Friday, August 19, 2011

How To: Light Graffiti


Spray painting with light is an alternative and creative approach to lighting an image. It is achieved with a camera, a tripod, a relatively long shutter speed, and a moveable light source. Any subject can be spray painted with light, but still-life works the best. You may also want to consider what type of subject matter makes sense to apply this technique to. For example, tennis shoes (as shown) may be a better fit over business attire.


There must be little to no movement from your subject due to the longer shutter speeds required for the effect. The technique and the immediacy of digital photography is a match made in heaven as it is experimental in terms of exposure times. You can quickly preview your capture and tweak for the desired effect. Light Graffiti as I like to call it, creates depth, a glowing light/shadow effect, and adds a sense a movement in an otherwise static image.

So how does this differ from traditional light painting? By changing the subject matter in the image and the actual lighting technique, it becomes a more specific form of light painting. To achieve the graffiti effect, you must not only light your subject, but also light the surrounding areas of the frame, and direct your light source at the camera during exposure. This creates an overall spray paint effect, highlights your subject, and adds expressive and painterly strokes within the photograph.


What you’ll need to shoot this technique is a camera that allows manual override; I’ve used both my D-SLR and my advanced point-and-shoot to do these. The other essentials are a sturdy tripod, a light source, and a dark room. In this demonstration I used a very inexpensive pocket flashlight as my light source. If you choose, you can spend more on sophisticated light sources but the flashlight is an affordable and very effective beginning. A good starting point in terms of camera settings would be ISO 400, F8 @ 30s. Just keep in mind that this is not a rule of thumb, and this technique is experimental in nature when determining exposure. It would also be a good idea to engage your noise reduction feature inside the menu of your camera as noise is a by-product of long exposures.

Once your settings are in order, use auto-focus to get your subject sharp and then turn it off before beginning the painting (otherwise the AF system may hunt for a point of focus throughout the exposure). The next step is to turn your overhead lights off (ambient light) so that you are now in complete darkness. It helps also if you wear non-reflective dark clothing. You are now ready to create your image. You may want to use a wireless remote to trigger the shutter to diminish camera shake while beginning the exposure, or set your camera on self-timer. Then, you will use the flashlight to apply light exactly where you want it, turning it off and on in brief 1 to 3 second clips, with smooth spray painting like movements. Again, none of the times listed are exact, you must find a sweet spot that works best for you.

Once your 30 second exposure is done, turn your overheads back on and preview what you have, tweak what you find necessary, and repeat.


© Michael Reese