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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Nighttime Lighting Lesson

I have to start off with there are two kinds of photographers, (1) Those that love to help others and share their knowledge to help others become better and (2) Those "professionals" that have an attitude and don't like to share their knowledge and tricks for fear somebody else will know what they know. Luckily Johnny Dickerson is solidly in the first camp. He does a different style of photography called light painting. I met him in a group on line and later in person at First Friday in Raleigh, NC. I have commented on how much I liked his work (found here at www.JEDII.com). One day I got a message asking if I would like to join some others one night to learn how he does what he does. I couldn't make it unfortunately.  Then a week ago, I get another email asking if I would like to meet with him to learn how to do it. GREAT, I can make it. Wondered how many others would be there. Turns out, it was just me and him. He took his evening just for me. What a person.

That said, here is what happened that evening. First let me explain that he does not "Photoshop any of his work except to crop , etc. It would be next to impossible to achieve what he does with PS. Instead his work is basically out of the camera. When I downloaded my images, I found that indeed, they were basically straight out of the camera except for cropping and some minor adjustment of highlights in Lightroom 4.

We met at a tunnel over in Raleigh. Long dark tunnels and other dark areas are best. Out in the open makes it tougher. I thought the tunnel was pitch black when we entered but after a while my eyes adjusted and I could see a little better. He has done work outside so it does work, but the darker the better. Enclosed areas also work best for the blazing light part. (More on that in a moment)

Basic concepts -

The basic idea is to use lights to "paint the image" while the lighting on everything else is so dark it won't show up. In most of the images you see below, you don't see us walking around in the image as there wasn't enough light to capture the image. The only time you see either of us is when we stood still for a while and/or there was enough light on us.

Camera Settings -

(A) You want your camera set to where it gets as little light as possible. Set the ISO to 100 or as low as it will go. (Mine goes to ISO 200 but has a compensation that acts like ISO 100 so that is what I used. You are trying to reduce the camera's sensitivity to ambient lighting.  BUT you do not want to close your aperture down to f/22 as that reduces the light from the lighting as well. So set the aperture in the range of 5.6 to 8. Oh yeah, turn the autofocus off.

(B) You want to be able to use long exposures. The best way to do this is using the "Bulb" setting. (Bulb is a holdover from the old days when the photographer squeezed a bulb to activate the shutter and held it open for as long as he wanted the shutter open. Johnny taught me to set the camera to 10 second delay so we could walk down to where the lighting would occur and have flashlights turned on and not show up in the image as the cameras wouldn't open up for 10 seconds.

Fancy Equipment needed -

None. No $500 flashes or strobes. No fancy stands. No umbrellas, softboxes, etc. Nothing like that. Key ingredient is IMAGINATION and  CREATIVITY. The great part of this is nothing expensive or that fancy is needed beyond where your imagination and creativity takes you. Other than some electronic controller cards most of what we used consisted of a wire whisk, a dog leash, battery powered Christmas lights, and other odds and ends Johnny has acquired over the years. NOTE: Johnny has worked on what he has done for over four years. Don't think you will go out and "buy the equipment" tomorrow. This requires imagination and creativity. Think what you want to do and then how you could do it.

Layout. Johnny puts a rock or some object next to the wall so he can tell where he is as he walks along the dark tunnel. Yes, it is that dark! He also puts a lens cap on the floor to mark the spot where he will rotate / swing the instruments of his design. Cameras are about 25 feet from where the operation will occur.

After getting the camera set up on the tripod and setting the delay to 10 seconds, f/5.6, and bulb settings, we were good to go. (Oh, almost forgot, set the camera to just short of infinite setting. Most lenses will go just a little past infinite. Bump it back just a little. Don't have the time to explain but trust me.

Now let the fun begin.

First the tunnel as we saw it initially. If you look really hard, you will see a small bit of light just above the center of the image. That is the light at the end of the tunnel. (Pun not intended).

Now this is what it looked like with a little light on it. The ghost like image is where Johnny was moving while I had my shutter open for a long exposure and there was just enough light to catch the image of his arm. 

By the way, all images here with the exception of two were entirely set up by Johnny. All I did was watch and learn and operate my camera. In one of the two I asked if I could try something and in the second, Johnny let me make the image. (I will point them out when I get to them).

Here Johnny showed my how easy it was by "writing a message.

Yes the "N"s are backwards. Tell you what, you try writing in the dark on the spur of the moment using nothing but a small led light on a wall that doesn't exist. He "wrote by simply waving the light in the air. It takes skill and experience to write like that and get the spacing and all right. Johnny is there but you can't see him as he isn't standing still nor have enough light striking him at any one moment vor the cameras to record his image. 

