A masterclass in light-painting with Andrew Whyte

How a Christmas gift given to my son ended up in an inspiring and eye-opening evening of light-painting with Andrew Whyte…

Light-trail from The Bandstand

Light-trail from The Bandstand

An invitation from Mr Whyte

I am lucky to know Andrew Whyte (www.longexposures.co.uk) – a multi-talented photographer whose national (and international) reputation continues to grow on the back of his mastery of night sky photography, night-time car photography, and light-painting. Although to many he is best known through his alter-ego “The Legographer“.

The LED light gloves!

The LED light up gloves!

After I mentioned to Andrew that my son had been given some LED Light Up Gloves by a friend at school, Andrew suggested that the three of us should meet for an evening of light-painting to see what the gloves could do.

An evening of light-painting

Despite an unsettled forecast for the evening we set off under clear skies and still conditions to our location – the bandstand on Southsea Seafront just behind the D-Day Museum. Andrew had his Sony a7s, I had my Panasonic Lumix G6 and my son had his LED gloves.

On the way, Andrew asked if there was anything aspect of light-painting I was particularly keen to learn about. On the few times I have tried light-painting, I have found it tricky to place components in three-dimensional space, so asked Andrew if he could show how he tackles this.

My first 22 degree moon halo

As we approached the relative darkness of the arena around the bandstand we were rewarded with the sight of an uninterrupted 22 degree moon halo – which was so wide that the 28mm equivalent end of my zoom could only just fit it all in.

22 degree moon halo over Southsea

22 degree moon halo over Southsea

I had never seen a moon halo like this before – it was as memorable as the Geminids meteors I had watched (and photographed) on the beach with my wife in December 2014.

An orb under an orb

The moon halo provided a stunning backdrop for the first set of shots. Andrew directed my son in using a colour-changing LED lightstick (an LED Lenser V24) to create patterns emanating from the bandstand (see test photo at top of this post).

Andrew then showed us how to use the same tool to create a large orb of light within the bandstand to act as a counterpart to the wonderful orb of light provided by the moon and its 22 degree halo in the sky.

Andrew was at the wide end of his zoom (about 16mm – on his full frame Sony a7s) whereas I was a bit limited by the 28mm equivalent wide end of my zoom (on my micro four thirds Panasonic Lumix G6) so I could not get all of the bandstand and moon halo into the frame. Unlike Andrew, I was also unable to capture the full light-painted orb as I ran out of exposure time!

Lightpainting of an orb in The Bandstand under a moon halo

An orb under an orb (combination of 2 images – 1 for trail, 1 for orb)

Creating art with light

The next part of the evening was quite mind-blowing for me in both its complexity and its simplicity (if that makes sense – I’ll try to explain).

First consider Andrew’s superb and complex final shot – and let me reassure you that, as Andrew says in his tweet, it was created totally in-camera without any post-processing trickery.

If you’re fairly new to light-painting like me you might be able to guess at how some elements of the shot were created but would not have the vision (or ability) to put it all together.

Andrew managed to make the process look deceptively easy and straightforward – but my firsthand experience of trying to create light-paintings myself makes me realise that it is anything but simple!

Assembling the image – step by step

By this point in the evening I had decided to leave the stills to Andrew so I could try to document the light-painting process for this shot on video.

The following 2 minute video shows how all of the key elements of the final photo were created “in the field”. During the rest of the time during the complete exposure of 13 minutes we were moving from position to position, and setting up (and being instructed how to use) the various bits of equipment.

Lightpainting with Andrew Whyte from Howard Hurd on Vimeo.

As you can see from the video there were “just” 6 key elements to the shot:

  1. Backlighting at Position 1 (central, furthest back in The Bandstand) to create a small silhouette and floor shadow.
  2. Switching on the LED gloves and the “swimming” towards the camera with large arm movements to create the ribbons of light.
  3. Backlighting at Position 2 (central, closer to the camera) to create a larger silhouette and larger floor shadow.
  4. Using a Pixelstick to create the multicolour light circle and silhouette at Position 3 on the right.
  5. Using a Pixelstick to create the multicolour light circle and silhouette at Position 4 on the left.
  6. Using an ELwire to fill-in the main floor shadow with a blue misty effect in the foreground.

(Andrew provides more technical details about the shot on his blog at http://www.longexposures.co.uk/blog/2015/1/002-a-light-touch)

The small details that make the difference

I love the final image. It was amazing to see it being created literally in front of my eyes on the back LCD screen of the Sony a7s (with its very impressive live view mode).

