I adore lights – everything from twinkly stars in the sky, street lights, neon signs, to colourful fairy lights. I’ve had a camera since I was ten years old, and I always hoped to be able to recreate some of the wonderful night photos I’d seen in books, especially those with wonderful bokeh and the good old light trails from cars in city scenes.
I was considerably older by the time I had a tripod and by then had lost confidence in the idea of taking camera equipment out on my own at night. So I’ve never actually tried the obvious set up a tripod on a road bridge to take a picture of light trails (a few years ago in the UK photographers seemed to get into trouble for taking photos of roads and that didn’t help). I’m happy enough though to pull out a camera and play about on the move if I see some pretty lights though.
This picture was taken near the centre of Milton Keynes with a phone camera. It’s quite difficult to persuade phone cameras to not focus on anything, so I was quite pleased to get this for the colourful bokeh.
One of my main strategies was to take pictures as I walked in the dark and just move the camera around and see what I get. I like the shape of the trails in this one and the way that the ground and scene is lit by the foreground street lamp. I find damp conditions help because you get reflections to play with as well.
This image was captured indoors – this was a pretty chandelier light inside a museum and I got this just moving the camera around randomly with a low shutter speed.
I really wanted to be able to try and find a way of capturing the light without needing to go outside, so I started experimenting with various ways of creating and capturing different kinds of light. This is the first attempt. I created the drawing using metallic pencil on black card and then punched holes using a needle for the leaves. The lighting is actually my computer screen behind the card – very sophisticated! I chose a pink background to create the colour.
I wasn’t entirely happy with the result and wanted to experiment some more, so had a play with a Pixelstick. This is a device that has 200 colour modifiable LEDs arranged in a line. There are some preset patterns, but you can also use your own images, and these change the colour of the pixels over time (and so it is also capable of doing animations). Using a slow shutter speed, you move the stick in front of the camera and the changes in colour are captured across the frame. It’s fun to play with. As an electronic battery operated tool it’s quite sensitive to moisture – a little unfortunate – ideally you want dark conditions, so best in winter if you don’t want to be out late at night. It would probably also be easier with a two-man team. For these reasons, my experiments so far have been indoors, but I would like to take my Pixelstick out for a walk one day!
This is an example of one of the preset patterns in the Pixelstick. As I’ve walked through the frame I have rotated the Pixelstick to create the light trails here. If I walked in a straight line the image would be straight bars of colour across the frame.
This is one of the more traditional uses of Pixelstick – generating an image around an object. This is a fire pattern built into the Pixelstick. I’ve walked around the guitar holding the Pixelstick straight as I do – although you can see not perfectly! The Pixelstick is long and it takes some practice to hold it steady as you walk and get the timings and movement right.
An ideal space for this would be a large empty space with black walls floor and ceiling – unlike my living room so I had a go with a crystal ball to reduce the space needs.
This is a built-in pattern on the Pixelstick, walking behind the crystal ball. I like this one and I think it shows there is some potential to do some interesting things with other images on the Pixelstick.
I decided to have another go with playing with the pin-point light. Including lighting with different sources – in this case a white LED. You may be able to tell that the centre of the snowflake is brighter than the outside.
And I still used a computer screen to generate different colours!
I also began playing with spirograph for the first time in decades!
Although I quite liked the pin-point pictures, they were a bit static, so I decided to try and add some movement by moving the camera when I took the picture with a slow shutter speed. This was all very experimental – move the camera around a bit and see what happens!
These images are all from the same source. A drawing of three flowers done on scraper foil type card (the multi-colour variety rather than the silver or gold) for the petals with pin holes for the centre of each flower. The card was backlit with a computer screen and the camera moved around randomly with a slow shutter speed (in the dark obviously). You can see that the movement of the camera is what creates the final shapes and trails.
The base image for this one is the same as the image at the top of the page – but with random motion instead of purely circular motion. The hexagons have different numbers of points and create different effects. The ones only on the edges are more subtle.
This is probably my favourite, the base image is a butterfly, again drawn using the colour scraper foil card with pin-point holes all around the edge of the drawing, but not on the wing details. The card is backlit with a multicoloured image and the camera movement is very subtle – keeping the shape of the butterfly undistorted.
In this image the camera is static (I use a rig designed for animation/macro photography, but a tripod that allows the camera to point down would work fine). The card is on a cheap rotating cake turntable (lazy susan) that is then rotated as the shutter is pressed. I used an iPad for backlighting.
The same method is used for this one. It can be fun to try out different speeds of spinning, but do be warned your materials (iPad included) will fly off if you get too vigorous!