Now how does he do this? 

 String of battery powered Christmas lights taped together and spun in a circle while rotating in a semi-ciurcle. You don't rotate more than a semi-circle to achieve a full sphere. THere is also a trick to how you move. As to those spotlights, he simply turned a flashlight aimed at the camera, one and off and then moved it and on and off again three more times. Remember than when he did the flashlight, there was no sphere of light. One only sees a given instant of the overall image. The entire image cannot be seen until you get back to the camera and close the shutter (remember you are in bulb exposure). 

Now let the lights change color as they spin or have the reds come on as the greens go off. Then walk around with the tip of the light to create the rest of the image. 

Now imagine a Star Wars Light Saber (that is not what is was but I can't describe it so that will have to suffice) and it pulsates on and off as you swing it up and down in the dark. Now let it stay on and walk along holding it close to the floor and wave it around. Notice that tiny spot of light from the end of the tunnel. 

The circles of light are just a light in a circle. 

Now take an old small bicycle wheel with some more LED Christmas tree lights taped to the wheel and roll it along the walls, ceiling and floor. It should remind of the old Spir-o-graph we had a s kids. If you had one you will understand how it works. If you didn't, go get one, they are lots of fun. 

Of course if you did it several times further back on the wall, you would get this. 

Mine is a little off center as my camera was to the left. 

Now, take some more LED lights on a pole / yard stick and attach to a paint roller handle and secure the roller to the stand and you can swing the lights in a circle. (The pole was longer than half the distance from the floor to the ceiling so we couldn't complete the circle. 

This is one of the two I had some input on. I asked Johnny to hand me the flashlight and I tried to squat down so my head would be in the center of where the circle was (this was using a shorter pole so it could make almost the entire circle) and flashed the light one and off briefly to expose my head. (This was the second try as my first attempt left the light on my face too long.)   Thanks for letting me try it Johnny! 

Now take some battery powered lights and wave them over your arms, legs, etc. (You need to wear black so your clothing won't show.) 

Cool huh?? 

Some other lighting effects 

Now how about some fireworks? First take some fine steel wool and put it in a whisk like you have in the kitchen (my wife is furiously hiding all kitchen things I might use now). Attach the whisk to a rope/string whatever and light it. (Remember that 10 second delay on the camera shutter? That allows you to get down to the focus spot and light it before the camera opens the shutter. That way you don't get any of the lighting the steel fool.). This is something that needs to be done in an enclosed area like a tunnel as one it will forma from a when the sparks bounce off the ceiling, walls, and floor. Two, you won't want to be on the front page of the paper for being the photographer that set the town on fire. (Mu friends in Colorado will understand that!) 

Here is the other image Johnny let me do. I waved the light saber in a circle. The light at the base of the handle was brighter so the inner circle shows more. The lighter pulses of light on the bottom left are where I was trying to find the on-off switch and when the light stood still for a moment, the camera recorded more light. 

You can barely make John out in the first image. And yes he is wearing a face mask to protect his face and something to protect his hair and neck. He said he has had a few sparks go down his back. 

He had me step back as you can see the sparks are flying out as he spins overhead. Notice that now you can see him. He is standing still and there is a lot of light striking hem, thus he shows up. 

Here he was using a sparkler type device and it created more sparks. 

I thought this was cool. 

And to end with a bang (sort of), Johnny used a different sparkler that toward the end started putting out a tremendous amount of sparks that ever very bright and thus the white sparks coming off the inner golden circle. 

And that was the end of my lesson. My hat is off the Johnny for so graciously spending the time to show me how he does what he does. Again, is it easy? Yes and know. If you know what you are doing. He has spent years building his skills. I learned quickly (like when I turned the flashlight on my face the first time) that it takes a lot of trial and error. Johnny has the experience of a pro that enables him to make it look so easy. I started this experience asking how much photoshop he sued. None! Much like the photographer with the old Civil War style camera I wrote about in my previous post who exposed the film by removing the cover of the lens for " a few seconds" and then replaces it, the skill of the artist is build upon experience.

The equipment is mostly low-tech, in sharp contrast to most photographic equipment. (a Bic pen is 19 cents, a photographer Bic pen is $3.27!) The really big thing that is hard ot do is the creativity to dream it up and come up with new ideas. You have to have a spirit of "I wonder what would happen if I tried....? He does have a video card that enables him to spell out words as he walks along in the dark.

My heartfelt thanks to Johnny for showing his methods. It is always great to work with a photographer (or any other skills) that loves to help other learn and did I ever learn.

Now where is my wife's whisk at and how much longer before the after Christmas sales are so I can get lights cheap?

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