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Writing with Light

To write with light, you deliberately place a point light source in the frame and “draw” with it. The image is no longer about what the light is reflecting, but about the light source itself. You can write with flashlights, glowsticks, sparklers, or anything else that emits light. Incredible art and “light graffiti” can be created with this simple concept.


Once you trip an exposure, any direct light source that is seen by the camera—such as someone walking into your shot with a flashlight, phone, or headlamp—will leave a light streak in the photo. In Figure 4.28, an 8-minute exposure, I walked into the frame and bounced a red-gelled flash six times while a friend (visible in the center of the frame) spun some fireworks. You don’t see me because I was constantly moving and my body blocked the direct light of the flash from the camera. If you look carefully, you’ll see one red pop of my flash in the lower-right side. I was so obsessed with making sure the rocks were lit that I forgot where the camera was in relation to the flash.

Figure 4.28

Figure 4.28 This was an early exploration of light painting, and I was more concerned with lighting all the rocks. I popped the flash from almost every angle, creating a very flat light.

ISO 400 • 8 min. • f/7.1 • 24mm lens

Phones and tablets are fun light writing tools, and you always have them on you. In Figure 4.29, I walked into the frame with the screen of my phone pointing toward the camera. I shut it off about 15 feet into the picture to create the single blue bolt of light leading you up the path. This also allowed me to walk back to the camera without painting any more light onto the image.

Figure 4.29

Figure 4.29 (left) The light writing took 10 seconds, and then I waited 8 minutes for the ambient light to reveal the rest of the picture.

ISO 200 • 8 min. • f/5.6 • 28mm lens

Sparklers are another playful light source to write with. Unlike a phone, which can leave a very clean streak of light, the sparkler burns a jagged light. With any light writing, you need to be careful not to write over previously lit areas; otherwise, you risk the possibility of those areas being overexposed. In Figure 4.30, three brave night photographers each held a sparkler at a different level and walked around the mausoleum to create a very dramatic effect.

Figure 4.30

Figure 4.30 (right) The sparklers give this shot a frenetic vibrancy—you can feel the otherworldly energy.

ISO 200 • 6 min. • f/9 • 21mm lens

Figure 4.31 is a wonderful example of combining light writing and a portrait. I took some students from NYC SALT (a photography program for inner-city teens) on a night walk along the Highline. I found a darker area on the pathway and placed the kids in the shot. Andrew drew the stick figures, and then I popped a flash to freeze the students in the shot. Then they got out of the picture—except for Ashley, who wrote Highline across the top of the frame. I fired the flash one more time as she finished spelling it out, creating a multiple exposure of her. Donis, all the way on the right, appears ghostly because the brighter background continued to add light where he was sitting and burnt through his portrait.

Figure 4.31

Figure 4.31 Ashley did a great job of spelling backward. She also had to turn the flashlight off and then back on each time she completed a movement so that the light wouldn’t continue to trail in the shot.

ISO 200 • 6 min. • f/9 • 21mm lens

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