Painting With Light
by Rick Doble
ABOUT THESE DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHS
These digital photographs were taken with a Sony CD1000 camera and a Casio QV
770 camera. The Ferris Wheel pictures and the self portraits were taken with the
Casio and involved a lot of rapid camera movement. The rest of the images were
taken with the Sony.
Most images were taken hand held; those through the windshield of my van were
taken with a small tripod mounted on the dash.
Most images were created with a shutter speed between 1/4 of a second and 8
seconds. The shutter speed had to be adjusted to suit the camera movement,
movement of the subject, lighting (especially to avoid over exposure) and also
the degree of realism desired (a faster speed will yield more recognizable
With digital photography this is quite easy. Take a few pictures at different
speeds until you start to get something. Then make some decisions about how
realistic or abstract you want that imagery to be.
By absolute movement I mean how the subjects are moving, i.e. whether they are running or walking, and in
groups whether they are moving together in tandem or at different rates and/or
in different directions.
---Internal movement (part of absolute movement):
People move in a variety of complex ways. They don't simply walk forward but
swing their arms. When dancing, a person often stays in one small space but
moves his/her body quite quickly within that space. You can minimize some
movement by panning the camera in sympathy with it or conversely you can
exaggerate it by panning against it. Most subjects involve several movements at
the same time.
In a complex group scene you might have some people who are quite stationary and thus
will be relatively sharp, while others will be blurred.
By relative I mean the motion of the subject in relation to the camera. For example, to create the same
subject that is walking away will require a slower shutter speed
than a subject that is walking from left to right directly in front of the camera.
With a slow shutter speed the camera can move in several different ways all
within one exposure. For example, I can smoothly pan the camera with walking
subjects or I can move in fits and starts.
Hand held vs. tripod:
A hand held slow shutter speed image will appear to be much softer than one taken with
a tripod. Although this has always been true, long exposures exaggerate the hand
holding motion, even in the hands of a very steady photographer such as myself.
A Combination of Movements:
For example, you can combine a panning camera movement with a subject that is walking. Or you can freeze some aspects and lets others run
free. For example, I took eight second exposures through the windshield of my
van with rain on the windshield. The tripod in my van kept the camera steady in
relation to the windshield, but not in relation to the lights outside the moving
van. While the windshield and rain drops remained relatively sharp, the lights
outside were smeared and blurred.
Lens Focal Length:
The longer the focal length, the more movement will be exaggerated
especially with camera movement. A photographer will be able to achieve some of
these motion effects late in the day using a telephoto lens and a somewhat faster shutter speed
(1/8 of a second or faster). Very slow shutter speeds are often not possible
during the day because the light sensitive material may overexpose even late in
The higher the aperture, the longer you can set the exposure and the more will
be in relative focus. If your camera does not have high enough f-stops, you can
use neutral density filters to knock the light down several stops.
For very long exposures to work, a photographer needs to find a low light
situation that is appropriate. Generally this will be at night or in twilight.
In addition to the color and intensity of the light sources (see below), I look
for reflective surfaces that will bounce the light back and spread it around. I watch for things such as shiny metal surfaces, white sidewalks and reflections in
The Color of the Light:
I look for conditions with a variety of light sources at night. A neon light, a normal
house bulb, and several different street lamps can produce a range of colors in
one scene. Stop lights are also quite interesting.
I have to confess, I have not worked much with out of focus images. The one
exception is that I have focused on the rain on the windshield of my van and let
the outside light, which will be blurred anyway, go out of focus.
With digital this is really simple. Just take a picture and look at it on the
LCD screen on the back of the camera. For long exposures you will need a camera that lets you override automatic
exposures and go to shutter preferred mode or totally manual mode.
This is a bear! For some reason, the LCD screen goes blank when a long exposure
is going on, at least with my cameras. I have learned to use the old microscope
trick. I frame with my right eye, through the camera, and then switch to my left
eye when the picture is being taken. This is not ideal but after a while I get a
sense of framing even though I can see nothing through the
lens at the moment the picture is being taken.
Chance and accident:
Long exposures mean that someone may suddenly walk into the frame or a car with
bright headlights will appear and overexpose the entire picture, but it's only
film (as we used to say). With digital it is only space on your hard drive; you
can even erase a picture. I have found that letting accidental elements occur
often yields wonderful and surprising results. It is also very freeing. This
adds a new dimension to photography.
If you experiment as I have suggested here, you might take fifty images before
you find one that you really like. As you become more experienced, you will find
that ratio comes down from 50:1 to maybe 20:1. This is not unusual for any kind
of photography. What is really important, however, is to be able to recognize your
own best work since these images are often quite abstract.
Sharpness is relative! Just ask Einstein. While there are absolute optical
criteria for sharpness, the eye sees things differently. A slightly unsharp face
will look quite sharp against a blurred background. This is a major effect that
a photographer can use when working with motion and long exposures.
Instead of framing a rectangle, this photography requires you to frame a figure
in motion. Lots of trial and error will show you the best way to work.