How to do Light Painting with a Piece of Fruit and a Cell Phone

How to do Light Painting with a Piece of Fruit and a Cell Phone

Not too long ago I did some experimenting with my camera, an apple, and an iPhone in order to get a shot that is fairly unique in my collection. It’s clearly not a professional-quality image and you wouldn’t find it in a museum or other curated collection, but the process of making this image taught me more about lighting and creative uses of everyday objects and I think it could do the same for you. So I want to share my tips for light painting a piece of fruit, using your cell phone.

tutorial-apple-photo

Materials required: a camera, my old iPhone, and an apple (fruit). Nothing more.

I’m usually the first one awake in my house, and one day while my wife and kids were still sleeping I thought I would have some fun with my camera and a piece of fruit. I had done light painting before but wanted to try a smaller-scale approach and wondered if the tiny little flashlight on my iPhone might be able to help. 40 minutes and many attempts later, I ended up with the picture you see above. Here’s how I did it.

Have fruit, will photograph

The first thing to think about when creating this image was the subject itself. I knew I wanted something relatable and interesting, and at first several of my kids’ toys came to mind, but I decided against those because I wanted an object that was a bit more universally recognizable. I literally just walked around the house for 15 minutes picking up various objects and thinking about how they would look with a long exposure and some swirls of light, until I found myself staring into the refrigerator rummaging through the produce drawer. When I picked up an apple, held it in my hand, and looked at the way its shiny texture reflected light, I knew that would be the winner.

Not much to see here. Just a plain ordinary apple.

Not much to see here. Just a plain ordinary apple.

As I held the apple a vision crystalized in my mind of the shot I now wanted to create – an image of this very apple sitting on a flat smooth surface with a whirlwind of light exploding from behind it. Once that mental image became clear much of the rest of this shoot fell into place. The next step was figuring out where to put the apple since I don’t have anything at all in the way of a professional studio. I soon realized that if I took all the dishes and fingerpaintings off the table it would suffice, albeit somewhat poorly, but I didn’t mind since this was all in good fun.

Just an everyday kitchen table adorned with a single fruit.

Just an everyday kitchen table adorned with a single piece of fruit.

Make artistic choices

I then had three compositional choices to make which involved the choice of lens, the distance from my camera to the apple, and the angle at which to shoot the scene. I decided on a 50mm lens on my full-frame D750 and positioned my camera directly on the table about half a meter from the apple. In the first few pictures I attempted I could see the doors to our utility closet in the background. So I repositioned things such that our window curtains were visible instead. In the final shot, you can barely see the vertical stripes from those curtains. While it may be true that a different background (or no background at all) might have made for a more interesting image I was relatively pleased with the way things turned out.

Camera settings and tech stuff

Having finally settled on my choice of subject, composition, and camera gear it was time to get to work with the photo itself. I turned the kitchen light on in order to get an accurate focus lock on the apple while also using Live View zoomed in to 100% to fine-tune the focus manually.

Because there was going to be basically no ambient light at all while I took the photo, I knew I wouldn’t be able to rely on my camera’s meter to give me an accurate exposure. So I put the camera in manual mode and adjusted the aperture to f/4 in order to get a relatively shallow depth of field while still maintaining a sharp subject. An ISO of 200 was chosen to minimize overall noise in the image. I set my initial shutter speed to 10 seconds but ended up changing to 20 seconds over the course of the shoot.

I also used a two-second timer to make sure there were no vibrations being caused by my fingers touching the camera when the shutter opened. The lynchpin in the entire operation, however, was my old iPhone 5c.

Behold, my super old iPhone!

Behold, my super old iPhone! It can’t do much, but it does have a nice little flashlight on the back. And sometimes that’s all you need.

Light painting

When doing light painting it helps if you have a single bright spot of light. A flashlight works well if your subject is far away, but if you are shooting something very close then the spot of light needs to be fairly tiny. Since the flashlight on most phone cameras is only a few millimeters in diameter, yet puts out quite a strong beam of light, it’s ideal for this type of photography. With my camera and the apple all set to go, I used the Flashlight setting on my phone to make sure the light was on continuously, pressed the shutter button, and as the saying goes, went to town.

My first few attempts didn't work out so well, but they gave me some ideas of how to proceed.

My first few attempts didn’t work out so well, but they gave me some ideas of how to proceed.

As you can see the result was interesting but lacked a certain amount of flair. I liked how the phone made a fun trail of light behind the apple, but it felt a little too strange and disconnected from the subject. The light was also far too bright, as it illuminated much of the table, the curtains behind it, and even my hand holding the phone.

I tried a couple different variations on the same shot but kept coming up short. Then I realized that I could dim the light just enough, while simultaneously altering its color, simply by using my finger to cover it up. The result was a soft red light that perfectly complemented the apple in the picture. I repeated the same steps as before but held my finger over the light to get the photo you see below.

tutorial-apple-photo-no-backlight

Add a backlight

This one was better, but it still wasn’t quite what I was looking for. The final piece of the puzzle came together when I decided to use my phone to cast a bit of backlighting on the apple and also use it to add a bit of shine to the front side. My steps, then, were as follows:

  • Press the shutter button with my left hand while the index finger was covering the flashlight on my phone.
  • Move my hand behind the apple and very quickly move my finger away from the flashlight, which cast a swath of white light just bright enough to light the apple from behind and a bit of the table too.
  • With my finger back on the flash, move my phone in a series of ever-widening circles above the apple.
  • With the shutter was still open, hold the phone in front of the apple about a meter away. Then release my finger from blocking the flashlight which added a bit of shine to the top-right corner of the apple.

There you have it. I repeated that process a dozen times in order to get the swirl of light to look precisely how I wanted. In the process, I not only got a neat image but learned a little bit about light painting too. A few days later I took similar photos but with different pieces of fruit. This could lead to some very interesting experiments in the future too.

Same equipment, but I taped a piece of cardboard with a tiny hole punched in it over my phone light.

Same equipment, but I taped a piece of cardboard with a tiny hole punched in it over my phone light.

To alter the color of the light I taped a grape to the back of my phone.

To alter the color of the light I taped a grape to the back of my phone.

Conclusion

The big takeaway from all of this is that you don’t always need fancy equipment to get interesting, compelling, or meaningful photos. All you need is the gear you have and a little creativity. What about you? Have you found some compelling or creative ways to take photos without spending a lot of money on gear? Do you have any tips, whether on light painting or otherwise, to share with DPS readers? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

What about you? Have you found some compelling or creative ways to take photos without spending a lot of money on gear? Do you have any tips, whether on light painting or otherwise, to share with dPS readers? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.