the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Light Painting

FROM A DARK PLACE

A fifteen-second “light painting” exposure with the product illuminated in a dark room with a hand-held LED.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE STANDARD RECIPE FOR A PHOTOGRAPHIC “PRODUCT SHOT” is rooted in the formal studio lighting set-up. Regardless of whether you’re trying to create an idealized picture of a bottle of soda or a grand piano, the traditional approach is to set up a careful balance of artificial lights, then measure and meter until the object is lit wonderfully from every angle. It’s a system honored by time and tradition, with millions of magazine ads and commercials to attest to its appeal.

Which is fine, except I just happen to find it boring.

Instead of starting with a fully lit room and tweaking towards the ideal, I prefer, with the technique known as light writing, to start at the opposite end of the equation…with a totally dark room, the object in question, and a small, handheld LED, using each shot to light various contours of the object and comparing the results over several dozen frames. Instead of instantaneous exposures, I hold my lens open for as long as it takes for me to move my little torch into place, click on for several seconds at a time, then click off, re-position, and apply lighting to another surface on the object, repeating until I use a remote to close the shutter for good. Results vary wildly from frame to frame, and there is a lot of experimentation to get the look I want, simply because, well, I have no idea what that is when I start.

Slightly different tracking with the LED produces a completely different lighting effect.

I may begin by imagining the object as being lit from the side, then try a few takes where the light source comes from above,  or even behind. Unlike a traditional studio lighting scheme, light painting allows me to break the rules of nature completely, creating light patterns that could never be achieved in nature. I can spend several seconds arching the LED from one side to another, like a rapidly crossing sun, with the final image bearing every trace of where I’ve tracked over a long exposure.

If I change my mind about what to illuminate in the first ten seconds, for example, I can just adjust it in the next ten. I just re-position the lamp and either augment or erase what’s been stored in the camera in the moments prior. Most importantly, it gives me an infinite number of choices for showcasing the object, settling for a fairly realistic depiction or an utter fantasy or something in between. Comparing the two examples shown here of a series on a whiskey bottle shows how even minute variations in the application of the light give the object a distinctly different identity. And with light painting, the shooter exercises much finer control than is possible with even the best studio set-up….and at a fraction of the cost.

Whether you’re molding an image from a room full of lights or building illumination beam by beam in a darkened room, the whole idea is control. Light painting generates a lot of randomness, and requires a patient eye, but the sheer variety of interpretations it gives you can teach you a lot about the infinitesimal things that can mold a picture, bring more of them under your command.


TRUTH VS. REALITY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

ASKED IN 1974 BY AN INTERVIEWER ABOUT THE LEGACY OF THE ACTOR JAMES CAGNEY, director Orson Welles replied that while Jimmy “broke every rule”, “there’s not a fake moment” in any of his movies. He further explained that the star of Public Enemy, White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy worked counter to all the conventions of what was supposed to be “realism”, and yet created roles which were absolutely authentic. Cagney, in effect, bypassed the real and told the truth.

As do many photographers, it turns out.

Fake sunlight on the front of this camera courtesy of sunlight bouncing off my hand.

Fake sunlight on the front of this camera courtesy of sunlight bouncing off my hand.

We all have inherited a series of technical skills which were evolved in an attempt to capture the real world faithfully inside a box, and we still fail, at times, to realize that what makes in image genuine to the viewer must often be achieved by ignoring what is “real”. Like Cagney, we break the rules, and, if we are lucky, we make the argument that what we’ve presented ought to be considered the truth, even though the viewer must ignore what he knows in order to believe that. Even when we are not trying to create a so-called special effect, that is, a deliberate trick designed to conspicuously wow the audience, we are pulling off little cheats to make it seem that we played absolutely fair.

The first time we experiment with lighting, we dabble in this trickery, since the idea of lighting an object is to make a good-looking picture, rather than to mimic what happens in natural light. If we are crafty about it, the lie we have put forth seems like it ought to be the truth, and we are praised for how “realistic” a shot appears. The eye likes the look we created, whether it bears any resemblance to the real world or not, just as we applaud a young actor made up to look like an old man, even though we “know” he isn’t typically bald, wrinkled, and bent over a cane.

In the image above, you see a simple example of this. The antique Kodak really does have its back to a sunlit window, and the shadows etched along its body really do come from the slatted shutters upon that window. However, the decorative front of the camera, which would be fun to see, is facing away from the light source. That means that, in reality, it would not glow gold as seen in the final image. And, since reality alone will not give us that radiance, a second light source has to be added from the front.

