A while back I was playing around with some light writing while waiting to photograph the peak of a meteor shower. I got some cool results but didn’t think much of it.
I like to hold meteor parties to encourage friends to watch the meteor showers. It’s nice to have the company sometimes. We lay out blankets, have hot chocolate, and just hang out while watching the stars.
Recently I decided to revisit the technique. Again, as fun, but also to keep my longer exposure skills sharp. Long exposure photography looks pretty difficult, but in reality once you get a few basics down, it’s fairly simple to get some really cool results. I’ll focus on the light writing for this post, and revisit the topic in regards to night sky photography once I get some new examples. In order to try out some light writing you’ll need a couple of things: your camera with manual settings – especially a bulb setting, a tripod, a remote trigger is HIGHLY recommended, a friend or two to help “write”, and of course some source of light, and a dark night or room. You can use small flashlights, glow sticks, chem lights, sparklers, etc. Each source of light will have it’s own color temperature and look different in the resulting images.
To begin with you want to place your camera on the tripod, hook up any remote triggers you are using etc. It is much easier to do this in the light and then leave it set up or carefully carry it to your location. I prefer to use a quick release tripod so I can still carry them separately but still set up quickly. Another trick I like to use is to use a hair tie and secure a hand warming pouch to the side of my lens. This keeps condensation from forming on your lens during damp cool/ cold nights.
Decide where you want to set up. If you are outside you’ll need to look for an area where you won’t have stray light appear. For instance if you live on a busy street then you don’t want your subject standing where headlights will show (unless that’s the effect you are going for?) If you are inside you want to be able to block the light from windows or around doors.
Since your camera is on a tripod anyway, you can always run out and do the light writing if you don’t have a friend with you. Just take a peek through the view finder ahead of time to take note of the boundaries of the scene so you don’t run off camera. A remote trigger helps reduce any shake or vibrations you would get from manually pressing the shutter. In most light writing a small shake will not be noticeable, but when shooting scenery or star scenes those shakes can really mess up an otherwise awesome image. Because of the small fstop the fact that you ran into the image will not be visible, just your light source.
Your camera settings will vary depending on your surroundings and the type of light source you are using. Generalizing you want mid level ISO – something that can pick up a small light source, but not sensitive enough to pick up ambient light. My examples were shot with 640 ISO and as you can see in some, it still began to pick up the background light from the neighbor. For the same reasons, you want to have a small aperture. Your exposure will be a lot longer then normal, so you’ll have to use the bulb setting. (the shutter will stay open for as long as you hold the button. This is why I suggest using a remote trigger.) I found one off brand wired trigger on amazon for less than $25 with adapters for multiple camera brands that comes with bulb, bulb lock, timed exposure, exposure delay settings along with an option light for the display and an audio function that beeps every second the bulb is locked open. I find the last really useful because you can count the beeps and not have to ruin your night vision. For the recent examples I was working with an aperture of f22.0 and an exposure time of 10 seconds.