A few years ago I came across an artist going by the name Sola who did these curious long exposure photos. I asked him how he did them and, like all strikingly effective techniques, it was stunningly simple. He attached a string of LED lights to a stick and waved the stick around in front of his camera. Of course how you do the waving is the trick. Here’s one of his pieces:

© Sola

And here’s one I did this evening with a light stick of my own:

The technique is simple but a little artistic forethought and planning goes a very long way…

If you’d like to play with my light stick I’ll be bringing it to the Night Photo Walk on Tuesday, or you can make your own with a string of battery powered LED lights found cluttering up the Xmas displays at most shops (I got mine for £3.50 at Wilkinsons) and a stick. It’s incredibly simple.

To take the photos I employed the standard long exposure set up, the checklist for which is as follows:

  • Camera on Tripod to keep it steady.
  • Wide angle lens to capture as much of the scene as possible.
  • Low ISO – 100 or 200 for a crisp image. (I messed up here and forgot to reset mine from 800…)
  • Narrow aperture. f22 is about right.
  • Slow shutter speed. 30 seconds or Bulb.

One of the things we’ll be exploring on the Night walk are the slightly counter-intuitive settings we employ at night, You’d think, because it’s night time, that we’d be making the camera as sensitive and wide open as possible. Surely we want to make the most of what little light there is?

In actual fact there’s plenty of light in the city at night – it’s just concentrated in very small areas. A street light, while not as strong as the sun, will illuminate a scene enough to take a hand held photo, just about. The problem your camera has is there’s not much illumination of the area beyond the street light’s reach.

Point a camera set to automatic at a night cityscape and most of the time it’ll report that there’s not enough light. If you don’t enable the flash it’ll open everything up as much as possible to desperately try to expose all parts of the scene. Sometimes it will achieve this and you can get a nice shot, but often those areas that are lit by a bight light source will be horribly over exposed. You’ll see similar effects if you’ve ever waved the camera of your phone at at a gig. The camera tries to expose for the whole stage while the performer, lit by a powerful spotlight, turns into a glowing blob.

Here’s two photos taken of a singer, Lobelia, at a gig last week.

The first photo was taken with the camera metering on the whole room. The bulk of the room is actually rather well exposed. You can see the detail on the amp along with clarity on the wall and doorway. But we’re not interested in them. We’re interested in the singer who is in the relatively small part of the shot that is well lit.

In the second photo I’ve taken control of the camera and dialled the exposure right back. The wall is now pitch black and Lobelia looks like she’s rather delicately lit, which is closer to how it looked at the venue. (The colours are, of course, horrible, but a quick switch to black and white fixes that.)

Going back to the light painting, those little Christmas tree LEDs might not seem very powerful but you don’t need to do much to pick them up. Making the cameras a insensitive as possible (low ISO, narrow aperture) means we can leave the shutter open for as long as we like and the ambient light pollution of the city skies won’t bother us. But those little LEDs will register fine.

If you’d like to join us on Tuesday for night photography fun there are a few places left. If you can’t make that sign up to the newsletter to be informed of future night shoots.