Sunday, August 30, 2009

Fun with Sparklers!

My kids just love it when I take fun photos like this of them. How about yours? Or maybe you've never tried taking a light tracing photo like this one. It's surprisingly easy.

You really only need three things. The first is a camera that allows you to make some manual adjustments to the settings such as shutter speed and ISO. All digital SLRs and, these days, most digital point-and-shoot cameras, allow these kinds of basic manual adjustments. Second, you need either a tripod or a flat, sturdy surface on which to rest your camera. You CAN'T handhold your camera for this kind of shot. It just won't work. The final thing you need is a "mobile" light source -- something that can be moved around to create the tracing effect. Here, my son is holding plain old Fourth of July sparklers, but a flashlight would work, as well.

If you're shooting outside, the best time of day to take this kind of photo is when it's just starting to get dark. That way, it's light enough that you'll capture sufficient detail to be able to tell that it's your child holding the sparklers, but it will still be dark enough that the light tracings will show up. If you want just the light tracings to show up in kind of an eerie way (in other words, you want it to look like there isn't a person in the photo), then try taking your photos when it's really dark outside. In any case, the first thing you'll want to do is set up your tripod. Start getting set up while it's barely dusk, so that you're all ready to go as the sky gets darker. I have a full-size tripod that I use for shots like this, and frankly, that's what will give you the best results. If you have a small point-and-shoot type camera, you can certainly use a small "tabletop" tripod, but you'll have to set it on something so that the lens of the camera is the right height and your camera is capturing exactly what you want it to capture. Similarly, if you don't have a tripod at all, you can simply set your camera on any reasonably sturdy surface that's available, such as a stool or the top of a fence post. It can be a bit tricky to set up a shot this way, but hey, that's what's great about digital cameras. If the shots don't come out, you can just delete them and try again another time. If you're not using a tripod, it's best to get the camera set up first, and then have your subject get into position so that you're capturing the right part of the subject's body for the image that you want. If you're using a tripod, get your subject into position first and then adjust the height and angle of the tripod.

Now, the key to getting a good light tracing is a long exposure time. The shutter has to be open for at least a couple of seconds so that your subject has enough time to wave his arms around and make a cool pattern with the light source. If you're not sure how to manually set the shutter time on your camera, check your manual. It's usually pretty simple. Most cameras have a program or "P" mode where you can adjust some settings manually, and whatever settings you don't adjust will automatically be set by the camera's computer. Even if you're not used to shooting in anything but automatic mode, using "P" mode will be a simple transition. (Another great thing about using "P" mode is that the flash will not automatically fire, and you don't want flash for light tracing photos.) Most cameras will allow you to pick from any number of pre-set shutter speeds, from super-fast (say, 1/2500 of a second) to super-slow (several seconds). Make sure you understand (and again, your manual should tell you this) how your camera differentiates between shutter speeds that are a fraction of a second, and those that are one second or longer. In most cases, it will be clear. My camera uses whole numbers with no symbols (such as 250 or 1000) to indicate speeds that are a fraction of a second. Thus, 1000 indicates a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second. To indicate speeds greater than one second, my camera utilizes the second symbol [ " ]. For the photo above, I used a shutter speed of 1.60 seconds. On my camera, this is expressed as 1"6, but it may be slightly different on your camera. You certainly don't have to use 1.60 seconds, either. You can try two seconds (this would be expressed as 2" on my camera) or four seconds. And that brings us to ISO.

Stated simply, changing the ISO adjusts the sensitivity of the digital image processor in your camera to light. A low ISO lets LESS light into the camera (your processor is less sensitive to light), and a high ISO lets MORE light in (your processor is more sensitive to light). Therefore, you'd choose a low ISO when there is lots of natural or existing light to illuminate your picture (outside during the day, for instance), and you'd choose a higher ISO when there is less natural or existing light (indoors, or at night). However, ISO and shutter speed are related. Because light enters the camera for the entire time that the shutter remains open, you have to take shutter speed into consideration when choosing an ISO. Thus, if you'll be using a slow shutter speed (as you will for the light tracing shots), you need to use a lower-numbered ISO than you would normally pick under nighttime circumstances. This is why you have to make the adjustments yourself, manually, on your camera. If you stay in automatic mode and let your camera choose the settings, it will assume that you want a brightly-lit shot of your child holding sparklers, and it will choose a high ISO, a fast shutter speed, and the built-in flash will probably fire. If you're shooting just as it's starting to get dark, as I've suggested, and you have your shutter speed set at, say, 2 seconds, try using an ISO of 100. Since you'll have the shutter open for a long time, this low ISO (which would normally be used outside in bright daylight) will allow enough light to enter the camera over that 2 seconds to make the shot. If you set the ISO too high (at 400, for instance), the long shutter time will enable too much light to enter the camera, and your image will be too light.

Ok, so your tripod is all set up, your camera is adjusted to the right shutter speed and ISO, and you have a willing subject. What now? Explain to your child (or other subject) the kind of image that you're trying to capture. Have them come up with ideas for patterns they'd like to make with the light source (circles, squiggles, etc.). Then instruct them to try as hard as possible to keep every part of their body perfectly still except for their hands, which of course will be moving the sparklers or other light source around. Remember that every movement of your subject's body will be recorded as long as the shutter is open, and the shutter will be open for a long time. Thus, if your subject moves his head all around in addition to his hands, what you'll end up with is a blur in the final photo (although, that can look kind of cool, too!). Notice in my photo that, while you can see my son's face, it's not perfectly in focus. That's because his head naturally moved around a little bit even though he was trying to keep it still, as instructed. So you're not really aiming for a perfectly focused face, just a recognizable one. Also, if you want to see your child's face clearly in the final image, have them keep the light source below the chest area when they're doing their squiggles or circles.

Now, have another adult light the sparklers, tell your child to start moving his hands, and press the shutter. That's it! You can probably get several shots off before even the short sparklers run out of gas. Review the images, make any adjustments, and repeat the process until you have several shots that you like. It's best to get several good shots, because when you look at them later on your computer, enlarged, you're bound to notice things on some of the images such as sparks in front of your child's face, too much blur, or other problems. So take a bunch, and have fun! I promise, unlike with other photo shoots, your kids will be more than willing participants in this one!

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