In this case, it’s the most primitive source available: my left hand, which is ever so slightly visible at the lower left edge of the shot. It’s acting as a crude reflector of the sunlight at right, but is also adding some warmer color as the flesh tones of my skin tint the light with a little gold on its way back to the front of the camera. Result: an unrealistic, yet realistic-seeming shot.

There’s a number of names for this kind of technique: fakery, jiggery-pokery, flimflam, manipulation, etc., etc.

And some simply call it photography.

 


AS DIFFERENT AS DAY AND NIGHT

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHY OFTEN PRESENTS ITSELF AS A SUDDEN, REACTIVE OPPORTUNITY, a moment in time where certain light and compositional conditions seem ripe for either recording or interpreting. In such cases there may be little chance to ponder the best way to visualize the subject at hand, and so we snap up the visualization that’s presented in the moment. It’s the kind of use-it-or-lose-it bargain we’re all acquainted with. Sometimes it yields something amazing. Other times we do the best with what we’re handed, and it looks like it.

Having the option to shape light as we like takes time and deliberate planning, as anyone who has done any kind of studio set-up will attest. The stronger your conception to start with, the better chance you have of devising a light strategy for making that idea real. That’s why I regard light painting, which I’ve written about here several times, as a great exercise in building your image’s visual identity in stages. You slow down and make the photograph evolve, working upwards from absolute darkness.

Shock-Top, 2014. Light-painted with a hand-held LED over the course of a six-second exposure, at f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Shock-Top, 2014. Light-painted with a hand-held LED over the course of a six-second exposure, at f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

 

To refresh, light painting refers to the selective handheld illumination of subjects for a particular look or effect. The path that your flashlight or LED takes across your subject’s contours during a tripod-mounted time exposure can vary dramatically, based on your moving your light source either right or left, arcing up or down, flickering it, or using it as a constant source. Light painting is different from the conditions of, say, a product shoot, where the idea is to supply enough light to make the image appear “normal” in a daytime orientation. Painting with light is a bit like wielding a magic wand, in that you can produce an endless number of looks as you develop your own concept of what the final image should project in terms of mood. It isn’t shooting in a “realistic” manner, which is why the best light painters can render subjects super-real, un-real, abstract or combinations of all three. Fact is, the most amazing paint-lit photos often completely violate the normal paths of natural light. And that’s fine.

In light painting, I believe that total darkness in the space surrounding your central subject is as important a compositional tool as how your subject itself is arranged. As a strong contrast, it calls immediate and total attention to what you choose to illuminate. I also think that the grain, texture and dimensional quality of the subject can be drastically changed by altering which parts of it are lit, as in the shock of wheat seen here. In daylight, half of the plant’s detail can be lost in a kind of  brown neutrality, but, when light painted, its filaments, blossoms and staffs all relate boldly to each other in fresh ways; the language of light and shadow has been re-ordered. Pictorially, it becomes a more complex object. It’s actually freed from the restraints of looking “real” or “normal”.

Developed beyond its initial novelty, light painting isn’t an effect or a gimmick. It’s another technique for shaping light, which is really our aim anytime we take off our lens caps.


MIDDLEHUES

Image made using Nikon's in-camera "selective color" effect, programmed to highlight blue and gold hues only.

Surety And Security, 2014. Image made using Nikon’s in-camera “selective color” effect, programmed to highlight blue and gold hues only. Note the bluish undertones that show up in the “white” building.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I FIND IT AMUSING THAT THERE IS SO MUCH PRISSY FRETTING, in the present photographic age, about the manipulation of images, as if there is, or has ever been, a “pure” photography that comes full-born from the camera like Athena sprang from Zeus’ forehead. This is, of course, nonsense.

There never was a time when photographers simply pressed the button and settled for whatever dropped into their laps by chance. The history of the medium is a clearly traceable timeline of the very interpretive technique and, yes, manipulation that tracks, like this blog, the journey from taking a picture to making one.

It’s not what you apply to an image, it’s whether the application is the entire point of the picture. Does your conception have solid, original value, over which you then impose a supplementary effect or a boost in emphasis? Or are you merely popping apps and pushing buttons in order to disguise the lack of essence in picture, to whitewash a rotten fence if you will?

The original full-color image.

The original full-color image.

