How to Build an LED Light and Make an Orb

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Orb15

This article will tell you all about the what, where and when of orbs. Let’s start by defining them.

What’s an orb?

Well it’s both a cool, and fun, method of light painting that anyone can do. Basically you make a circuit with some LEDs (light emitting diodes), a battery, some wire, and a switch. You weight the LEDs, and then spin these in a circle as you move around a fixed point. Shot outside in the evening using a long exposure, this spinning creates a really cool looking sphere. By using different LEDs, you can make these spheres (called orbs) in different colors. There’s a small bit of tech involved in building them, but it’s not super hard. It’s also a project you can very definitely do with your preteen or early teen child.

Orb01

Equipment needed

The minimum you need to make an orb is:

  • An LED (or a few LEDs to make it brighter)
  • Battery
  • Battery Clip
  • Push button to make a switch
  • Wire
  • A weight: literally anything to make the LED at the end of the wire heavy, so it spins easily
  • Resistor(s): The value depends on the type and number of LEDs you use
  • Soldering iron, solder, wire cutters, and PVC tape

Orb02

Building your LED light

Note from the Editor: Please take extreme safety precautions if you attempt this yourself. If you are not familiar with electronics get help from a friend or someone who is an expert.

Now for the tech bit. Attaching an LED to a battery can fry the LED. So to protect it, you need to use a resistor. You may need more than one if you use an array of LEDs. Use this LED Array Wizard, and finding the values is painless. You can enter in information about the LEDs into the wizard and get both the circuit, and the resistor values.

I bought the parts for this orb locally from a Maplin store (UK based), but you can get them from any electronics components store . Make sure to find the LED Forward Voltage (often 2-3.3 volts) and the current (often 20-30mA) for the LED Array. For this project I got four orange super-bright LEDs, with a forward voltage of 2v and current of 30mA. The wizard suggested I wire them in series and use a 39ohm resistor. (As it turned out, I had two red and two orange LEDs).

Orb03

Soldering this together takes a little skill. The trick is to tin the wires, LED Legs, etc., before bringing them together to solder the connection. Pay attention to the connections.

Orb04

The red wire from the battery clip should go to the switch, and the black wire should go (via the other wire) to the negative legs of the LED Array (or resistor in this case). From the other side of the switch, the wire should go the the positive side of the LED Array.

Orb05

For the array, make sure to connect the LEDs correctly, as they only work in one direction. Generally one leg is longer than the other, indicating the positive terminal. Follow the wizard circuit to be safe. The resistor can be wired in any direction. Wire the array, then connect the wires from the switch, and test the circuit before committing to the final solder.

Orb06

I’ve used an old adaptor nut as a weight. Even if your weight might fit over the LEDs, put it on the cable before the final solder, just in case. Once you’ve done the soldering, test again, and then use insulation tape (PVC tape) to wrap around each LED leg and the resistors, making sure none of them can touch any other. A short here could prevent the orb from working.

Orb07

Use the tape to secure your weight. Give it a test spin. You should be able to hold the battery and switch in one hand, and spin with the other. Practice getting the spin right, before pressing the switch.

Spinning technique to make the orb

You’re nearly ready for the real deal, your first orb shot! But first, you need to master a key technique – centering the orb. The first thought is to spin the orb around yourself, but this won’t actually make an orb, it just makes a mess. I mean it looks okay, but it’s not an orb. To get an orb, the center of the spin must be static. Essentially you need to shuffle around your spinning hand to make it work. A great tip is to put something on the ground – a coin helps because you can see the light hit it – and spin above it.

It takes practice to get perfect, and plenty of my orbs are not perfect, but they still look okay. They are loads of fun either way! Some people shuffle forwards, I tend to shuffle backwards. See which one suits you best.

Camera settings

Next you need to know how to set the camera. Here’s the exact setting to use: er… there is none. It depends on what you want in the photo. You need the exposure to capture the LEDs, and your surrounding area, at night or somewhere dark usually. This means a minimum of 30 seconds, but generally longer. So, you need to use Bulb mode on your camera, along with a remote cable. It may be obvious, but you’ll need a tripod to hold the camera steady during the exposure.

Bulb mode means the camera will record the image, as long as the shutter button is held down. If you use a remote cable with a button lock, you can set the remote, walk off, do your orb, come back to the camera, and then release the lock to end the exposure. As long as the button is held, the camera will continue exposing.

Orb08

Take an initial test shot of your location with settings of about 30 seconds at f/8, ISO 100 (see image above). You’re checking that the location will expose correctly first. Change the settings to get the exposure you need. If you’re on your own, use the 10 second timer on the camera to allow yourself enough time to get to your start position. Swing the orb, and once it’s moving, press the switch to light it up. Spin around a fixed point as recommended. That’s it. Go check your camera at the end and then refine your exposure.

Orb09

Anywhere that the orb looks out of place makes for a great shot. Also wet ground or still water is great, as you get reflections of the orb as well.

Orb10

Once you’ve gotten the bug, you’ll realize that the battery area is a bit flimsy and needs something more solid. For my own orbs, I put the battery and switch into a metal box with a 1/4 inch jack socket. I added a matching jack plug to the cable, replacing the battery and switch. That way I can use one box with a number of different coloured orbs. That’s a project for another day. Have fun making your orbs!

Orb11

Orb12

Orb13

Orb14

Have you ever tried this technique before? Or are you itching to try this? If you do – please share your images, and any questions, in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Sean McCormack is a Fuji X Photographer and author based in the Galway in the west of Ireland. Even with 15 years of shooting under his belt, he still manages to have fun with photography. See more of his work on his website or on his Instagram profile.

