What you'll learn
1. How to use light painting to create a christmas tree effect, perfect for your christmas cards
2. How to avoid showing up in your light painting photos
3. How to create a handy LED light painting tool
With the holiday season rapidly approaching and the evenings drawing in, now is the perfect time to start getting prepared for the winter festivities. Creating your own christmas cards adds a personal touch, plus it’s the perfect weekend photography project, and also one that you can get the kids involved in too.
What you'll need
- A camera with Bulb mode
- A Tripod
- A Cable Release
- A string of battery powered LEDs
- Colored Gels (or sweet wrappers)
- A darkened room (or somewhere outside at night)
A bit of theory
Light painting is a pretty broad subject and it typically comes in two flavours: light painting which involves painting light onto a subject and another which involves using the light source to paint streaks of light (which this tutorial covers). These two techniques can be be used independently or together for effect. Light painting typically involves a long exposure and a hand held light that someone draws with. The person holding the light is normally moving too fast to be visible in the photo. Light painting a symmetrical shape, such as a light orb or in this case a Christmas tree, is created by swinging a light source around a fixed point This kind of photography requires either a very dark room or for it to be night time.
Before going much further, you should really have a basic understanding of using your camera on Bulb, manual exposure and manual focus. If you’re not sure on any of this, check out our basic tutorials.
Light painting relies on using your camera to make really long exposures, then using a torch or other light source to ‘paint’ the light where you want it. As with all long exposure photography, it’s pretty crucial that your camera is securely locked down on a tripod and it’s even better if you use a cable release. Seeing as creating a light orb will take an undefined amount of time, we suggest using a cable release that allows you to lock the shutter open and step away, create your orb, then close the shutter when you are done.
Creating a Christmas tree requires a couple of tools, the first of which is normally a string of battery operated LEDs. You’ll need some gaffer tape in order to gather your lights together and very importantly to cover any lights on the string of LEDs that you do not want for your orb. Lastly you might want to think about colour, so some coloured gels or sweet wrappers are a useful tool to add to your kit! Lastly, you will be moving around in the dark, so we’d suggest keeping a torch in your back pocket.
Set your camera to manual exposure, a low ISO (200 will probably work fine) and set the aperture to around f/8. This should give you plenty of depth of field to make sure everything is in focus.
Next, you’ll need to prepare your light painting kit. Take your string of battery powered LED lights and use black electrical or gaffer tape to mask off all but a few of the LEDs near the end of the string.
You’ll need a way of suspending the lights so that you can pull them shorter. (We used a boom pole in the video but any high bar or hook should work). Then with the lights still on (or, if you’re outside, using a torch) stand someone in the middle of the area you’ll be spinning the LED’s in and focus the camera. Using live view can help with this.
Capturing the photos
When you’re ready to shoot, kill the lights and start your bulb exposure. Turn on your LEDs and start a big spin from the bottom. Using the string, slowly pull the LED’s up with them still spinning, as you pull the string, the LED side gets shorter and the arc gets smaller, creating a spiral like tree shaped effect. Once the LED gets to the top and the spin is really small you can stop the exposure. If the exposure of the tree is a little dull, simply up your ISO until you get the exposure you require. If the spinning isn't working very well, you can also try the same pull method with swinging the lights from side to side.
If you want to light paint additional details such as decorations, simply turn the LED off at the end of the spiral and add your details in. Wearing black clothes will help keep you from appearing in the shot.
Creating your card
You should need to do minimal editing on your finished photo, potentially editing out any hands and feet you can see or brightening the lights up. Afterwards there are lots of ways to turn your image into a fun card. You could try bulk printing them online as complete cards or buying some coloured card and printing the few you need at home. The second option definitely allows for more input from the kids if you're making the cards with your family!
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