A Fun Light Painting Project - Parabolas - Digital Photography School

A Fun Light Painting Project – Parabolas

Here’s a fun tip that was recently shared in our photography forums by brand new member ‘ryan the mort‘. I thought it might make a fun weekend project – enjoy.

I’m not sure if this has been shared before, but it’s fun and fairly simple. It requires no post-processing.

parabolas.jpg

Materials needed:

  1. small flashlight
  2. string
  3. a ceiling hook

Procedure:

  1. First hang the flashlight, pointing downwards, from the ceiling using the string. The length of string changes the type of picture you will get, so have fun and experiment.
  2. Next place your camera below the flashlight facing the ceiling.Make sure your flashlight is securely fastened, it would be a horrible thing if it fell and smashed your lens.
  3. Set your camera on the bulb setting. Use a small aperture.
  4. Then turn off all the lights in the room, throw the flashlight so it begins to spin in circles and then trigger your bulb setting. Throwing the flashlight in different directions and angles also produces unique results.
  5. xperiment with different shutter speeds… some of mine were up to 3 or 4 minutes long.
  6. Another option to create even more designs is to slide a piece of cardboard over your lens, catch the flashlight, re-throw it, and then pull the cardboard off, continuing with a single photo.

I used a wide angle lens so I could get bigger circles, but any lens should work.

parabolas-light-painting.jpg

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some older comments

  • Vaibhav Saigal

    September 2, 2012 09:37 pm

    i tried n succeeded in getting nice formations but the pictures have lot of noise and shadows alongside the trails....... plz help me with improving the quality.......
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=4463717989898&set=a.1398444199969.2057821.1198175089&type=1&theater

  • Charles

    August 28, 2012 10:47 pm

    A few quick attempts. . .
    http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151205148011477.507997.131592891476&type=1

  • Milton

    August 23, 2012 05:11 pm

    Thanks for reminding me how creative we can be when we just have fun. Hope you enjoy these: http://www.flickr.com/photos/milton427/4046667269/in/set-72157622668140312

  • nachiketa

    August 10, 2012 03:30 pm

    thanx for sharing this great idea.... awesome pic....

  • Szymon Kamczyk

    December 21, 2010 09:16 am

    Hello, there are my photos. Greetings from Poland! :)

    http://ska7.digart.pl/

  • Carly Broaddus

    November 11, 2009 06:20 am

    So I finally had to try this as well. It looked so cool!

    For the second picture, I attached a pen to the middle of the string to change the way the bottom light swung.

    I focused the camera on the pen in normal light, and then switched it to manual focus so it wouldn't try to focus in the dark. I used f/11 and f/13 for my shots. Thanks for a great article!! :)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/8145550@N04/4092189946/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/8145550@N04/4092189694/

  • Javier Pais

    September 28, 2009 06:33 pm

    Finally I've tried...

    http://casadalourensa.es/fotos/picture.php?/3768
    http://casadalourensa.es/fotos/picture.php?/3766
    http://casadalourensa.es/fotos/picture.php?/3767

  • Cam

    September 25, 2009 03:51 am

    Cool idea! I tried it with a patio umbrella light(ring of LEDs) swinging from a hook. taped some gel filters to it as well
    http://gallery.me.com/cammc#100031/IMG_5333
    and
    http://gallery.me.com/cammc#100031/IMG_5328

    Hope the links work.

  • Vicki

    September 24, 2009 12:40 am

    Stefano, thanks for the encouragement! I did keep working on it and I got a couple I'm happy with. Thank you.
    http://www.betterphoto.com/gallery/big.asp?photoID=9053892&catID=&style=&rowNumber=1&memberID=45599

  • Dameon

    September 23, 2009 01:52 pm

    My first try at light painting.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/dbracks/3946876510/

  • Stefano

    September 22, 2009 04:48 pm

    Hello Vicki,

    the flashlight can be straight or "somehow" straight. It does not matter too much.
    Make it move, don't be afraid. When I tried I used about 5 ft string and the flashlight oscillation was around 1-2ft.
    Exposure around 10 to 40 seconds
    Don't give up. Try again.

