, camera flashes and torches can all be used and picked up for not much money which means it's a cheap hobby too.

Light painting can be done almost anywhere. Cindy chooses to focus her attentions round her neighbourhood: "I sometimes wonder what my neighbours think when they look out their window and see coloured lights blinking and moving around. I have started going out around the small city I live in and trying to find some nice locations for pictures. But most of the time, it is too bright because of street lights."

To combat this problem Andy ventures to sites such as churchyards where ambient light is less of a problem.

"There's a bunch of us goes out every week. We find derelict buildings, demolition or building sites, car parks and industrial estates too."

Red cross in Church Yard
This is straight out of camera with auto WB. The sky is just light pollution, the camera is facing the city of Portsmouth, 10 miles or so away. Andy lit the headstones with an un-gelled LED lantern. LEDs give a really clean light. In this I just waved the lantern around.

If you go out in a group be careful that they don't trigger a flash or wave a torch straight at your shot, sometimes it's better to work on your own but the company is great particularly in the middle of the night.

"You don't have to venture outside in the cold if you're just starting out though just start at home with the lights off. the subject might not be that interesting but it's best to learn your lessons in the warm and dry than outside in the cold and damp," said Andy.

Finally Cindy added:"There are so many different lights and techniques currently that can be used to for light painting. Don't think that it's too late to start now just because of the complexity of some photographs. New techniques are being discovered all the time and there aren't technically any rules.

One last thing I would like to add is that symmetry is a key which could unlock many possibilities. Think of typical shapes and geometry. Try emulating shapes and creating something which isn't so abstract but has form to it because anyone can swing some lights around in the air but how many people do you know who can make a three-dimensional Triangle from a light?"

Visit AndWhyNot to see more of Andy's work and visit Cindy's profile to see her images.

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2 Jan 2009 6:47AM
I think some of it looks nice.

For all the work that goes into it, not worth it.

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30 Jan 2009 7:09PM

I don't know if anyone saw the spread in the latest issue of 125 Magazine by Atton Conrad?

Anyone interested in this technique should definitely check out Conrad's work, there is some Illustrator work in there, but either way the results are stunning.

You can see the spread Here

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