Early last year I collaborated with a friend who is a professional circus performer and hula hooper to create the unique images that you see in this article.
There are lots of good light painting photos around, but the factor that sets these ones apart is that my friend Tess used something called a FutureHoop – a transparent hula hoop that has built-in lights that can be programmed to flash in different colors and patterns. It helps that Tess is a trained dancer and hooper, so she was able to create some beautiful patterns with the FutureHoop.
You can try this technique yourself – if not with a FutureHoop then with any number of colored light tubes or similar devices that are available (or make your own). Do a search on Amazon to see what you can find, and use your imagination to reveal their potential.
Whatever you end up using for your painting with light experiments, there are a number of things you need to consider to get the best results. Take care of these and you should be able to create some strong images.
Choose a Location
Pick a good location. You need a dramatic background that complements the painting with light technique you choose to use. For these photos we went to Massey Memorial, built in remembrance of a past New Zealand Prime Minister on a hill in Wellington. I knew it would be a great place to take the photos because the marble pillars form a dramatic background. There was also plenty of room for Tess to move and dance with the FutureHoop.
Take the practicalities into consideration when choosing a background. For example, beaches often make good locations for painting with light photos, but you need to make sure your model can walk around safely in the near dark without tripping over rocks (or falling into the sea). Incidentally, isolated beaches are also a great place to try steel wool spinning, another form of painting with light.
Pick a model
Pick the right model. Tess is a professional performer and I couldn’t have created these photos without her. She had the appropriate costume, including an illuminated bra that can also be programmed to give different color displays.
Her training also meant that she could strike professional poses. The following photo demonstrates this perfectly. Look at the arch of her back, the way her feet are positioned, and how the toes on her left foot are pointed. You can even see the flashing bra.
The other thing that helped is that Tess thought about the patterns she would use on FutureHoop, and how she would move the hoop before the shoot. That helped us nail the shoot the first time.
Ask your model to practice, and be prepared to reshoot if necessary. It is possible that you won’t create your best images during the first attempt. During the shoot, look at the photos on the camera’s LCD screen and see what works and what doesn’t. Then you can suggest things that your model can try, or ask her to do something again if you didn’t quite time the photo correctly. Use feedback to refine the images and work towards something beautiful.
Time of Day
Choose the right time of day. The best time for painting with light is twilight, as it is dark enough for the lights to show, but there is still enough ambient light to subtly illuminate the background, and maintain some color in the sky.
The only difficulty with twilight is that the light fades rapidly, so you have to keep up by changing the exposure settings as you go along. The photos you take earlier on in the shoot, will be different from the ones you take later, as the light is fading. The ratio between the light from the FutureHoop (or whatever devices you are using), which stays constant, and the ambient light, which is fading, changes.
The two photos above show the difference. The first was taken early in the evening, the second one when it was nearly dark. The pillars in the background in the first are lit by the light of the setting sun. The FutureHoop seems much brighter in the second because the ambient light levels are lower. Note that I darkened the background of the first image in Lightroom to match that of the second one.
This photo shows Tess warming up at the start of the shoot. It was still too bright as this stage for the painting with light photos – you can barely see the light of the FutureHoop.
If you shoot at night the exposure should remain constant, but the sky will lack color. On the other hand, the light from the device your model is using could light up the background beautifully if it is close enough. So there may be advantages to working at night, rather than twilight, but in most cases the light during twilight will be better.
Technique and Camera Settings
Get your technique right. You need slow shutter speeds to take this type of photo, so a good tripod to support the camera and a cable release are necessities. I used shutter speeds between two and four seconds for these photos – you may need longer exposures depending on how long it takes your model to move the device you are using through the air. Tess moved quite fast, so the shorter shutter speeds we used worked better.
Set your camera to Manual mode so that the exposure remains constant throughout the series (the moving lights will confuse your camera’s light meter in an automatic exposure mode). It is easy enough to open the aperture, or raise the ISO, if you need to as the light fades.
Use the Raw format to give you maximum leeway in post-processing. Shooting Raw simplifies the shoot greatly as you don’t have to worry about settings such as color profile until you sit down to process the photos.
In this shoot, once the camera was set up, I kept the aperture at f/8 or f/11 and raised the ISO as the light faded. I set the White Balance to Daylight so I could see the natural colors of the FutureHoop and the ambient light. Using auto White Balance may result in some strange color casts as the camera tries to compensate for the colored lights.
Above all, have fun. If you both enjoy the process you create better images. If your model enjoys it she will want to collaborate with you on future ideas. Below are a few more images from our shoot – enjoy and hopefully they give you some ideas.
Any questions? Let us know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.
And if you’d like to learn more about the basics of photography, then please check out my ebook Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras.