Pixelsticking, if there is such a word, was our last little venture and thanks to members Rob Dyer and Myk Garton for providing the pieces of kit aforementioned. The pixel stick is a relatively new device, for those of us unfamiliar, that allows the projection of an image across a frame using a long exposure. It is a form of light painting and requires a certain amount of dark in the frame in order to get a long enough exposure and a high contrast.
October 2013 and the Pixelstick was yet another project on Kickstarter a way for pre-designing a light painted image invented by two photographers, Duncan Frazier and Steve McGuigan, and as we saw, the possibilities are almost endless. Frazier and McGuigan’s invention allows not just for sweeps of coloured LED’s to be recorded, but by breaking down image files into 198 x 1 pixel format and displaying them one line at a time any image can be rendered. Each full colour RGB LED in the 198 high (6 foot) stack represents a line when moved across the field of view of the camera lens (utilising anywhere between 1 and all 198 pixels) and combined make for a time lapsed light painted image.
Not that light painting is new. (Time line by light painting photography). The first light painted image on record was taken in 1889, and had the really snappy title of “Pathological walk from in front” (only in French). As such it was a documentary photograph, recording the movement of joints, created by Étienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny. Denemy was a student of Marey, when Marey was teaching physiology at the Collége de France. They attached a set of incandescent bulbs to the joints of a subject in the dark and took a long exposure. Long exposures were pretty standard in 1889. Marey also was the first photo-sniper, being the inventor of the chronophotographic gun, and a very great deal more.
The next name in the development of light painting is not a photographer but an early supporter of the Scientific Management movement, you’d probably know it better as Time and Motion, though that was only part of the larger movement, and certainly those of us who engage in any volume of editing in post are aware of the idea of efficient workflow. As with Marey and Demeny Frank Gilbreth Snr used the light painting to study the actions of workers in their work looking for the least effort to produce the most work volume (read profit). He also invented a concrete mixer, but that is by the by.
Perhaps the first name recognisable name to us as photographers to use light painting to effect is that of Man Ray. Man Ray is regarded as a leading figure in the Avant-garde and Dada movements, and he was an extensive, but not exclusive, user of photography in creating his art. He used light painting techniques in a series he called “Space Writing”.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s there were experiments in light painting by artists like Gjon Mili, famous for attaching lights to the boots of ice skaters and his experiments with flash exposures, but most famously in the light paintings executed with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse; Barbara Morgan; Jack Delano; and Andreas Feininger. In the 50’s David Potts started moving the camera rather than the subject and explored the use of colour film in what became known as Kinetic Light Painting a.k.a. Camera Painting. George Mathieu, an Abstract Expressionist, used the more traditional method to portray movement for a Japanese magazine cover but his work was mainly as a painter and portraying movement a key feature of that work.
Light painting, then, was something of an oddity, not at all mainstream even though the technique, comparatively, is pretty straight forward. It lurked upon the fringes of photography until the digital age. It starts to look more familiar to us in the 1970’s. David Lebe’s Light Drawings came from his experimentation with pin hole cameras, which capture movement over long periods of time on an essentially still medium. He has an extensive oeuvre in the style. Eric Staller’s work looks like it could be contemporary, many of us have images that look like a Staller, only his were the originals. That said it is David Chamberlain who is the flag bearer in the modern era, being the only artist to exclusively use the techniques of light painting to present his body of work, at least the only one wrooith an extensive reputation. Susan Hilbrand, Jacques Pugin, fill out the cast and into the 80’s artists like Jozef Sedlák, Viki DaSilva, Mike Mandel, Kamil Varga, John Hesketh and Tokihiro Sato show the popularity of such techniques moving towards, if never actually becoming part of, the mainstream of photographic techniques.
But it is simple to do and you can get a lot of very striking images and it engages the imagination. It is a problem solving exercise, as photography is at heart, and it is fun. It is also getting more popular and though the PixelStick is part of that, it is still expensive and in its infancy. Flickr has its small assembly of PixelStick groups, in the wider Light painting communities there are dozens of groups to choose from. Other social media has its fair share too.
It doesn’t take a lot of extra equipment, most of us will have something around the house we can use to get started. It’s one of the more fun aspects of photography, if you haven’t tried it, why not give it a go?
Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”. A bourgeois concept is one that makes the holder appear self important and materialistic, shallow, pretending to be deep, unsophisticated and generally lacking in true class. He never once won a club competition round thinking like that. He did co-found the rather classy Magnum photo agency though, which he described as “…. A community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.” Well he would say that, I mean, not even a commended? Obviously a case of if you can’t join them beat them.