Apart from the composition and main elements of the photo, there are a couple of small details that help make the image for me:

  • The swirls from the LED gloves that seem to go in front of my son’s silhouette on the left but behind the multi-coloured Pixelstick circle in places.
  • The blue mist effect from the ELwire that only fills in the foreground shadow, not the brighter parts.
  • And finally, the horizon line provided, purely by chance, by a cyclist who progressed from left to right behind the bandstand during the shot.

My first steps as a light-painter!

When Andrew popped back to his van to get some equipment for the next shot, I quickly tried out a few of the techniques we had learned.

With my son wearing the LED gloves switched on, I asked him to turn around slowly whilst lowering his arms from above his head to below his waist (to create a spiral orb), I then backlit him with a small torch to add a foreground shadow.

A first quick attempt at light-painting an orb

A first quick attempt at light-painting an orb

Andrew then returned and made his – much more impressive version – of the shot with a perfectly formed, detailed, spiral orb of mulit-coloured lights floating over a circle of white lights on the ground. It looked stunning on the back of his camera – when he posts his image online I’ll provide a link (and possibly another step by step video).

Lessons learned in light-painting

Andrew’s skill, experience and spatial awareness was apparent as he created the composition, as well as his mastery of the various light-painting techniques we used.

A few of the lessons I learned during this session were:

  • Have an overall picture in your head of what you are trying to achieve before you start each exposure – but be flexible. Andrew improvised during some of the shots based on how the shot was developing.
  • If you want to place elements accurately over space, put markers on ground (stones, gaffer tape, etc) before you start the shot or use existing markings (such as paving slab joins).
  • To help with placing elements on diagonals, position your tripod with one leg on the centre line of your photo, then ‘line-up’ the legs by eye to place your diagonals.
  • Be careful about perspective change as you get closer to camera, especially if you are using a very wideangle lens.
  • Even the simplest and cheapest items can be used for light-painting.
  • The best way to learn about light-painting is just to give it a go!

A mini review of the cameras we used

Review of the Panasonic Lumix G6 for light-painting

To be honest, given my previous experiences with long daytime exposures with my cheap and cheerful Lumix G6, I didn’t have very high expectations for its capabilities for capturing night-time light-painting with exposures of 30 seconds and longer.

However, I was pleasantly surprised. At the base 160ISO, with no incamera noise reduction or long-shutter compensation applied, I think the images the G6 produced were pretty acceptable for a small(ish) sensor camera.

The G6 is a reliable video performer in normal light conditions – with a nice detailed image. Again, I wasn’t expecting much of its lowlight video performance, but I think it did a nice job in capturing the light-painting process in the video above. This was shot with the 20mm lens wide open at f1.7 (which made nailing focus a little tricky), and a shutter manually set to 0.5 sec to try to capture the movement of the light-painting. I particularly like the ELwire section at the end of the video, which to me looks like an expensive computer generated special effect as it moves organically from place to place.

Review of the Sony a7s for light-painting

I was very impressed with Andrew’s camera for the evening – his new Sony a7s (paired with a rented Zeiss 16-35m wide zoom). I have read reviews and other photographers’ and film-makers’  experiences using the camera, so I was interested to see how it performed under real world conditions.

The Sony a7s produced some fantastic low-light images throughout the evening – as expected given its reputation in these conditions. There were a number of features that helped make it particularly useful for night-time light-painting:

  • The Light Trail app was brilliant – providing a slightly delayed live view on the rear LCD screen of the light painting as it was in progress, and also featuring a stacking exposure system so Andrew was not limited to a particular exposure length, he could light-paint for a long as he needed until he was happy with the image. From the Sony website it seems that this is compatible with the Sony a7s and Sony a5100 only (not the a7, a7r or a7II).
  • It has a neat shutter release system that uses the eye sensor on the viewfinder so you wave your hand over the viewfinder to start and stop exposure – no cable release or timer necessary to prevent camera shake.

I also helped Andrew navigate though some of the video menus to show him how to manually set very slow shutter speeds when recording videos of light-painting at night. The Sony a7s seemed to get down to 0.25sec shutter speed (compared to 0.5 sec on my G6). We shot a very short test video using the a7s which looked very impressive on the back of the camera. The video feature set on the a7s is also very strong, including functions such as zebras and peaking.

A final comment: Be ready to respond to every opportunity

Between set-ups, one of the massive cross Channel ships operated by Brittany Ferries started progressing along the seafront close to the shore. Always alert to the opportunities that sometimes present themselves, Andrew said to my son, “Quick, stand in front of it! Great chance for a silhouette”.

The result I managed to get (below) wasn’t perfect, but I am still pleased with the way it captures the spontaneous mood of the evening (and there was no chance of getting the ferry to go back for a second take!).

Silhouette in front of Brittany Ferry

Silhouette in front of Brittany Ferries ship