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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December 25, 2012 - 7:07am
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