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Camera Fun - Making Crazy Art Using Christmas Lights

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It's that time of year -- strings of tiny lights are everywhere, and families are wandering around, checking out those lights. If you're like me, you bring your camera along on these light-viewing jaunts. And if you're like me, you use your camera to take boring old pictures of boring old lights. But if you have a decent digital SLR camera (or have a camera phone and are willing to make some compromises on which techniques you use; see below), you can do some nutty stuff -- and it's not hard at all. There's no Photoshop or digital stuff involved -- just clever use of your camera. You can, for example, make crazy pictures like this (note that for all images in this post, you can click for a larger version):

Want to learn how? Read on.

The Original Tree

First, you need a set of lights you can photograph. You'll get the best results when it's dark out, so the lights stand out. In my case, I chose a tree at the Grotto in Portland -- it has a nice, evenly spaced set of red lights on top, with green lights around the trunk. Here's what it looks like in a "normal" photograph:

Photo of tree, non-crazy

Fun With Zoom Lenses

In order to achieve that "jump to hyperspace" effect above, I first zoomed my camera all the way in and focused on the lights. Then, because I have a digital SLR (meaning it has a lens I can manually control, by twisting it), I simultaneously zoomed out and snapped a picture. I had to try several times until I got it just right -- sometimes the shutter didn't open at quite the right time, and sometimes my hands were shaky, making the effect a little wobbly (but sometimes the wobble adds a delightful squiggle -- more on that below). By using variations of this technique, you can make all kinds of freaky stuff happen; you can also experiment with zooming in while taking the picture, or try twisting the camera as you do the zoom. Another important factor is how much you zoom -- try shorter zooms, and also try lingering at one point in the zoom (it's easiest to linger at the beginning or end). Here are some examples:

Zoom - mild

Zoom - extreme

Zoom - sparse

Zoom - squiggle

Moving in Circles

Next up, try moving the camera in a circular pattern as you snap the picture. What you get is a wavy, loopy, or "waterfall" pattern the looks very abstract -- sort of like Jackson Pollock but with light. If you have different colors of light available, try playing with those -- you'll get much different results with white lights versus colored lights, and mixtures can be interesting too. If you can set your camera for a longer exposure (a second or more), this can give you different results (and sometimes ruin the photo, as eventually the frame quickly turns white with all the colors smeared all over it). I find it useful to zoom in first, to minimize the number of points you're working with. Play around. But basically, hold the camera out in front of you (don't try to look through the viewfinder) while moving it in a circle, and snap pictures as you move it. Take a bunch, then pause and check 'em out. Ignore the weird stares you get from passersby.

Circles - 1

Circles - 2

Circles - 3

Circles - 4

Circles - 5

Circles - 6

Circles - 7

Circles - 8

Circles - 9

Circles - 10

Circles - 11

Circles - 12

Walk on By

As you walk by lights, point the camera at them and take a picture. It helps if you're zoomed in. Alternately, you can sway the camera left-to-right. In either case, you'll get an arced blur of lights. You may want to throw in a little rotation (the aforementioned "circular movement") to get a squiggle effect while you're at it.

Walk on By - 1

Walk on By - 2

Walk on By - 3

Walk on By - 4

Walk on By - 5

Walk on By - 6

Walk on By - 7

Walk on By - 8

Stand Up

A final fun method is to move the camera up and down while standing still. You should get a thicket of light streaks, like this:

Stand Up

Notes on Cameras

If you don't have a fancy camera, some of these techniques don't work (for example, the zoom technique probably can't work on a phone camera). But even with the most basic camera, you can still try circles, swipes, or up-and-down camera movement. I tried circles using a camera phone and got surprisingly good results -- though I almost dropped the phone a few times.

If your camera allows it, try setting the exposure to manual (but try to keep autofocus on, as getting initial focus while walking around can be tricky). If you do set a manual exposure, I recommend starting out with a shutter speed of around 1/2 second, an aperture (aka f/stop) around f/5, and play with the ISO settings on your camera -- I had best results with an ISO around 800, but your mileage may vary. (Note that, of course, as you change the ISO settings your shutter speed will need to adapt.)

Show Your Work!

If you try this kind of tomfoolery, post the photos on Flickr or your favorite photo site, and post a link in the comments! Happy photographing!

Copyright Notice

All images in this post are copyright © 2011 Chris Higgins, all rights reserved. Please contact me if you'd like to buy a print or license a photo for commercial use.

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Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Weird
Take a Peek Inside One of Berlin's Strangest Museums
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Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Vlad Korneev is a man with an obsession. He's spent years collecting technical and industrial objects from the last century—think iron lungs, World War II gas masks, 1930s fans, and vintage medical prostheses. At his Designpanoptikum in Berlin, which bills itself (accurately) as a "surreal museum of industrial objects," Korneev arranges his collection in fascinating, if disturbing, assemblages. (Atlas Obscura warns that it's "half design museum, half horror house of imagination.") Recently, the Midnight Archive caught up with Vlad for a special tour and some insight into the question visitors inevitably ask—"but what is it, really?" You can watch the full video below.

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Courtesy of Nikon
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science
Microscopic Videos Provide a Rare Close-Up Glimpse of the Natural World
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Courtesy of Nikon

Nature’s wonders aren’t always visible to the naked eye. To celebrate the miniature realm, Nikon’s Small World in Motion digital video competition awards prizes to the most stunning microscopic moving images, as filmed and submitted by photographers and scientists. The winners of the seventh annual competition were just announced on September 21—and you can check out the top submissions below.

FIRST PRIZE

Daniel von Wangenheim, a biologist at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, took first place with a time-lapse video of thale cress root growth. For the uninitiated, thale cress—known to scientists as Arabidopsis thalianais a small flowering plant, considered by many to be a weed. Plant and genetics researchers like thale cress because of its fast growth cycle, abundant seed production, ability to pollinate itself, and wild genes, which haven’t been subjected to breeding and artificial selection.

Von Wangenheim’s footage condenses 17 hours of root tip growth into just 10 seconds. Magnified with a confocal microscope, the root appears neon green and pink—but von Wangenheim’s work shouldn’t be appreciated only for its aesthetics, he explains in a Nikon news release.

"Once we have a better understanding of the behavior of plant roots and its underlying mechanisms, we can help them grow deeper into the soil to reach water, or defy gravity in upper areas of the soil to adjust their root branching angle to areas with richer nutrients," said von Wangenheim, who studies how plants perceive and respond to gravity. "One step further, this could finally help to successfully grow plants under microgravity conditions in outer space—to provide food for astronauts in long-lasting missions."

SECOND PRIZE

Second place went to Tsutomu Tomita and Shun Miyazaki, both seasoned micro-photographers. They used a stereomicroscope to create a time-lapse video of a sweating fingertip, resulting in footage that’s both mesmerizing and gross.

To prompt the scene, "Tomita created tension amongst the subjects by showing them a video of daredevils climbing to the top of a skyscraper," according to Nikon. "Sweating is a common part of daily life, but being able to see it at a microscopic level is equal parts enlightening and cringe-worthy."

THIRD PRIZE

Third prize was awarded to Satoshi Nishimura, a professor from Japan’s Jichi Medical University who’s also a photography hobbyist. He filmed leukocyte accumulations and platelet aggregations in injured mouse cells. The rainbow-hued video "provides a rare look at how the body reacts to a puncture wound and begins the healing process by creating a blood clot," Nikon said.

To view the complete list of winners, visit Nikon’s website.

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