Advanced Techniques for night photography with light

Rusty Parkhurst is an author on improvephotography.com and he explains some tips for night photography with light.

Using Multiple lights:
There is no need to limit yourself or your image to just one light. Experiment with using different colored lights, different types of lights, and place them in different areas of the image to really add depth and dimension. In the image below, I used a small LED light to illuminate the bucket of the bulldozer. Then, a speedlight with a red gel attached was popped behind the glass of the cab to provide some backlighting and color. A yard light behind me provided some additional light to the image. This image was created with a single 30-second exposure. Care was taken in moving around in the dark to prevent tripping or possibly knocking the tripod over. Additionally, I made sure that lights were shut off as I walked through the frame to prevent unwanted light streaks.

Light Orbs:
Light orbs are tons of fun to make and, with the right tools and a little practice, aren’t all that difficult. You may recall that late last year, the Improve Photography team beat the previous world record for the most orbs in a single exposure. You can read about it and watch the awe-inspiring video here. While you may not be out to break any world orbing records, you can still have a lot of fun making these images.

Photo by Rusty Parkhurst Photography (www.rustyparkhurst.com)

Making light orbs will require some of the same basic tools used for other light painting techniques. You will set up your camera on a tripod since the exposure time will be up to 30 seconds or longer. Use the 10-second timer or a remote shutter release to start the exposure. The one main difference is the light source. Or, more accurately, the contraption that is used to create the orb. There are a number of ways to construct a light orb-maker. The heroes of the Improve Photography team built special orb-making devices consisting of a PVC frame and LED lights. My setup is much more low-tech and can be made using some pretty simple items that you either have around the house or can be bought rather inexpensively at a dollar store or Walmart.

Here is what I use:

  • Small LED flashlight with an eyelet on the end for attaching a keyring. Make sure it is an inexpensive light (see below).
  • String or twine, cut to the right length so that the light will be close to the ground without hitting.
  • A lint roller, with the sticky roll removed (like I said, low-tech). This serves as a handle and will spin easily with the light attached.
  • Some type of colored, translucent ball to attach to the end of the flashlight. I used the plastic ball from a cheap toy and hot-glued it to the end of the light.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Set up the camera on a tripod.
  • Determine where you will stand to make the orb. Use something to mark your spot so you can find it easily each time.
  • Auto-focus on the area where you will be standing, then switch to manual focus on the camera or lens.
  • Try a test exposure to get the look you want. Depending on how dark it is, I may start with a wide open aperture (f/2.8 on my lens), 30 second shutter, and ISO 400.
  • Set the camera to the 10-second timer mode.
  • Start the timer and walk to your spot.
  • Turn on the light and begin spinning it as you slowly rotate your body. Try to keep your hand in roughly the same position so the orb will be more spherical.

Photo by Rusty Parkhurst Photography (www.rustyparkhurst.com)

After the shutter is closed, check the image on the LCD. Make any necessary exposure adjustments, and try it again.

There is certainly no exact science to doing this. You may think of other ways to make an orb-maker. Make sure the light is securely attached and that the string is securely attached to whatever you are using to hold it. On one occasion, the string broke in the middle of an exposure and my flashlight created a streak of light like a shooting star as it fell to the ground some distance away (shown in the feature image for this article). I prefer to use a handle to hold the string, as it is easier than holding the string in your hand. The lint roller was my inexpensive solution, but I’m sure there are many other options.

Steel wool:
I was hesitant to mention this one, as some reckless photographers have caused some real problems using this technique in recent months. In April of this year, some photographers burned down an historic building in Florida as a result of doing steel wool photography. This technique uses a device much like the orb, except that instead of a light, burning steel wool is spun around, throwing sparks in all directions. The images that can be created are really interesting. However, it must be done safely and in an appropriate place. Or not at all.

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There are numerous tutorials on how to do steel wool photography on-line, so I won’t go into much detail here. Basically, fine grade steel wool is placed into a metal kitchen whisk and lit using a lighter or 9-volt battery. The whisk is attached to a chain that you hold and spin around as the steel wool burns. Spinning the burning steel wool causes it to burn hotter and throw sparks. The camera captures the circular motion and a shower of sparks.

If you do try this, be sure to wear eye protection, gloves, and clothing to cover you body. Most importantly, make sure you are well away from anything that could burn, and also aware of where other people are in the scene. Ideally, this would be done on a wide open area of concrete, a sandy beach, or bare earth. It just takes a little common sense and the realization that sometimes just because it can be done, doesn’t mean that it should.

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