Painting with light, it is the very definition of the word photography, tracing the word’s roots back to the Greek term, phos meaning light and graphis meaning paintbrush.
Certainly every photograph exists because light reacted to a photosensitive surface, film or digital. How good the image is relies on how well the person behind the lens used that light, whether it was available or introduced.
If you do an internet search on “painting with light photography,” a wide variety of interesting imagery presents itself. The technique involves working in very low light with the camera on a tripod. A long time exposure is used, usually in the range of 5-10 minutes, giving the photographer or an assistant a chance to use a flashlight to make light drawings or simply feather the light around to the subject to create surreal looking imagery.
Photographing the arriving night scenes of holiday lights is much the same process, except someone else has already “painted” with the lights. A simple trick to success in this endeavor is never waiting until it gets dark out. The outcome then is always the same, lots of bright tiny lights against a curtain of blackness.
Instead, find out sunset time and get set up.
Taking photos in the twilight ‘blue hour’
Then wait, in a perfect world, the lights will come on early. Start making test photos. At some point the sky will be just dark enough to have detail but not register as black, usually about 20 to 30 minutes after sunset. Photographers call this the blue hour.
I had fallen out of practice with this twilight timing. But a late afternoon holiday lighting setup in Mashpee last week put me back in the game.
Holiday lighting expert Gary Guidi was setting up a big display at the Cape Cod Children’s Museum in Masphee. He had donated all 30,000 of his LED twinkling displays after a house move. When I arrived he was checking the connections and still finding one loose bulb, a familiar problem for many this time of year, trying to get all the light strings to work.
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But then he went over to his control panel, a computer and big screen monitor and a software program that could control just about any one of the bulbs individually, its flashing rate and even its colors. This was high tech; envision the old Lite-Brite toy from 1967 introduced to 2022 technology.
As the “blue hour” descended over Mashpee, Gary’s face was aglow from the screen, which displayed all his lights as he tweaked each display to his liking. He was painting with light and I was lucky to watch the maestro at work.
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