The reason I raise all this again is that an in-camera effect usually called “selective color”, now available on many DSLRs, has reminded me of the first days of color photography, which of course was no color at all, except that which was applied through tinting and painting after a monochrome image had been made. Depending on the individual artisan, the hues in these pictures tended to be either a soft wash of faint pastel or a raging rouge of rosy reds, but, most frequently, only selected parts of the image were colored at all, perhaps an attempt to dramatize particular elements of the composition. It was anything but natural, but, in advance of the development of actual color film, it produced some interesting results.

Jump to today’s cameras and the selective color option. You shoot your original image, select it, then zoom in on parts of it to both locate and choose up to three colors that will be featured in a copy of the image. All other tones will be desaturated, leaving you with a part monochrome, part color version of your original, which remains unchanged in a separate file. The effect, as in the past, can dramatize and isolate key parts of your picture, even giving a strange dimensional feel to the photo, but it can take some practice to get the result that you want.

For example, selecting the red of a single car on a crowded street will also catch the same red in other cars’ tail lights, the corner traffic signal, and a neon sign in a building at the end of the block, so be sure you can live with all of that. Also, in some seemingly “white” buildings, shadows or reflected light (as well as aging impurities in some materials) will show some faint shades of color in this process, so that the blue that you said okay to for the corner mailbox will also pick up slight bluish casts in the marble of the bank next door. In the above image, I also made a second, darker copy of the altered image, then blended the two copies in a tone compressing program, to further accentuate the building textures and contrasts.

Bottom line: there is black and white, there is full color, and there is the uber-cool playland in what you could call the middlehues. It’s not cheating to enhance a good picture. It’s only cheating when you use effects to mask the fact that you didn’t take the picture right in the first place.


IN STEICHEN’S SHADOW

Le Regiment Plastique. Lit from the top of the composition. 5 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

“Le Regiment Plastique”. Shot in a dark room and light-painted from the top edge of the composition. 5 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I’VE POSTED SEVERAL PIECES HERE ON “LIGHT-PAINTING”, or the practice of manually applying light to selective areas of objects during long exposures in the dark. The ability to “paint” additional colors, highlights and shadows “onto” even the most mundane materials can transform the whole light-to-dark ratio of the familiar and render it in new, if unpredictable ways. It’s kind of random and a lot of hands-on fun.

Some of the greatest transformations of ordinary objects ever seen in photography were obtained by Edward Steichen, arguably the greatest shooter in any style over the entire 20th century. Working for advertising agency J.Walter Thompson in the 1930’s, Steichen managed to romanticize everything from perfume bottles to kitchen matches to cutlery by arranging visually original ballets not only of these everyday items, but, through multiple source lighting, creating geometrically intricate patterns of shadows. His success in morphing the most common elements of our lives into fascinating abstractions remains the final word on this kind of lighting, and it’s fun to use light painting to pay tribute to it.

Same composition, but lit diagonally from left bottom. 5 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

Same composition, but lit diagonally from right bottom. 5 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

For my own tabletop arrangement of spoons, knives and forks, seen here, I am using clear plastic cutlery instead of silver (fashions change, alas), but that actually allows any light I paint into the scene to make the utensils fairly glow with clear definition. You can’t really paint onto or across the items, since they will pick up too much hot glare after even a few seconds, but you can light from the edge of the table underneath them, giving them plenty of shadow-casting power without whiting out. I took over 25 frames of this arrangement from various angles, since light painting is all about the randomness of effect achieved with just a few inches’ deviation in approach, and, as with all photography, the more editing choices at the end, the better.

The whole thing is really just an exercise in forced re-imagining, in making yourself consider the objects as visually new. Think of it as a puff of fresh air blowing the cobwebs out of your perception of what you “know”. Emulating even a small part of Steichen’s vast output is like me flapping my wings and trying to become a bald eagle, so let’s call it a tribute.

Or envy embodied in action.

Or both.

 


DON’T SETTLE FOR REALITY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IN PHOTOGRAPHY, WE FIRST LEARN HOW TO CONTROL LIGHT WHEN THERE IS A PRETTY GOOD SUPPLY OF IT. Our baby-step pictures are usually taken in the middle of the day, where it’s easier to over-expose than under-expose the shot. The sun is out and it’s a constant resource. We may step in and out of a shadow or need to fill a few gaps with flash, but mostly the issue of light is about managing something you have a big bunch of.

