BEHIND THE LENS

How to use light and household items to 'paint' with your camera

The jagged streaks of light surrounding the knife conveys an ethereal quality. I used a blue filter over the flashlight.
The jagged streaks of light surrounding the knife conveys an ethereal quality. I used a blue filter over the flashlight. The knife appears to float above the bark because I traced around the knife at or below the level of it. That gave the appearance of levitation. Light painting in Walford, Iowa, on Monday, May 18, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Photography means drawing with light.

That’s what I set out to do at home one day recently. I just wanted to play and see what I came up with.

I literally wanted to draw or paint an image onto the digital canvas of the image sensor in my camera.

To do this, you need a sturdy tripod, an electronic cable release to lock the shutter open on your camera’s bulb setting. You also could manually set your shutter speed to the slowest setting, usually about 30 seconds. But, you have to get all of your painting done in that short time. I wanted to take my time and layer my light similar to a real painter layering paint on a canvas. Building up the image a stroke of the flashlight at a time.

I reached for my newest acquisition that I had clipped to my pocket. The lines of steel and titanium would make an excellent model. I grabbed a TV tray from the living room and set it in the darkest room in the house: the bathroom.

The tray top didn’t fit with the rugged nature of my knife so I made a quick search of the garage and backyard. There, I spied a strip of bark that was peeling off a log of firewood. Perfect.

I grabbed a couple of small, LED flashlights and dug through a bag of photo odds and ends for a pack of filtered filters for a flash unit I’ve never owned. I had green, blue and yellow to choose from. I don’t remember where the red filter disappeared to.

Now, that I had my paint “brushes” I closed and locked the door. I balanced the knife on the bark and framed the photo so the knife was diagonal across the frame, breaking up the horizontal lines of the bark.

I switched off the lights, locked open the shutter and got to playing.

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I circled the lower-powered flashlight around the knife, illuminating the edges and sharpened blade from slightly below. After I made a circle, I closed the shutter and checked the back screen. I was encouraged with what I saw.

Light painting in the digital age is so much easier than with film. With digital, you have near instant feedback. It allows you to fine-tune your technique without going through roll after roll of film.

I enjoyed myself. I’d try different strokes with the flashlights: zig-zags, swirls, dots and dashes.

As I was moving my hands along and around the knife, I found myself using some of the same techniques I used to burn prints in the wet darkroom days.

Tips

• Set your aperture according to your desired depth of field. You will be painting your way to a good exposure.

• The longer and slower you paint, the brighter the area being painted will become. Inverse is also true.

• Time how long you’ve painted an area so you can generally reproduce the effect again.

• Don’t shine the light source on your hands. You might risk recording a ghost image of your hand.

• Experiment. Take chances. It’s only pixels.

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