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?
Mike Martin, a member of Kingswood Photographic Society, and a fine photographer, was our speaker. Happy to be a photographer who shoots with post production in mind and only himself to please, Mike showed us a strong, varied and interesting set of mainly art images, with some interesting detours into other genres.
He never accepts images as they come out of the camera, viewing this as a stop on the way to what he imagined in the first instance. This can mean a long time in post production, but as an unashamed amateur – i.e. he’s not shooting to a deadline and other people’s tastes – this is a luxury he can afford. This is part of a long art photography tradition and now that we have the tools to do things in seconds what it would have taken hours and much coin to achieve – if it could be done at all – for an absolute fraction of the cost.
Although there is much to be said for getting as much right in camera, that is an awful lot easier when starting with the end in mind, in having a strong idea of what the finished product will look like. This may change as you go along but having a defined end usually leads to less time wasting. Not always, but usually.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t experiment or take on new ways of doing adjustments. There is a balance and if we want to learn then making ourselves a little bit uncomfortable by trying new things is going to be an essential part. Looking, emulating, developing, employing is as good a learning cycle as any.
Mike also quoted Henri Cartier Bresson, which we have discussed before: “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept” – that is one that makes the holder appear self important and materialistic, shallow, pretending to be deep, unsophisticated and generally lacking in true class. Certainly it has its place – sharpness is one thing that sells new and ever increasingly expensive lenses. Yes you could back a modern lens against the ones that HCB used pretty much every time in the sharpness stakes, but it’s the brain behind the camera that makes a difference. Mind you context is everything:
“He had his little Leica,” Newton remembers, “and he simply would point and shoot.” Since Cartier-Bresson’s hand isn’t as steady as it used to be, some of the pictures were a bit fuzzy. “Sharpness,” he told Newton, “is a bourgeois concept.” Newton sits back and laughs: “I thought that was just divine.”
Dana Thomas interviewing Helmut Newton, Newsweek, 1 June 2003.
Movement certainly formed part of HBC’s photography, two of his most famous images in particular (“Man jumping over a ladder” and “A man rides his bicycle through the Var department”) and blur is certainly going to feature in that – as opposed to the shaky hand of the nonagenarian, as Newton observed.
So shaky hand blur and motion blur might be two different things. One will happen at some point in an otherwise unsupported situation as shutter speed, that is the length of time the shutter is open, comes down. Lens/sensor stabilisation certainly lowers the point to where such shake becomes evident and it can even be used as a creative effect by giving us time to move the camera around a fixed point or through a plane.
The motion blur we are probably most aware of is the one created by panning with a slow(ish) shutter speed. This keeps our main subject in focus and acceptably sharp but blurs the background. We often see this used in motorsport photography and it is also known as a tracking shot. The flip, of course can also be used, where we use a slow shutter speed with a fixed camera and our subject moves across the frame. So we can freeze or blur our subject to get a different feel of motion. The key to both is shutter speed. It can be achieved with a single strobe, or with mixed lighting, the key to both is synchronising the flash with the second curtain also known as the rear curtain. Essentially this means firing the flash at the beginning or the end of the exposure. The effects are very different
There is another way of using motion blur that you can use with a zoom lens. It’s called, wait for it, zoom blur. Again it really requires a tripod or at least a monopod because we are working with slow shutter speeds, but the mode, shutter, aperture, manual is less relevant. All these effects are relatively easy to use, but, as with everything else, need a little practice to get right. Even then, especially with unpredictable subjects, it is best to plan a series of shots to give you one or two to work with in post – assuming you need to. That said, motion blur is rewarding to play around with the effects and can also be used in the dark!
So an interesting evening that showed many possibilities, the value of forward planning and an artistic vision and not just by adding things in post, but in taking distractions out too. An interesting, varied and singular evening. Our thanks to you, Mike Martin.