Feature Story

Designing light paintings

A smile amongst the lights
Zooming pattern
Back to back
back to back adjusted
Lizzie West
The visitors
Dancing with lights
Twirling light sculpture

The perfect exposure usually means that the subject of the photograph is clear and sharp. But when the subject is itself light source and moving, creative license is needed to get a photograph that reflects the photographer's vision. This article discusses the techniques I've discovered for photographing fire and light performances, for creating light paintings. In a nutshell I have come to use manual focus, long exposure, camera movement, and sometimes a manually fired flash. The main photo here uses all four.

When I saw my first fire performance show in 2005 at a regional burning man event, I knew I had to capture the moving flames photographs. It seemed obvious to me that I would need a tripod and a long exposure, and since I had a sturdy tripod with me, I made some pictures. The second fire spinning picture I took, "Spinner", was a four second exposure at f8. The clarity of the flames and their pattern was much more interesting than what my eyes could see, but somehow the ghostly image of the person doing the spinning didn't seem to fit into the design as well as the impression of what I was seeing with my eyes. A few minutes at the computer with a photo editing program quickly revealed that bringing out the person ruined the wonderful detail of the flames, though I suppose a skilled manipulator could manage it.

I was thinking about patterns and light designs as I wandered into the dance area where dancers were spinning balls with colored lights. I set up my tripod and tried to capture those, mostly with disappointing results because the dancers were moving so fast and the colored lights are much dimmer than flames. However, while I was doing that, bombarded by very loud techno music, it occurred to me to use the zoom during a long exposure (30 seconds at f8): "Zooming pattern". The disadvantage of such long exposure is that the people who were dancing have disappeared.

Fire dancers really enjoy seeing photographs of themselves performing, but using just the light of the flames rarely results in a decent exposure because the performers are moving. "Back to Back" works well, and the slightly tweaked version of it works even better. But unless the performers are consciously holding their body still while playing with their fire tools, the results of using the fire as the only light source are inconsistent at best. Tripod and zoom, as in "Spiral," can work very well, but framing becomes a real problem. "Spiral" also shows two of the other challenges using creative license to photograph fire performance. The first challenge is to show both the performer and the flame. Here we get to see two exposures of the person due to the zoom, but the 9 second exposure has blown out the highlights in the flame. The second challenge is to get the focus so that both the flames and the person are in focus. I generally now use manual focus and the estimated distance shown on my LCD since the automatic focus won't work right in the extreme lighting conditions of fire and dark and I can't see much at all in the LCD to judge focus by with my eye. Here I used f9 in an attempt to get enough depth of field to capture the moving dancer.

It's hard to photograph fire performances without wondering what it is like to be handling fire like that. I find myself not coordinated enough to work with the poi, the spinning balls of fire used in "spinner" and "back to back." But I have been working with swords for many years. I built a pair of light swords for myself and later a pair of fire swords. The light sword is just a wooden stick about 3 feet long with colored battery powered light sticks taped to it. At my first performance, I danced with the fire swords outside and when we moved inside, I changed over to the light swords and found myself on the other side of the lens. The photographer was Peter Anger, http://www.peteranger.com/ , a professional photographer who has been using creative license to make light paintings for 20 some odd years now.

I had noticed him taking the pictures. Unlike the other folks clicking away, he did not use a flash. He had a monopod, but he didn't plant it and take a time exposure like I would have. He picked it up and danced with it, moving the camera, as I later learned, during the exposure. He came over and showed me the little image in the LCD, quite excited about what my light swords produced. One thing led to another and after several joint studio sessions and much discussion and further work, next month we are doing a collaborative show of our work with light paintings.

The idea of moving the camera while making the exposure had never occurred to me until that night. But I soon began to work with that concept. Freeing myself from the tripod has resulted in some fascinating photographs. This photo of "Lizzie West" singing at a night club is something I never would have attempted before. It's a relatively short exposure, a bit longer than a half second, but the camera movement was deliberate and brought me the result I was looking for.

But pure light designs created by a person moving the lights have got to be some of the most fascinating photographs one can make. Moving the camera while making the exposure often provides that extra something, as in "Visitors." Using the flash manually during the exposure also results in unique portraits, such as my daughter "dancing with lights".

Notes on the equipment and post processing: The cameras used were a Sony F828, a Sony R1 and a Canon A710IS. All were set to their lowest ISO setting and used in fully manual mode. The flash, when used, was fired manually holding it in my left hand. The adjusted back to back photo had several minor adjustments made, the Dancing with lights photo had minor histogram and curves adjustments, and the twirling light sculpture a single minor curves adjustment. The others are as they came out of the camera, and several of them I would post process more were I to make a print. Although stunning images can result from playing with curves, for example, as a general rule one has to be very cautious when post processing light paintings as color shifts and other undesirable artifacts are very easy to produce.

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—The JPG team

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