Photography: Light Painting

A friend reminded me about this technique that I’d read about but never tried. Too often I put off fun experiments with lame excuses, so the other night I just went for it based on my memory of reading an article about it several months ago. My results aren’t fabulous, but you get the idea. Below are instructions on how you can do something similar (and likely much better).


1. Grab a flashlight. I tried it with a keychain version and a large Maglite, because those are the only flashlights I have.

2. Set up your camera with remote on a tripod or shelf of some sort. Or if you’re like me, a bistro chair topped with a concordance, parallel Bible, and a Harry and David box.

3. You can do this trick without a remote if you set your camera to 30-second exposures on a timer and keep your “paintings” in that time slot (pretty easy to do). In fact, it might even work better to not bother with the remote.

4. Your camera’s aperture and ISO settings need to be ones that don’t allow much light in. I put mine on f/16 with 100 ISO.

5. My shutter speed was set to BULB for the remote, but without a remote you can put it on whatever’s slowest (likely 30 seconds).

6. Clear a space and make it very dark. After the obvious steps, like waiting until night time, closing all blinds from outdoor lighting and turning off all lights in my home, I draped a blanket over my TV and electronics so their little lights wouldn’t interfere with my artistic magic.

7. Put your camera on the timer setting. (On my camera it did this automatically on the Remote setting.)

(Not to be confused with painting light, which is Thomas Kinkade’s job.)

So here’s how I did it with my wired remote. I walked over with the flashlight on and flipped the remote into the locked position to keep the shutter open indefinitely. Because of the timer setting, it didn’t open the shutter for a few seconds, so I quickly walked back into place and turned out my flashlight. After I heard the shutter open, I proceeded to turn on my flashlight, aim it at the camera, and draw whatever I wanted. Then I turned out the flashlight when I was done, walked over and switched the remote to close the shutter.

It’s harder than I thought it would be. Apparently I’m not much on air-drawing. I kept moving the flashlight too high, so you can see my pictures are cut off.

Clearly I’m very spiritual. (Well, maybe not so clearly–that says “God,” but all messily and cut off.)


If you write something, it will turn out backwards in the resulting photo, so you can just reverse it in a photo editing program. Or you can try to write backwards, if you’re that talented.

I found the key chain light gave a nice, fine line, but it was almost too fine. Also, I obviously tried writing my name a few times, but it wasn’t turning out all that nicely.

I remembered someone mentioning a way to color the light by putting a cloth over it. The large Maglite was bright enough that it needed to be toned down anyway, so I first used a green washcloth and held it over the light. Later I tried a multi-colored sock, which was a better idea. It stayed on the flashlight better, and created more interesting colors. Notice there’s both purple and green on some of these.

(I started blanking on words to try.)

Also–and I don’t know if this made a difference–I dressed in dark clothing while I did this. I didn’t want to show up in the pictures, and figured the fewer reflective surfaces, the better. My face wasn’t covered, though, and you can’t see any indication of me, so that’s why I don’t know if it mattered.

So…does that make sense? Feel free to ask questions in the comments. 🙂 No guarantee I can be any clearer, though. There are other tutorials out there that do a better job, I’m sure. Google them.

This is a sad-looking heart. Wow.


Photography: How to make fun shapes out of light

This is a little trick I remember reading a long time ago, but I just now decided to give it a try! It’s the right time of year since it works so well with Christmas lights.

(There are a lot of better tutorials out there for this, but I haven’t looked at any of them to make this post, because I’ll just compare and worry too much about my own instructions. Feel free to Google for more thorough and accurate information.)

Here’s how I did it:

1. Cut out a shape. I happened to have a decorative punch (for scrapbooking) in the shape of a butterfly. Any shape will do–I’ve seen examples with hearts and stars, for instance. I’m interested in experimenting with some hand-cut creations. Cut the circle large enough to fit over your lens. I traced around my cap for sizing. It doesn’t have to be perfect (or even circular), I just tried to make it semi-neat for the photo.