Our last session on the endlessly fascinating light painting and the impromptu follow up at Abbots Pool on Sunday techniques set me to thinking about this. Not particularly to bourgeois concepts, you understand, but how the technique generally requires stripping the camera electronics to the basics, especially when not combining any ambient light. Full manual set on a tripod and long exposures, at least we can sympathise with a William Fox-Talbot or a Roger Fenton, though we still have it a lot easier. Equipment is smaller and lighter, we can get, with digital at least, instant review and no messing about with chemicals – though that is a different kind of fun in itself.
We are still paying attention to the same basics then. Pre-focussing the lens in the general area of the soon to be action is more guess work than we are used to with auto-focus but we still have to maintain a level of sharpness. What we don’t want is our lenses hunting for a spot with sufficient contrast to lock on to. Most of the time it’s not going to find one in the dark. So, manual focus it is on two grounds. Most people at Abbots Pool seemed to be shooting towards the end at F10, yours truly, different as ever at F8 (actually from aquick excif check it was F8 all night), but that might be the difference in using an SLT camera as opposed to a DSLR. We want our images to retain the lines and patterns in what is technically known as an acceptable circle of confusion. Basically a zone of focus we register as “sharp”.
Shutter speed. Bulb is the order of the day with light painting, at least in the conditions we were shooting in at club and at Abbots Pool. If we are shooting traffic in town in order to capture the light trails then we are probably looking at somewhere between 6 to 10 seconds as a start point (again at F8, maybe F11) but that is just to find a base line. Similarly we would want to keep a constant aperture and most likely exposure time if we were painting a large object with a single light source (and that would be across frames).
The usual advice for a sharp picture is to use the reciprocal of the focal length, so a 50mm lens would suggest 1/50th of second minimum, a 210mm lens 1/250th. Theoretically at least. However this rule of thumb (tool) has been around a long time. Certainly on a full frame 35mm camera with no vibration reduction then it’s no bad way to go. However, should we lengthen the time by 1.5x or 1.6x to account for an APS-C lens? 2x for a Micro Four Thirds? And how much do we need with VR built in and turned on? Firstly that full frame thing is a bit of a false lead. As magnification increases the degree of movement needed to register as blur decreases. Magnification does not change with sensor size, the field (and depth) of view does (and low light capabilities and quality given the same number of photo-sites – or pixels as they are commonly called – and the relative numbers on the exposure triangle).Think of it as Width not depth, you won’t go far wrong. Practically, by the way, if it’s too big to see in the viewfinder, it aint gonna fit on the sensor. Secondly VR does allow us to lower shutter speed but how much depends upon the individual and the situation.
But hey, we are on bulb (shutter stays open as long as the shutter mechanism is activated), so all that doesn’t matter. And if we are on bulb then we are on a tripod or the camera is stabilised by some other means like a bean bag or a wall etc. The bulb by the way comes from the history of photography as it was a rubber bulb shaped object used to fire the trigger. As long as it was depressed (squeezed) the shutter mechanism remained open. Sound familiar? There is some question as to whether the VR should be turned off on tripod, I have never had to and I have VR on both my camera body and my main lens. Other people have and it has made a difference. Test it and find out for your camera. Then move on.
Shooting RAW or JPEG is a personal choice, get those things above right then it doesn’t matter. If you want or need to do a lot of playing around with colour channels, contrast etc then RAW is better. Otherwise do not fret. Fretting about RAW or JPEG is probably a bourgeois concept. Arguing about it rather than taking pictures is definitely a bourgeois concept. Move on.
Composition still counts. When in doubt about the area that is going to be used to complete the picture go wide and crop in post. You can take things out, you can’t put things in that you haven’t got a record for. Generally with the sort of light painting we were doing then going wide was not a bad strategy.
Post production is certainly a matter of personal taste. It can be fun to play around with effects and balances but, by and large, we don’t want it to look over processed. Unless we do. That’s why it’s a matter of personal taste. Printing your results though means that we are going to want as much colour space as we can get to reproduce the tones and subtleties of colour. sRGB is best for monitors, so we need to make allowances for this.