  • Vicki

    September 22, 2009 06:45 am

    Ok, I tried it and I got NOTHING like what you all are showing. Does the flashlight have to be hanging absolutely straight down (because mine has a "handle" that's on one side so it hangs a little crooked)? My results are tiny on a large black field and very little movement...more like a big smear of light. Any suggestions? I love the idea and some of your results. Help a sister out! Thanks!

  • A Deeper Blue

    September 20, 2009 11:51 pm

    I finally tried it,,,, http://www.flickr.com/photos/adeeperblue/3933375948/

  • JacquiJSB

    September 11, 2009 07:24 am

    Loved doing this project. Really good results with a few pieces of equipment and a little bit of patience.

    Some amazing effects can be created. Here are a few on my experiments:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/41204569@N06/

    Thanks

  • Chella

    September 9, 2009 07:44 am

    This was a great idea and interesting project to do. Here are my results: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chella/sets/72157622138011381/

    I used a small MagLite that uses AA batteries.

  • Tom D

    September 6, 2009 07:38 am

    Thanks for this Darren, I had great fun doing this. Had a few problems getting the focus right. Any tips on this more than welcome. I put some twists into my string after a while and discovered some interesting results! Here's my effort. Tom http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2565/3890229477_872b248186_o.jpg

  • San

    September 4, 2009 02:17 am

    This is great. Something I'd really like to try.
    Can any of you guys specify which flashlight is suitable for this purpose and where can I get it? Specific name/brands, links on Amazon. I looked in DuaneReade but couldn't find any

  • Javier Pais

    September 3, 2009 07:04 pm

    I'll try it shortly! Fantastic!!

  • Dan

    September 3, 2009 11:00 am

    When I did this many years ago, I used some colored gels that a theater friend loaned me. They are just sheets of plastic that are about 9" square and are different primary colors.

    If you want to, you can make a light source from a bulb, some wire & a battery pack from an electronics store. I found that it worked better than a flashlight.

    dlm

  • Nena

    September 2, 2009 10:12 am

    They're not quite as cool or elaborate but I still like them
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/missnenal/3879912020/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/missnenal/3879114511/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/missnenal/3879911530/
    /http://www.flickr.com/photos/missnenal/3879113783/

  • michi

    September 1, 2009 03:22 pm

    great idea
    i love lightpainting
    got to try this one some time

  • Stefano

    August 31, 2009 05:04 pm

    A soon as I saw this I loved the idea, so I tried to reproduce the same effect.
    I prepared my Canon 50D, added a little fishing sinker to the flashlight and shoot a couple of test photos:

    http://picasaweb.google.com/steluci/Parabolas#5376018345109677442
    http://picasaweb.google.com/steluci/Parabolas#5376018346901354818
    http://picasaweb.google.com/steluci/Parabolas#5376018352558762514

    My son (8yo) and myself liked the results and started to experiment. We first added some blue filters:
    http://picasaweb.google.com/steluci/Parabolas#5376018363334333458

    Then we tried with a yellow-orange-red sequence:
    http://picasaweb.google.com/steluci/Parabolas#5376018366160560594

    Finally we fixed the sinker a foot above the flashlight instead of on the flashlight itself and we got some chaotic behavior in addition to the basic circles (we used green and gold filters here):
    http://picasaweb.google.com/steluci/Parabolas#5376018374555531234
    http://picasaweb.google.com/steluci/Parabolas#5376018378123174930

    Thay's all. I just wanted to share this with you. I hope you like it.
    Cheers
    Stefano

  • sabira

    August 31, 2009 06:31 am

    Great tips. l had fun painting glass marbles with light but l still have a problem with the
    ISO settings. l can't wait to try this. Thanks.

    Sabira

  • Dorret

    August 30, 2009 10:51 am

    Thank you so much, had to try it immediately of course. Mine were not so spectacular, but it was great fun! Will definitely play with it some more. Thanks as always DPS!