2. Attach it in front of your lens. I just used tape, knowing I’d be removing it after a few minutes.

3. Take a picture of some Christmas lights! The important thing is that the lights are as blurry as possible. Basically, what you’re creating is shapely bokeh. You can either manually take the lights out of focus, or you can force the camera to focus on something at a different distance and hold down the shutter so it won’t refocus on the lights.

Some places sell little plastic lens caps that have shapes pre-cut for this purpose. This is just the cheap, DIY version of those.

In the above photos I focused on my little hummingbird decoration and a butterfly Christmas ornament so you can see that the lights are just strung up in the background and blurred (into the shape of butterflies). The more lights the better, and it still works in a brighter image, it just doesn’t have the same vibrancy. Experiment with it, because I certainly haven’t done much experimenting and I am sure there are lots of cool things you can do with this. Also, I don’t know how well it works with non-SLR cameras. Anyone want to try and get back to me?

Photography: Rule of Thirds

UNRELATED INTRO: I’ve been meaning to post more photography tips and tutorials, but various things stop me. I feel underqualified and boring, or I worry that what I share will be so obvious and well-known that people will be practically insulted that I’m explaining it! I even worry about my vocabulary and that I have misused various words and made myself look really dumb. But I’m trying to work on worrying less about criticism, especially when it comes to this blog and photography in general. It’s too easy to let fears and unknowns stifle us. And fortunately (for us all), not everyone in this world is as picky and critical as I am.

MORE STALLING: Before I talk specifically about the Rule of Thirds, I should say that all composition tips are merely suggestions and not requirements for a good photo. In one of my graphic design classes, my professor would always say that we need to learn the rules first, and then we can break them. I think that’s so true in many disciplines–rules form a good foundation for creativity. Okay, get to the point, Jessica.

RULE OF THIRDS: To apply this rule, mentally divide your photo/frame into nine equally-sized sections using two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. The four intersections of these lines are guides for where your subject/focal point should be centered. I really prefer to use other people’s photos to illustrate my point so that you can see how widely it is used, but I don’t want to get in trouble with anyone, so I’ll use my own. Here are a couple of visual aids to explain what I mean:

(Sorry about the dot-face, Katrina!)
You can also apply the Rule of Thirds when photographing landscapes. Try resting the horizon line along either the top or bottom third instead of right down the middle. It doesn’t need to be exact, but it helps to decide on an emphasis–land or sky? It gives the viewer a little direction:

I hope that makes sense and that the lines aren’t too distracting. 🙂 Now that you’re more aware of the Rule of Thirds, you’ll notice it all over. For instance, painters, cinematographers and graphic designers make use of the rule all the time. Try it out and see if it adds some interest to your photos!

Photography: Aperture (and the blurry background)

USUAL DISCLAIMER: I’m not a professional, I don’t always know the right terminology or explanation, I’m just speaking from my own experience and knowledge, limited as it is.

It is often asked how a photographer achieves the blurry background that is popular in many professional photos. The simple answer is that it’s the aperture setting, but there are other factors that seem to influence the end result.

First, let’s talk about aperture. Technically speaking, the aperture is an opening within the lens/camera that can be adjusted in size. The aperture setting (referred to as the f-stop) will influence how much light is allowed in for the photo. Basically, the larger the hole/aperture, the more light is allowed, which makes sense. In addition to allowing more light, the wider aperture also decreases the depth of field.

The depth of field is basically how many objects will be more-or-less in focus, depending on their distance from whatever you’re focusing on. If you have a large depth of field (a deep focus, you might say…but I don’t), more of the photo will be in focus even if the subjects are at different distances from the camera. If you have a small depth of field (shallow focus), you have just a small range of distances that will be in focus, while the rest will become blurrier as it gets farther from the target.

Here’s a visual aid. Not a great one, but you’ll get the correlation between the f-stop and the blurriness.

So, if you know how to change the f-stop on your camera, change it to a smaller number (which is a larger aperture–it’s just the way it’s written that is kind of confusing) for a more shallow focus/blurry background. I have a lens that goes down to f/1.8 (that’s how you state the f-stop) and I generally keep it at that when I’m taking portraits. Many professional photographers take portraits at about f/1.2 or f/1.4, giving the scene a very dreamy look and helping the subject to stand out. I don’t yet have a lens that can go that low (they’re expensive).