  • anonymous photographer

    those shots look awesome – do you have to do anything to cover up where you were in the picture….or, are you not there long enough during the exposure?

    im definitely going to try it, I have an rc car with led headlights – and I have some ideas now about driving it thru a long exposure in low light!

  • Sean McCormack

    Usually I wear dark clothing for these, which helps minimise showing up in shot. Anything that’s constantly moving in a long exposure shot won’t show up generally (unless they’re lit by something bright).
    The car will definitely work for this.

  • Great post! I knew I recognised the diving board from Galway.

  • Sean McCormack

    Plenty of Galway there! Spanish Arch, Merlin Woods and Silver Strand as well.

  • Darby Sackett

    Why not just buy a small LED flashlight amd use that? Having the power switch in hand would be a benefit for the orb but you could probably get by without it. Ive got a few led flashlights that have white, red and green light. Glow sticks might offer some fun one come multi colored too.

  • Sean McCormack

    Hi Darby,
    Unless the LED flashlight has a bulbous front, you won’t get a full pattern as you move to the sides, so the light would became really uneven. That’s not to say it won’t look cool in it’s own way, just that it won’t be the same look. This is only one of many tools that can used light painting, some of which I’ll be looking at in future articles. Wire wool, glow sticks, sparklers, EL Wire: Just a few more ways of lightpainting. You can of course light with torches directly too, again a topic for another article.

  • Darby Sackett

    Sean,
    Good point about the sides of the light, didn’t think about that.

  • Winstons

    I messed around with orbs a while ago and they are really a lot of fun, even my car got involved.
    Some more here https://www.flickr.com/photos/44181937@N02/albums/72157627524622919

  • Sean McCormack

    Cool stuff! Love the bike wheels as well.

  • Winstons

    Thanks Sean, great article.
    This one was achieved by using a frame that suspended a bicycle wheel with LEDs attached which was slowly spinning in a vertical axis and then rotated horizontally to get the spiral effect.

  • Bunny Singh

    How is it that you don’t see the person swinging the LEDs

  • Sean McCormack

    Sweet!

  • Sean McCormack

    They’re moving around, so not in one place long enough to register on the sensor.

  • Darby Sackett

    Great pictures Winstons

  • Mark Stadsklev

    If you want a perfect orb you have to spin about the center. I’m still working on a stand design that will achieve that. But so far I’ve got this

  • Mark Stadsklev

    Love the pool reflection. Notice though the gap of the two halves of sphere? I have the same “issue” no big deal but I’m hoping my next design will avoid that by moving the center pole around the center point of the sphere.

  • Winstons

    Hi Mark, sorry but there is no two halves or center pole, this is a complete sphere as the reflection in water shows. The wheel is suspended by its axle and spun then rotated in a horizontal plane.

  • I took photos of a guy using steel wool stuffed inside a metal whisk that was lit on fire. He then swung it in a circle as he moved in a circle. He got the same effect here, and this is shot I got.

  • Sean McCormack

    Hi Jenn, I do that as well. I started with a whisk, but moved to use bulldog clips. Quicker to load and I could use less material for the shot.

  • Ah, cool! I’ll have to remember to suggest that next time my photography group does this again.

  • OSp

    This orb was done with a similar orb tool. If you interested in light paintings, I have a Light Painting for Beginners eBook for sale on my website. Go to: http://www.spohr-photography.com/light-painting-ebook. Cheers, Light Painter Brisbane

  • OSp

    Here some orbs made with a different tool…

    http://www.lightpainterbrisbane.com

  • ShishkaBerry

    I love the orb idea! This may be achieved easier by making a LED throwie on a string instead of wiring up batteries, my first thought at least. Only a LED, watch battery and tape, at a cheaper price as well. You can just untape the led from the battery when youre done. http://m.instructables.com/id/LED-Throwies/

  • Perhaps I missed something.

    > You’re nearly ready for the real deal, your first orb shot! But first, you need to master a key technique – centering the orb. The first thought is to spin the orb around yourself, but this won’t actually make an orb, it just makes a mess. I mean it looks okay, but it’s not an orb. To get an orb, the center of the spin must be static. Essentially you need to shuffle around your spinning hand to make it work. A great tip is to put something on the ground – a coin helps because you can see the light hit it – and spin above it.

    I don’t understand how to spin the LED.

  • > If you want a perfect orb you have to spin about the center.

    Around the center of what?

  • Never mind. Someone did this right. They created a visual tutorial. Which makes sense since we are talking about creating a visual.

    http://lightpaintingphotography.com/light-painting-tutorials/jason-d-page/orb-techniques/

  • Mark Stadsklev

    The center of the sphere. The arm holding light source spins on point/shaft. If the point moves it will be a type of globe with more than one center point. Most machines will have an upright shaft that rotates around a fixed point which means the rotating arm moves around the upright shaft hence not a perfect sphere. It all depends on how picky you are.

  • Dave

    Great article. I am an Electronics Engineer and Educator, your use of online calculator and visual instructions make this article a one stop shop, no references to other how to’s which often overwhelm a newbie, good job!

  • Marko Markov

    this 2 spots needs to be on the same place on every turn. you should pick a spot on the ground and every spin should be on that spot.
    and if you dont want to build all that you could buy “LED Finger Lights Beams” it works and it is not expensive. like 4$ for 20pcs

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