Once we venture into night shots, light becomes a precious commodity, like water in the desert. The equation is flipped. Now we’re struggling to get enough illumination to shape a shot, or sometimes just save it. We can shoot in the reduced light that’s on hand, but  it takes a little more orchestration. Move into time exposures and the terms of engagement change again, with the ability to play God with the physics of things.

Shot in complete darkness and selectively lit with a handheld LED. Exposed for 73 seconds at f/4.5, ISO 100, 18mm.

Shot in complete darkness and selectively light-painted with a handheld LED. Exposed for 73 seconds at f/4.5, ISO 100, 18mm. The light streaks are “wrong turns” with my flashlight. Oops. 

And then there’s light painting, selective hand illumination during long exposures, where the aim is suddenly beyond the merely real. In fact, light painting is about deliberately manipulating mood and atmosphere, of bringing a magical quality where none exists. It also is the kind of low-light photography with the least predictable results, and the highest possible failure rate. You are constantly in uncharted waters, since no two exposures come out even remotely alike. You’re flying blind with your eyes open.

I have recently begun to head outdoors to re-imagine trees in these artificial, fantasy-flavored “light compositions”, in an effort to lend heft to subjects that, in daylight, would register pretty low on the wow meter. Over the years, I have honed my technique with tabletop light painting in controlled interiors, but if I get one exterior shot in thirty that I can live with, that’s an amazing day, er, night.

I don’t have any wisdom to impart on these shots, since their value is so crazy subjective. You do it until you like it, that’s all. But do yourself a favor sometime and do wade in. You might catch the fever, or you may experience the urge to hurl your tripod over the neighbor’s wall like a javelin of rage.When you don’t have enough light, you’re kind of in free fall.

But even if you don’t stick the landing, it ain’t fatal.


NIGHT GALLERY

By MICHAEL PERKINS

I RECENTLY READ AN INTRIGUING STATEMENT ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PAINTING AND PHOTOGRAPHY to the effect that painters start with nothing, and add information until the image is created, whereas photographers start with total information and work to selectively remove things until their pictures are made. Of course, there are times when both artists borrow the approach of the other, and the practice of “light painting” is one place where photogs can actually wield a kind of brush, beginning in pure darkness and then adding illumination, literally by hand, until a picture, layer by layer, emerges.

Bascially, you’re going down two potential paths with light painting. One is the depiction of fantasy, a custom light creation that is the central subject of the image, rather than an augmentation of something else. Visit the tutorial link below to view some of these visions, as they are truly fascinating (not to mention work-intensive): the flaming fireball dancing across the lake, the geometric noodlings hanging in mid-air, the angel wings growing out of your girlfriend’s back, and so on. The other approach is to amplify the impact of a subject which has either no illumination at night or a lighting scheme that is counter to the mood you’re going for. In this case, your flashlight, LED or light coil is creating the visual reality that you wish existed. It’s “reality-plus”, rather than a complete fantasy. This is the avenue I have tended to favor.

No lighting in the back yard, unless you "paint" it on: 30 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 18mm.

No lighting in the back yard, unless you “paint” it on: 30 sec., f/8, ISO 100, 18mm.

After a year away from light painting, I have started to slink back into it, moving from tabletop arrangements, where control is less of an issue, to exterior locales, which are, frankly, the very definition of trial-and-error.With the camera locked onto its tripod and with a pre-determined exposure and aperture, the responsibility for whether the magic happens is literally in your hands, hands that need real-world training in this technique.

As for lighting: these days, even dollar-store LEDs provide a pretty intense white light in darkness but they don’t throw it very far, and they are also pretty narrowly focused, so, if you want to paint the side of, say, a barn, it’s really hard to do so evenly. Best thing is to avoid the bargain lights: get yourself a powerful torch with a variable focus, something that can shoot both soft and wide. It’ll save you lots of time trying to guess about coverage on larger surfaces. Also, within a single exposure, you can still change off to the pencil-thin lights for special detailing, since, in complete darkness, your shutter will be open long enough for you to switch lights on and off, change position, and touch things up.

The above image was done in a yard with no landscape lighting on hand, other than the light I am applying during a thirty-second exposure. Not a perfect execution, but a quick example of how you can impart night mood to objects that are duller than dishwater in daylight. Lighting is all about setting the terms of view, and hand-painting the light allows you to control that mood, almost as completely as you would with oil, brush or canvas.

More to look at:

http://www.lightpaintingphotography.com