  • Jacq

    August 30, 2009 10:20 am

    OK first attempts failed but mistakes help us learn. Read the "small aperture" as that and had my numbers the wrong way around! So finally set to f27. Also, my camera would not focus with my trigger release so read some posts and managed to get it to focus and then switched to manual focus. The light was a flashing light that when moved changes color (like you get for raves) but I am too old for that so $2 shop! We only had Dulphins at our house.... Anyway, hung it from a air con vent from the ceiling with a piece of string. Shutter was open about 50 seconds. Laid the camera flat on the floor below (took some tests shots to make sure it was in frame) and played. Make sure you pop a cloth on the floor first to not scratch your display. As a learner I cannot tell you how satisfied I was to get this result. You rock Darren! Thanx for the post and the great site.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jacqmum3/3868418343/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jacqmum3/3868419365/

  • Brent

    August 30, 2009 06:05 am

    You can take this one more step by using to hooks and first creating a "V" of string between them, then hanging your single string and flashlight from it. By varying the lengths of the strings you can create some very complicated/facinating patterns:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lissajous_curve

    Have fun!

  • Clara

    August 29, 2009 06:15 am

    I don't understand what you mean when you say to throw the flashlight?

  • ebrahim

    August 29, 2009 03:07 am

    Hey, interesting I tried it, but my shapes are nothing like yours, yours very amazing how did you throw it, and how long were your shutter speed, and the light in my room is hung, so I just covered it with cupboard and threw that around, so it slowed down fast, and the last cycles were much brighter than the first ones, and what length of rope or whatever you hang your flash light with you used,thankyou for the great Ideas

  • 10chungs1

    August 29, 2009 12:48 am

    I used a three led light, white and close together, shutter of 15 seconds and looks like a ball of energy

    looked pretty cool
    or 30 seconds and F29
    18-55mm kit lens canon, zoom in to like 20 ish and then do it
    i suspended my flashlight with a stick so i moved the stick instead of risking my hand into the photo

  • Ernesto Ortega

    August 28, 2009 02:55 pm

    New fresh ideas, thanks for sharing!

  • lucheng0

    August 28, 2009 12:55 pm

    Wow, so cool ! I'll try today !!!

  • Martyn

    August 28, 2009 07:59 am

    Loved this article - inspired me to have a go this evening....

    I used my Samsung GX20's Multiple Exposure function, instead of using the old "cardboard over the lense" trick, to give 2 cycloids in one shot here:

    Let me know what you think :-)

    Martyn.

  • Michael

    August 28, 2009 06:15 am

    Great concept, guess I have a new project for the coming weekend now, thanks for the tip.

  • barnaby

    August 28, 2009 05:54 am

    Looks great, will be trying this out ASAP, how should i be focusing?

  • J.R.

    August 28, 2009 04:28 am

    I did this a very long timee ago with film, and found if you made a "Y" with th string and to attachments to the ceiling you got some great and interesting images.

  • Chris M.

    August 28, 2009 03:03 am

    Definitely have to try this... with such a long exposure does the celiing that the hook attaches have to be black? it seems like the ceiling would become exposed after 2-3 minutes in bulb.

  • Alan

    August 28, 2009 02:30 am

    I gave it a try last night and was very happy with the results. I posted some here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/39630975@N03/

  • Rikki

    August 28, 2009 02:14 am

    BEAUTIFUL!
    A few questions...
    Does the flashlight hang at the very bottom of the piece of string, or does the string run past the flashlight?
    I can't figure out how the string is illuminated if the flashlight is at the very bottom end of the string...
    Would love to see a pic of a set-up! (hint hint!)

  • Aredent Photog

    August 28, 2009 02:07 am

    Lost in the sauce...I don't understand.

  • Pam

    August 28, 2009 01:47 am

    This reminds me of the old spirographs! I am going to try it with colors. Which would work better- colored bulbs or colored acetate?

  • Drago

    August 27, 2009 09:43 am

    Very nice.
    As a kid, 40 years ago, I did same idea, but instead camera and bulb, I used pencil and paper.
    Thanks.

  • Rolling Stone

    August 27, 2009 08:53 am

    Something else to add to my must do list.
    Thank you!

