Light Painting fun

The other day I was just recalling that back in Scotland, by somewhere around mid-Feb, I was well and truly sick of long dark winter days, rubbish weather, and being stuck indoors with restless kids. So for those of you in the far reaches of the northern hemisphere (or even those who aren’t) here’s a fun activity to brighten up those dark afternoons: light painting!

We’ve just kicked off the fifteen-day Chinese New Year celebrations here in Singapore and (government-organised) fireworks play a central part in the festivities, traditionally to scare away the dreaded legendary monster Nian. Personal fireworks are actually banned here; and the selling of fireworks can land you in jail. But thankfully sparklers are just about acceptable. The girls love them and have recently been fascinated by the possibilities of “light painting” using long exposure photography.

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Miss Chu attempts a star

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Green and red sparkler circles!

We also tried lightpainting indoors with torches, which have the added advantage of not running out after sixty seconds!

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Do you recognise this name?

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Practicing random shapes and scribbles

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Both girls doing some crazy dancing with torches in the living room

It’s a fun, simple, (even educational!) activity with instant results – all you need is a reasonably dark space, a bright portable light, a DSLR camera and a tripod. (Or apparently, a smartphone with a long-exposure app like this) will work too.

If you’re using a DSLR camera, follow these steps:

  1. Mount the camera on your tripod or place on a steady surface.
  2. Set the camera to manual mode
  3. Set the ISO to 100 ( this helps make the photo darker even if your space isn’t pitch black)
  4. Set the aperture to F11 or thereabouts
  5. Set the shutter speed to something really slow (like 30s) or put it on BULB, which allows you to have full control over the shutter speed (by holding down the button for as long as necessary or using a remote shutter release).

And you’re ready to go! Best to open the shutter and get into position before flipping on your torch and waving wildly around. Making shapes and writing backwards is a fun place to start. You can also try covering your torch with coloured cellophane to make coloured trails.

I’ve discovered that many people have taken this art to a whole new level with impressive makeshift devices and elaborate setups like this one:

Some people have invented fancy equipment for lightpainting like this:

and this….

And have even made impressive light-painted animations like this:

(I was trying to watch some tutorials by the company that made this animation – Freezelight – but it’s all in Russian! Argh.)

There are also plenty of lightpainting apps that can turn your phone or tablet into a colour-changing, 3D-image producing light source – but personally I don’t want my kids waving my iPhone wildly in the air whilst dancing around in the dark, so we’ll stick to sparklers and torches for now.

We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of possibility and the geek in me is wondering what kind of lightpainting Rube-Goldberg devices we could come up with. Meanwhile the girls love taking turns trying to out-do each other with the craziest light-scribble.

Of course, if all this just sounds like too much hard work…you can just fake it, like I did with a fun app called Lume. Lume allows you to upload any photo and “paint” over it with a variety of light-effect brushes, and does a reasonable job of simulating long-exposure light trails.

Did we fool you with this one?

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I took a photo of us lined up in the dark and used Lume to paint it over with a sparkler brush! It reads “nian nian you yu” (meaning: every year have more than enough) – a common Chinese New Year saying!

Because obviously, we have not taught our 4 yr old to write cursive Chinese characters back-to-front in mid-air! Yet.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

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