It doesn’t have to be complex, it gets better with practice and it is fun. Get out there and try some.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Speaker – Welcome to my outdoor office – Stephen Spraggon
It must be Autumn because last meeting we did a light painting session courtesy of Myk Garton and guest light painter Tony Cullen – many thanks guys. Every time we do this there is something new and I will admit that it is one of my favourite things to do photographically. Attendance was high which proves its popularity with other club members too. This was the introductory evening and we will be doing some more advanced techniques on December 1st. Of course light painting isn’t necessarily seasonal, but the ever shortening days this side of the Winter Solstice means that available light is at a premium. The “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” (that man Keats again) means a lot more than landscapers getting a lie in. The light, generally, has a quality of its own because of the relatively low angle of the sun to the horizon. Problem is there isn’t a lot of it.
So, provide our own. This is as close outdoors as we get to the degree of control of light in a studio. The big difference is we make benefit of the dark. The contrast levels are extreme, but that is a virtue not a vice. The canvas is light on dark but in a more high contrast way than we see in daylight, where we could argue that the opposite is true (wrong as everything we see is via reflected light, but since when did wrong prevent an argument?). Strobists use flash guns to recreate the flood of light which they can control the direction and beam, with a white balance of its own. When drawing on the black canvas, with torches, coloured lights or even fire, the colour balance doesn’t tend to be a big consideration, at least in the sense of it being something that needs correcting. Painting a scene in light as opposed to drawing a scene with light presents different technical challenges, but can be done with the same kit and a bit of patience. I say a bit, oftentimes a lot of patience.
In fact there are a number of different ways to think of light painting, and where we start, the way in which we are thinking of the images we want to capture, determines the outcome more than anything else. Yes this may come under the heading of “Well, duh” but any technique has strengths and weaknesses according to the situation. Selection is the key. The first decision is are we lighting the subject or creating an effect? Our desired look will determine the way we use the lights and the sort of lights we use. Again, we may say “Duh”, but it’s surprising how hard we can make the job by not prepping for a final outcome in the first place. We might be combining both, after all. What about spontaneity and experimentation, we say? Much better to have an idea to execute and vary than to just turn up having watched several hours of YouTube videos with a load of kit and a vague idea. We may be technically proficient but that is no good if we are subject deficient – the difference between a body with a camera and a photographer.
The point to start, where when who and how because that is going to dictate what we can and cannot do. Use a familiar or scout a location in the day light. Decide what the subjects are likely to be and what kit we are going to take with us. If unfamiliar with orbs, zoom bursts, camera rotations, double exposures and the like the answer is “Should have been at club”. That aside, the first thing is, if not in total darkness or very near, determine what the level of ambient light is. This determines the time we have to paint in. If it isn’t a factor then fine, open the shutter for as long as it will go or as long as needed, then set the camera pre-focused and to manual – this meeting was about familiarising people with their equipment in those modes in order to capture those sort of effects.
If we want a basic explanation of light painting it is that it is long exposure photography. In the dark. The meter is useless without some level of ambient light and the length of exposure is dependent upon what we want to paint in and what we are painting with, that is to say, in the practical sense, it is going to be the product of experimentation. The light gathering capabilities of the sensor are going to be tested, select the lowest ISO to help keep the noise to a minimum (remember boost the signal, boost the noise and that is what you do when we up the ISO). We are going to need a tripod and, a personal preference, a remote shutter release.
Light trails, using moving lights – the most popular seems to be vehicle trails which, let’s face it, aren’t too difficult to come by in a city of 400,000 people – are also simple to set up and to execute. 8 to 10 seconds, ISO 100, F8 on a well lit street, as a starting point towards getting a reasonably exposed photograph overall and, as long as the vehicles are moving even relatively slowly, then some interesting effects can be captured. Vary the angles, either by setting the camera up more obliquely to the traffic than at a right angle, or find a bend or a roundabout to get some swoosh into the picture. Zooming whilst the shutter is open also does interesting things to the trails often setting them off at angles we wouldn’t expect and rotating the camera through 90 degrees during the exposure, as long as we keep the axis constant, can do interesting things to lights in the background (as alluded to above).
I know that is a cliché but nonetheless I am going to repeat it. There are so many variations that we truly are only limited by the imagination and for once, it doesn’t have to be at any great expense. Yes we can spend an inordinate amount of money on these techniques but actually experimenting with the basics will yield some fine and interesting results. I, for one, am really looking forward to part two of our light painting sessions.
An evening out last meeting where a goodly number of brave souls battled the elements and congregated on the Tramway Centre for a spot of light trailing. Actually it wasn’t that inclement, but it sounds more epic if there are elements to battle. Also skateboards, bicycles, motor vehicles, the occasional well oiled passer-by and the odd curious body wondering why so many people were taking pictures of buses. Buses, it appears, aren’t usually that popular even for the people riding them, so their prompted inquisitiveness was understandable, but each to their own.