  • Joe

    August 26, 2009 09:34 pm

  • Matt G

    August 26, 2009 07:40 am

    Great fun - just had to give this a try. This was the best of my 4 attempts to date.....CLICK

  • Joe

    August 26, 2009 07:19 am

    I didn't fool around with the focus too much but I did have the aperature closed as far as I could and it helps focus. Think pinhole camera.

  • chris

    August 26, 2009 07:09 am

    To get the camera to focus in the dark it is helpful to use a flashlight to get the camera to focus, then switch to manual focus so you are always in focus.

    If your camera does not have a full manual mode, try reviewing your manual and use the longest shutter speed you have. Something over 10 seconds would be ideal.

  • Jessica

    August 26, 2009 06:13 am

    lans on mine you put the shutter speed all the way down (as low/slow as it will go) and it will say bulb (I have the Xsi)

    anyone have ideas on the focus thing?

  • Lans

    August 25, 2009 10:49 pm

    sorry for my stupid question but is there a bulb setting in DSLR?

  • Matthias

    August 25, 2009 09:46 pm

    Another way to paint with light:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/matthiashombauer/3689125807/

  • Gina O

    August 25, 2009 09:06 pm

    How cool is that! There have been some awesome ideas on this website. Great place for inspiration and new ways to photographically experiment. Love it!

  • Jessica

    August 25, 2009 01:40 pm

    ok I just tried this a bit. got some cool patterns but mine are all out focus. do you use manual focus or auto with all focus points on or what?????? added a few of my attempts (to ge tthe purple I put tissue paper over the light) My flashlight had 3 small led bulbs which I thought gave it a cool effect.

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3507/3854985610_6a02b7cdb3.jpg

    http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2569/3854195927_d6776677e0.jpg

    http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2547/3854985450_b93edb9d2c_b.jpg

  • Adam

    August 25, 2009 01:32 pm

    @Kunjaan
    The aperture and ISO control the apparent brightness of the torch, since it will be moving during the exposure.
    Having a small aperture will give a greater depth of field, which makes it easier to have the torch in focus.
    Decreasing the ISO will result in less noise.

    Note that a smaller aperture has a bigger number (f/22 is a smaller aperture than f/2.8) often cameras will abreviate "f/22" to "22" or simillar, making the big/litte stuff confusing until you get your head around it.

  • Rick020200

    August 25, 2009 12:26 pm

  • Kevin Yuan

    August 25, 2009 08:42 am

    So cool, definitely can't wait to try to this out!

  • kunjaan

    August 25, 2009 02:45 am

    Hi, I am a newbie. I was wondering why the aperture needs to be small? Thanks.

  • Flores

    August 25, 2009 12:08 am

    To be honest, perhaps I am a too stupid and a super lowest amateur photographer because I do not understand at all, all your 6 steps explanations on how to photograph such as this one. Thanks anyway for your tutorial. God bless!

  • Darin

    August 24, 2009 01:33 pm

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3473/3850475891_2d11118c4e.jpg

    My lines are nearly as smooth as the example photos but I still like it. Fun stuff!

  • Upgrade56

    August 24, 2009 01:27 pm

    can somebody send a picture on how to prepare and set all the stuff?...i read the instruction, but still i could not get it.

  • theCurtis

    August 24, 2009 01:15 pm

    Thanks for this article! Here are my first two attempts.

    1. http://www.flickr.com/photos/thecurtis/3850436935/
    2. http://www.flickr.com/photos/thecurtis/3851234176/

  • MeiTeng

    August 24, 2009 10:21 am

    Very nice results and interesting technique!

  • Ben

    August 24, 2009 07:34 am

    Brilliant!

  • Arun Ravi

    August 24, 2009 04:25 am

    Two things..
    1. Like felicia asked, does the flash light need to be very thin source, to get those perfect thin lines of spiral geometry?
    2. How far away from the camera must the flash light be? Guess it ought to be quite far!

    Can't wait to try this out..
    William - Your stuff is great! Wonderful work..

