When you turn your lights away from your subject and toward the lens, a world of creative opportunity opens up to you.
Light writing can be a fun and fantastic way to add "something extra" to a night photo, whether you're shooting a city scene, a natural landscape or night portraits. (In fact, we'll be playing with a lot of light writing tools and toys during our Catskills Night Portraiture this spring and fall.)
But what to use? Where do we start? Help, Matt!
Fear not, explorer of the night. … Grab a mug of cocoa and settle in. Let's get jiggy with light.
The Basic Tools
When you use a flashlight, you can accessorize it by adding some cool tools made just for light writing (and painting, but that's another topic …).
Light Painting Brushes is the premier manufacturer that really understands light painters/writers. Jason Page (the creator) has made a robust system of tools to choose from, including plexiglass blades, fiber optic wands, color filters, light painting bottles and light swords. But if you really want to get serious about drawing in the air, snag a Light Writer set and loosen up your shoulder muscles.
Be sure to grab a Universal Connector and get started! FWIW, having this one accessory doubles as a great snoot. Kill the spill from the edges of your flashlight for more control.
Gosh, I haven't done this since I was a teenager (can't you tell by the above photo?). But grabbing a simple cigarette lighter and using it behind objects can create smooth, warm light trails. Just be careful not to burn your thumb!
Specialized Professional Tools
The classic commercial realization of being able to write images in the air, one row of pixels at a time. Load your designs into the 6-foot Pixelstick and swing it around for massive light writing effects.
This 3-foot tool, currently still in crowdfunding mode on Indiegogo at the time of writing, promises some upgrades versus the Pixelstick, including a splash-proof design, a sliding/rotating handle, mini LED stick accessory and more. Fingers crossed they make it to production, and on time, because I can't wait to get my hands on one. (Or two!)
Make your own Digital Light Wand
This powerful handheld LED wand has a rechargeable battery, diffuser, tungsten gel filter and more. Pointed toward the lens, it makes a smooth bar of light.
The Lapiz Freehand RGB is a tool I haven't used (yet …) but I had to share. It's for the artist who wants to draw their visions freehand. RGB controls, dimmer and 20 color presets with memory. Hella cool. Visit the website (link above) for some images showing what you can do.
Digital projectors are tiny now! Pocket Pico Projectors even come with batteries. So, you can bring your images or designs out into the field and project them onto surfaces, people and more!
The Less-Than-Obvious Tools
Your phone or tablet
The flashlight and screen are both light sources. Plus, I bet you already have one! The larger the light source, the softer the effect.
I often use the GlowStickGo app to make pretty colors. The $0.99 upgrade is worth it.
Using other people's lights
In the above examples, I noticed hikers or climbers using headlamps and flashlights in my scene. Rather than gnashing my teeth, I said, "Heck, let's use this as an advantage."
My Favorite Toys
Christmas lights make sharp, crisp lines of light. And if you tape them together in a bundle, you can create a bright grouping of light streaks. Or you can be like one our Death Valley attendees and make a suit out of them, put it on, then frolic in front of your open shutter. Be sure to get battery-powered lights, or you'll have to bring a noisy gas-powered AC generator.
Want a good workout? Try throwing an LED Frisbee back and forth with a pal for eight minutes without pause. It will test your endurance, but makes for fun night photography!
I love these little rubber-band launched LED toy helicopters. Keeping three to five of these in my bag takes up barely any room at all. Creating mysterious alien landings anytime is easy.
I love the foxfire effect that glow sticks have. They aren't very bright, but they can add a subtle mystery to your light writing, and are small and easy to carry.
Poi Balls are as fun as a Hula Hoop—without need for bodily coordination.
Slightly brighter than a glow stick. I use EL Wire to make fire effects, without the danger.
Dangerous Things You Should not do Within a National Park or Without Safety & Planning
Duh. Fireworks are forbidden in national parks. Don't do it. But when and where you are allowed to use sparklers, there is no substitute! Sparkly, drippy fun.
Again, don't light fires in national parks except where expressly permitted. Like in campsites. In fire rings. And not with steel wool—stick to a lighter, or rubbing two sticks together. But for those times when you're in a place that does not have those restrictions, and it's near/on water or in the rain, and not on or near wood, spinning steel wool in a wire whisk on a string makes for some amazing effects.
Household Lighting Fixtures
Some lighting fixtures have an AC cord (not hard-wired). I've experimented with swinging them through a long exposure with great success.
So, you may think I'm nuts. Couldn't agree with you more. I am nuts about lights, and experimenting with them. I hope you try all of the above!
Have you tried something I didn't mention? Let me know in the comments! I'm game for some more light writing fun.