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Light Painting

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I remember when I was about 16 and we were doing the long drive home from the snow fields at falls creek. I had my dads old Nikon Coolpix 775 which was a very early digital camera with a 2.14mp sensor AND we got a top of the range, mind blowing 64mb memory card to go with it! So I had this camera and it was getting late so the street lights had just gone on and I put the camera on the dashboard to take a picture as we were driving down the street. WHOA! All the streetlights, headlights and taillights had streaked across my photo, making a warp-speed kind of effect. And a love of light painting was born.

Light painting is all about having fun. Sure, most photography is fun, but light painting is completely different. You don’t have a subject when you start taking the photo, just what’s in your mind, but if you get it right then you can photograph your wildest dreams. As long as you dream about…you know…things made of light.

So let’s get the technical part out of the way. When you take a photo the lightest things will always show up on your sensor first. Therefore if it’s dark and you have a light source you can literally paint things with it as long as the shutter is open. But don’t limit your self to just plain old maglights.

Try torches of various lengths, colors, intensities and widths. You can also cover the light with colored tape or paper for different effects. Glow sticks and laser pointers will work too. Another fun but slightly dangerous material are fireworks. Roman candles and sparklers can wield some amazing results. One of my favourite light painters, Dennis Calvert, even does amazing work by igniting steel wool!

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that you should try anything you can think of and see what results. It’s all digital so the only thing you waste is time! I do however have some tips to help you achieve better results.

  • Wear dark clothes. As I mentioned before, the lighter things will develop on the sensor first so if you don’t want to be in the photo, avoid bright clothing.
  • Don’t stop moving. If you stay in one place for a while, you will start to show up in the picture, darker clothes will help with this, but don’t count on it to keep you invisible.
  • Use smaller apertures. This will not only allow you to use longer shutter speeds, but also keeps more in focus.
  • Shoot in manual focus mode. I don’t know about people with fancy D3x’s or other top of the range cameras, but the D60 has a tough time focusing in the dark. Sure, it has a light that comes on to help, but it’s still pretty bad. Instead, take something and place it where you are going to be painting, point one of your torches at it and focus the camera. Easy. If you don’t have anything with you but your torch, then turn it on and place it on the ground where you are going to be painting, then focus on that.
  • Always use a sturdy tripod. We are talking looong exposures here, so the less your camera moves the better.
  • Don’t use a tripod. Contradictory, yes? Usually light painters will move the light around to create pictures, but if you have a stationary light source you can just move the camera around to achieve some far out results.
  • If you want to expose the background properly then bring along a stopwatch and time how long it takes you to paint whatever you are going for, then add a couple of seconds in case something goes wrong and put your camera in shutter priority mode. Easy, but this might add noise to the photos if your camera needs to use a higher ISO to achieve your desired shutter speed.
  • Use a remote or cable release. You don’t want to knock the camera when either opening or closing the shutter and ruin your work, especially since it may take several attempts to draw something right.
  • If you are going to write words in the middle of the air then you need to learn how to write them backwards. This gets very frustrating. My advice is use a thin sheet of paper and a very strong marker, write your word on the paper and flip it over. That’s what you have to learn how to write, so practice it a few times.

Well I hope these rules haven’t put you off the idea of giving this a go, because it’s a blast! If you have enjoyed some of the work on display here, why don’t you do your self a favour and click on the images to see the rest of their work, and also check out another of my other favorite light painters, Michael Bosanko! I will be making my own light painting gallery right here on JimmyAmerica.com in the next couple of days, so stay tuned!!!

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