Now, there’s something I had to learn on my own, and it’s that most point-and-shoot cameras a) don’t allow you to set the aperture very wide; and b) even at the same f-stop, they don’t seem to match the shallowness achieved by that f-stop on an SLR. I’m sure there’s a technical explanation, but I only have a guess about part of it, so I won’t be explaining that here.

The thing about photography is that you need to know your camera’s limits and work with them. There are other factors that can increase or decrease your depth of field, or at least how it appears. You can manipulate it even if your camera won’t let you get a low enough f-stop. I started practicing photography by taking lots of macro (close-up of a small subject) shots on my little point-and-shoot, and because I was zooming in, I achieved a shallower focus. Try it and see what I mean. So one way to help blurry up your background, even with limited cameras or lenses, is to zoom in on the subject.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Before I got my lens that allows me to go down to f/1.8, I used my zoom lens to achieve a fuzzy background (the following two photos were taken on two different SLRs but only in that the second photo is a newer model number in the same camera series):

My focal length was 110mm on this, so the end result is a blurry background despite being at f/4.5.

Here’s a comparison with a photo I took with my newer lens at f/2.2 (with the focal length being 50mm). Please never mind the tree growing from K’s head.

Also, placing your subject farther from the background will obviously help, since things get blurrier the farther they are from the item on which you’re focusing. Leaning someone against a brick wall isn’t going to make a crazy-blurry brick wall, because it’s so close behind them. But if they are standing 10 feet in front of it and you’re zoomed in on their head and shoulders, it’ll get blurry.

This is a concise way to explain things as I know them. I don’t want to bog you down with too much info, so feel free to ask more questions in the comments.

Did this make sense or did I only confuse you more? I need feedback so I can actually be helpful!

Photography: Long Exposure

My sister commented with the following request:

…your moving water photos are so awesome. Feel free to explain how you did that.

Since I enjoy training and explaining, I’ll use her question as my first blog photo lesson. Let me know if you enjoy this because I wouldn’t mind doing more of it, but only if I know it’s helpful and not boring or annoying.

[DISCLAIMER: I am an amateur and don’t always know the terms or best ways to approach different photos. There are plenty of more qualified people online who can explain these things, I’m just offering up my personal experiences and thoughts in case it is helpful for you.]

It’s popular to take moving water photos with a long exposure time in order to give the water a smooth, soft appearance. When I say “long exposure time,” I am referring to the shutter speed, which is the length of time the shutter is open. The long exposure allows the camera to capture the motion of the water from one point to another, which translates to a silky, matte appearance in many cases.

One thing about long exposure times is that there’s more opportunity for shaking the camera and making the entire photo out of focus. This is why a tripod, or at least a level and steady surface, is useful (and often essential) for these types of photos.

You might also know that the longer the shutter stays open, the more light is allowed in. If you slow down your shutter speed without changing other settings on your camera, your resulting photo may become overexposed. To compensate, you will probably need to adjust the ISO and the aperture.

For starters, I always put the ISO (light sensitivity) down to the lowest setting (100 on my camera). Lower ISOs are more desirable anyway, so this is a perfect opportunity to use one. Then I adjust the aperture (by setting the f-stop to a higher number, meaning a smaller opening) to what works best with the shutter speed for correct exposure. Take some practice shots and see how it goes.

Here’s an example. The above photo’s settings are as follows:

ISO = 100
Aperture/F-stop = f/22
Shutter speed = 1 second

You can use this technique to soften moving water of any kind. I’d like to try it on the ocean sometime, but haven’t had the opportunity.

The settings for the above photo are:

ISO = 100
Aperture/F-stop = f/11 (it had gotten darker by now so I didn’t need it as high)
Shutter speed = 3.2 seconds

If it’s too bright outside, sometimes it’s just not possible to use a very slow shutter speed, even when the other two settings are adjusted. It’s better to take waterfall photos in the shade or while it’s dim outside. Low light was on my side on this trip to Silver Falls since it’s winter and was approaching sunset.

Okay, I hope this wasn’t too boring and maybe even helpful. Let me know if you try it!