  • William Bullimore

    August 23, 2009 11:38 pm

    Thanks again for this fun tutorial. Here's my first attempt :) http://www.flickr.com/photos/5cheherazad3/3847830297/

  • Sam

    August 23, 2009 06:52 pm

    Excellent idea! Thanks so much for sharing, I think this will be quite a lot of fun :)

  • Marshall

    August 23, 2009 04:25 pm

    Whoops, guess the code didn't take.

    http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y248/fxmixer/Greenbutterfly.jpg

  • Marshall

    August 23, 2009 04:24 pm

    Thanks for the inspiration and explanation! Here's one of my attempts from tonight.

  • Adam

    August 23, 2009 02:54 pm

    @Chris: It may be a case of high ceilings.

    Regarding the maths - It bugged me too. I think if you were really determined to make a parabola, it would be possible (I know circles and ellipses and parabolas can be drawn on paper using string that is fixed at certain points and such - just apply the same with a light).

    The best way to involve a parabola would be to do this outside and throw the torch (I've seen photos of this taken in a snowy place). If the torch is long and spins in flight you get dashes...
    If you do it outside with a nice background scene it makes it less abstract too, if you'd like.

  • Johnny Chandler

    August 23, 2009 02:44 pm

    Thanks so much for the tips Can't wait to use some of the advice in action! Keep up the wonderful work! Come see my work and let me know what you think!

  • Mattie Shoes

    August 23, 2009 02:16 pm

    Haha I'm glad others pointed out these aren't parabolas :-) It sucks being the only one nit-picky enough to notice these things. The pictures are fantastic though!

  • Mark

    August 23, 2009 01:24 pm

    This looks so cool! I gotta try this one. Thanks for the great idea!

  • Micah

    August 23, 2009 12:35 pm

    Fascinating technique. I like it a lot. It would be interesting to see this with a light source that could change color or something. I would also like to point out that these are called cycloids, which as dcclark pointed out, are very much related to spirographs.

  • Marciano

    August 23, 2009 12:31 pm

    Really cool!

    I have to try this one...

  • Barry Cunningham

    August 23, 2009 11:30 am

    Yes, ellipses not parabolas!

    If you want to generate some more complicated figures, try attaching another weight, roughly comparable to the weight of the flashlight, in the middle of the string. Then throw it in a slightly different direction when you throw the flashlight. This will form a double pendulum, which will exhibit much more complicated dynamic behavior.

  • Felicia

    August 23, 2009 10:38 am

    Thanks for the info, I'm sure my camera can do that, I'll check it out.

  • Ramón

    August 23, 2009 10:37 am

    Thanks for this suggestion; I can't wait to try it!

  • William Bullimore

    August 23, 2009 10:34 am

    Excellent. I'll give this a try. Felicia... the bulb setting allows you to leave your shutter open for long periods of time. The shutter opens with your first press of the shutter button and stays open until you press it again. Preferably do this via a wired or wireless remote because touching the actual camera will no doubt introduce camera shake. Look up "bulb" in your camera's manual for how to get this setting.

  • dcclark

    August 23, 2009 10:30 am

    How cool!

    @felicia: On SLRs, the bulb setting is a setting for the shutter speed, which essentially keeps the shutter open for as long as you hold down the shutter button (or sometimes, you hit it once to open the shutter, and once to close it). In other words, you can have as long of an exposure as you want.

    One annoying detail though: I'm a mathematician, so I thought I should point out that these have nothing to do with parabolas. If anything, the shapes that show up are ellipses. They're more closely related to Spirographs.

  • Chris

    August 23, 2009 09:36 am

    felicia, Bulb is the farthest down your shutter speed goes. You have to have your camera on Manual for this. When your shutter is set to Bulb the shutter stays open as long as you hold the shutter button down. It is best to do this with a remote shutter release cable, so you don't jitter the camera at all by holding the button down.

    This is an interesting idea. The flashlight must be pretty small to get such a small precise line? I like how it makes such perfect parabolas.

  • Felicia

    August 23, 2009 09:11 am

    Neat effect, I'd like to try it. I am a dummy....what is the bulb setting??

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