Thursday, December 4, 2008

Light Painting UFOs in the Backyard

Backyard UFOs

While we were at my parents' house for Thanksgiving, I got to spend some time in the yard playing with the camera. I tried to get some night shots, but those didn't turn out as well as I had hoped. Then I realized that the backyard was nice and dark with the small woods behind it being backlit by some street lights. So, I decided to play around with a flashlight I carry in my camera bag and do some light painting.

The shot above is just one of the images I made that night. They are very simple to make actually. How to do it after the jump.

Light painting is a technique where you leave the shutter open and selective illuminate subjects and/or move a light through the scene to leave a light trail. Here is how I made the image above:

1) Set your camera on a tripod.
2) Set your camera on the "Bulb" shutter speed setting.
3) Manually focus your lens so that the background isn't just a blur ... unless of course that is the effect you are going for.
4) Lock your shutter open with either a manual release cable or hold it open with your finger.
5) Run around in front of your camera waving a flash light around like a fool. Alternately, walk around lighting things up with your flash or flash light. You will need a friend to do this part if you are holding the shutter open by yourself instead of locking it with a cable release.
6) Return the camera and let it stay open a bit longer for the background light to burn in. This will cause the "ghosting" effect through the light trails and the background gets recorded by the sensor/film.
7) Unlock the shutter to close it.
8) Review the image and repeat as necessary or wanted.

The first few attempts won't be very good. The idea here is to play around with the long exposure time in a dark / nighttime environment. You can do the same in a darkened room. There are countless variations of this technique from simple light trails like this one to using 1-million candle-power lights to "paint" small hills in the southwestern US. It is a technique that practically begs to be played with as it isn't just your normal image.

If you follow the above steps what you should have is a lot of streaks of white light going through the scene. How do you get light trials with those colors though? Well, I suppose you could try finding a flashlight that cycles automatically through colors. However, I don't have one of those. That is were your photo editor of choice comes in. I used Nikon's Capture NX2 to because it makes this very, very easy.

1) I placed a color control point on the light trail. This selects anything with that "color" in the point's area of influence. It is NX2's version of Photoshop's masking, and is the feature that makes this so much easier than in an editor like Photoshop as you don't have to generate the masks by hand. If you are more comfortable using Photoshop and masks, go right ahead. There really isn't a right way or wrong way to do this after all.
2) I then adjusted the Red, Green and Blue color channels on the control point until I had the color I wanted. To dark the color I lowered the brightness and/or increased the contrast via the control point. You can also adjust the saturation as you see fit.
3) Repeat the above as often as needed until your light trails are the color(s) that you like.
4) Check your background to make sure you didn't inadvertently affect it. If you do, then use NX's selection brush in the erase mode to remove the effect from the affected area. I used a very soft brush, but a harder bush might be necessary at times.

That's it for the light trails. This particular image probably took 10 minutes to process at most, and most of that time was just playing with the colors until I liked what I saw. Capture NX2 did the heavy work of generating the masks, leaving me to make the color changes.

A couple of suggestions.

1) Wear dark clothing if you don't want to appear in the image. The dark clothing with blend into the dark background reducing the chance that you will cause a "ghost" image as you run around like an idiot. ;-)
2) Keep moving. The longer you stay in one place, the more likely that you will register on the camera making one of those ghost images I mentioned above.
3) If you want to add a "ghost", then do the opposite of 1&2. I.E. wear light clothing and move slowly or even stand still briefly. The longer you stay in one place the more solid you will appear in the image. The trick will be to stay long enough to leave an image, but not so long that you completely obscure the background. Remember that you want to see the background through you, so don't stay in one place the entire time shutter is open.
4) If you want a rainbow effect to your colors remember the acronym ROY G. BIV for Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. That is the order of the colors that you see in a rainbow.

Anyway, that is it for today. Hope you have fun doing your own light painting.

Keep shooting.


SBL said...

Nice blog. That's all.

SBL photoshop masking

Craig Lee said...

Thanks, SBL. I'm always glad to see a new face around here.

John Brainard said...

I think one of the first comments I left on your blog was to an entry on doing goofy things in the back yard with your camera. I haven't tried that out yet (I think it was jumping around, spinning and other things while shooting with long shutter speeds) and it may be a while before I get to try out this one. Cool idea, though.

Craig Lee said...

I think that was the "shutter painting" post, wasn't John? Funny how if you try to make interesting images you look crazy doing it. ;-)