As we have already done a brief tour of light painting and light trails recently so we will take a little tour around some other items of interest. Probably the most immediate impact to photographers is the future of Yahoo, particularly Flikr, which Yahoo acquired in 2005. Aside from the bile that periodic changes to its format from a percentage of entrenched users generates (the fate of all user platforms, which will lose users if they are not seen to evolve, it’s pretty much no win). Rumours have been around that Yahoo might be looking to dispose of the E-Mail, Search, Photo, that for which the general population probably know them best, their core business. They used to be King of the Hill in the web sector, but are seen to be in trouble, at least in the terms of the market. The way that they value this core (core is not the same as profitable) business means that it is worth virtually nothing. To the shareholders.
To the 112 million free-lunchers, give or take, who use Flikr, that virtually nothing is a whole lot more. It is primarily for free, but for free still needs paying for. The Pro, paid for version, doesn’t, it appears, generate sufficient income for that. So Yahoo sell off some royalty free (creative commons)images on its servers, as well as some other users images as creative wall art, which upset some people and not others. The creative commons pictures don’t get royalties. Huffington Post, when it was sold by its founders Huffington and Lerer to AOL, attracted some controversy as it had, in part, been grown by the traffic attracted by the unpaid bloggers who used its platform. There was an unsuccessful class action by some of them against Huffington and Lerer for a share of the proceeds. The bloggers lost their action broadly on the basis that no payment had ever been promised. The bloggers did it for exposure, one assumes, as they were free to cross post. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
One person’s fair use is still another person’s theft. Groupon finds itself on the end of a law suit under local copyright laws in Illinois on the grounds that they regularly raid Instagram for photos to use in their publicity misrepresenting the people who posted them. Misrepresentation takes many forms and the rights and wrongs of the Groupon case will be settled in a court of law. Others are not so serious. A small, local competition was recently won by a striking image which was duly praised and published by the company running it. But the photo was badly Photoshopped and the company running it was a local incarnation of a rather large one. A rather large camera company. Nikon. It went viral and much hilarity ensued. Canon Canada is even running its own version. All very embarrassing but it will blow over and I doubt it will affect either Nikon’s or Canon’s sales one jot. The individuals involved were duly chastised but, given the nature of modern communications, internationally, which might strike you as being a little disproportionate. This is the world we live in.
As Canadian photographers are granted the first copy right as authors of their own images, the thorny issue of other people’s property and the reproduction rights therein have been back in the news. The issue was a snap taken and entered into a competition run by Thompson Holidays, a £2,000 holiday being the prize. A horse photobombed a father and son in the winning entry. The owner of the horse wanted a cut of the prize, after all, the horse was their property (animals count as property) and was on private land and had not given permission for it to be included in the photograph. Not sure how that would pan out, it not being a cash prize. The photograph, as I understand, was taken from a public right of way and that is a salient fact as there is the idea of a right of panorama, which includes the idea that that which is on view from public land does not require prior permission to be photographed (as long as no offence is committed in order to take it).
Photo-releases are a part of the necessary process of commercial photography. They are not the exclusive domain of the professional photographer. Any photo that is paid for, whether it was taken with that purpose in mid or not, should have the basis of its copy right subject to written confirmation, even those taken in public, as far as is reasonably practicable. It can save a lot of grief later on.
I’ve said it before in this post, but there is no such thing as a free lunch. Petapixel reports that wedding photographers are not on the list of suppliers worthy of being fed according to Brides Magazine. Written by a Wedding Planner, apparently Wedding Planners are on the list of worthies. Now there is a surprise. This appears to be predicated on an idea of how long a supplier attends, and seems to me to be a good way to limit the attention you get from the people who create the record of your day. It is no longer the case that the photographer is expected to turn up at the church, take a few photos, go to the reception and ditto, before leaving for the next appointment.
N E X T M E E T I NG
R.O.C. creative round judging.
It was like something from the 70’s at Reflex’s Light Painting evening on Thursday with LED’s, Flash guns, & torches all lighting up the room. We just needed the Bee Gee’s playing in the background and we’d have had Rich dancing around in Flared Trousers with his shirt ripped open impersonating John Travolta.
I think I can honestly say that despite being forced inside due to the weather every single person thoroughly enjoyed themselves and came away with images they were happy with. Even Hanneke took some pictures despite trying to loan out her tripod! Talking of Hanneke she actually beat everyone else and put her images up on Flickr First. Talk about a shock to the system! Next she’ll be turning up on time to meetings…….