Backlighting and paper cutting:
I wanted to try something a little different and wanted to try backlighting with larger holes. Initially I got bigger needles, but found larger pins holes to be less effective than smaller points. So I thought I’d try a little bit of paper cutting to see what I could come up with.
The base image for this is a snowflake pattern cut out of black card. It is backlit with a white LED and a piece of coloured paper to shield the light and also provide the colour. I tried a variety of different materials behind the card to see the effects they had including vellum, cellophane and coloured tracing paper. My favourites were the coloured tracing paper and thin coloured paper.
This one has the same approach – a unicorn pattern cut into card with white paper backlit this time with an iPad and then spun whilst captured with a low shutter speed to create the movement.
This one uses a variety of materials behind the card to generate colour. The points of the snowflake is a thin paper, whilst the yellow and red centre parts are cellophane. Cellophane works OK with a solid backlight, giving some good colour, but if you use a point light source you can usually see the light through the cellophane.
This set of images was produced from the snowflake shown above. Some interesting effects can be developed by moving the camera around – including in and out. More controlled effects could of course be achieved using a tripod and zooming in and out or moving the lens in a specific direction.
One of the fun parts of playing with a directional light source is the creation of shadows that can be fun to capture just as much as the lights. You can project them onto a surface and change the shape of the surface and move it around to create some fun effects.
One of the great things about paper cutting is you can create anything you want and make it as simple or complex as you like. This is a valentines day inspired design and shows the difference between a solid and point light source. I think for this subject the point light source is more intimate and effective.
Painting with a light source:
Of course, light painting is meant to be able painting with the light source directly, so I also wanted to try out techniques for this. Although you can get light brushes and other specialist tools such as Pixelstick designed for photography, you can also do it with some basic tools such as LED mini-torches or in this case a colour-changing LED candle. The camera is static and I moved the candle around in a spiral to generate the light trail.
This one shows the colour change in progress. Multiple light sources could also be used at the same time if you have enough hands!
You can be more ambitious with your shape making, but it’s quite difficult and the results are a little blobby!
One way to combat the blobbyness and to get more refined results is to use a smaller light source. I tried the LED candle with a piece of black card over the LED with a pin-point hole, but the light was also duller, so the results were not so good. In this image I instead used a smaller Chibtronics LED light sticker. These are finer and brighter than the candle and come in white or colour versions. For anyone interested in playing with user-friendly electronics, the Chibtronics kits are excellent and fun. I really recommend the Chibtronics Sketchbook starter kit!
Light-painting Geek Style!
The results from the candle and the stand-alone LED were OK, but not as effective as I hoped and it was very difficult to ‘draw’ something very accurately, so I decided I needed a more technical solution to the problem!
Firstly I wanted a nice strong but smaller light source to control. I also wanted to be able to choose the colour of the light. I also needed to be able to turn the light on and off for drawing complex shapes. The final thing I needed to do was to be able to draw more accurately.
So this is my rather hacky homemade solution! A pantograph is used to improve the accuracy of drawing. Attached to this are a variety of electronic components. Firstly an RGB Neopixel provides the light source. This LED produces a very bright light and can be programmed to be any colour you want. This is connected to an Adafruit Flora. This is an Arduino-based programmable electronic device that is designed to be used to create wearable electronics. This is where the program resides that sends signals to the Neopixel. Connected to this is a button that tells the Flora whether to turn the light on or off. Also connected to the Flora is an Adafruit Bluefruit LE module. This module communicates with Bluetooth and enables me to use an App on my phone to control the colour of the LED. I can set up the LED with the colour I want before pressing the shutter, but can also change it mid-shot. So in all it allows me to do what I want – to move a pixel around in a relatively controlled manner, switch it on and off and change the colour to any I desire.
Who doesn’t start with their name. It’s a little shaky – getting used to the pantograph and drawing completely in the dark! Switching on and off works.
Drawing isn’t too bad, and it has a colour change mid-frame.
It’s difficult to match up two ends of a picture accurately. Also the pantograph tends to shift whilst you are using it!
Colour change, and getting a little complicated.
Still a bit wobbly, but you get the idea.
Multiple colour changes and complexity! This one is a composite of a couple of attempts – speed, accuracy and trying to operate a phone app at the same time is very tricky!
Although my hacky light painting tool does what I want it to, there are challenges. The results are not perfect. The wobbly drawings could probably be improved with more practice, but my current feeling is I could draw something better looking in a graphics program and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference! More experimentation needed!