It’s amazing what you can do with a little light and a camera capable of taking long exposures. Well, maybe there is a little more to it than that, but not much. For photographers into light painting, ‘tube painting’ has become a bit of a trend lately. I originally ran across the idea of making illuminated circle behind models when I saw Wien-Jié Yang’s video several years ago. More recently, Eric Paré and his model Kim Henry have refined the process using very specific items to create amazing images. If you are not familiar with either of their work, please take a moment and check them out. Once I saw the resulting images, I had to give it a try.
In essence, you want to create a long tube of light you can move around your subject. By placing a flashlight at the end of a clear tube, you can create this effect. You will need a flashlight, T12 tubes, white tracing paper, and colored film for this shoot. For the flashlight, Eric Paré uses a very specific and bright flashlight for his work. The flashlight, however, isn’t cheap (~$70) and if you want a strobe effect in the resulting images, you’ll need at least two of them. Always trying to keep my shoots as cheap as possible, I simply modified one of my brighter flashlights instead of purchasing the more expensive flashlights. The T12 tubes are clear plastic tubes that are placed around T12 fluorescent light bulbs to protect them. These tubes also come in smaller sizes such as a T8. The tubes come in 4 and 8 foot lengths and can be found at most local hardware stores for about $4 and $8 respectively.
At this point if you simply place the flashlight in the tube and turn it on, the tube will not light up enough to be visible in camera. You need to find a way to disperse, diffract, and bounce the light around inside the tube to make it brighter. I experimented with sanding the outside of the tube to create more areas for the light to bounce and reflect through, but this process was not nearly as successful as simply putting a piece of white tracing paper inside the tube. The white paper really does help diffuse and spread the light more evenly throughout the tube. I then purchased several different colors of cellophane ‘basket wrap’ from a local hobby store and cut the cellophane to fit inside the tube as well. At first, I put the colored cellophane on the inside of paper but found it worked better putting the colored film on the outside of the paper. I also found if I doubled up the colored film, I could get more saturated colors. If you are lucky enough to find them, some T12 tubes come in different colors therefore eliminating the need for the colored cellophane. I did not find colored tubes locally and was only able to find them online so I decided to try the colored cellophane.
Find a bright flashlight that will fit inside the tube, or can be easily modified to fit inside a tube. A flashlight that allows you to focus the beam can be helpful in getting the light to more evenly reach the other end of the tube as well. I used my strongest LED flashlight, unscrewed the housing around the light, and found a PVC adapter that fit both the end of the flashlight and the end of the tube nearly perfectly.
After having created the tubes and modifying my flashlight to fit inside the end of the tubes, I spent several nights trying to find the best camera settings for the effect I was after. This was probably the hardest part of the process. Each night of practice would yield different results given the different ambient light. It is impossible for me to advise anyone on the ‘correct’ settings as it drastically depends on so many different variables. For the most part I shot around f/5 or lower (wider) with ISOs anywhere from 100 to 500. Again, it really depends on the strength of the light from the flashlight, whether or not you want some detail in your model, the ambient light, etc.
I triggered the camera with a radio trigger. I do have an infrared trigger for my camera but it simply is not the best choice for this type of shoot. First, you will be relatively far from the camera and infrared triggers become less reliable the further away you are from the camera; much more so than radio triggers. Second, you need to be behind your model to prevent your body from being visible and infrared triggers require line-of-sight. If you do not own radio triggers for your camera, there are several options available and many of the cheaper ones work just as well as the more expensive ones.
This also brings up the issue of hiding yourself from being exposed in the images. Have your model wear clothing that fans out and covers a lot of the area at and around the ground and the model’s feet. You should be directly behind the model. Any part of you that is not in constant motion will be visible. In other words, the dress acts as a cover for your legs and feet. Next, always wear black or darker colored clothing when light painting. Lastly, keep in motion. Anyone that has experimented with long exposure knows that static objects will appear and fast moving objects generally will not – or at least not as much as the static objects. That being said, make sure your model holds as still as possible during the exposure as you move around rather quickly.
I once asked a photographer friend to join me one night for shooting and he asked if we were just going to go out and ‘mess around with light’ (in a very ‘that’s kind of ridiculous’ tone) but light painting can yield some incredibly amazing results. Maybe it just wasn’t his thing but I love trying different light sources and methods for creating long exposure images. If you try this idea, I’d love to see your results and if you don’t get the results you were looking for the first few times, keep trying! My first few practice attempts were laughable (and I think I did actually laugh). Even the edited images from this shoot could benefit from some more attempts and refining the process. I believe there are no absolutely perfect images and that’s okay. The joy comes from the pursuit of trying to obtain them! As always, step outside of your comfort zone and give this a try!
And a HUGE THANK YOU to my wonderful model (and photographer herself), Alecia!
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.