Light Painting Animation Tips

Location: Cerro Noroeste - Kern County, CA

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Let's talk about light painting animations, I can give you some insight here as I have done a few short films featuring detailed light-art creations moving over the past few years. Here they are below if you have not seen them yet:

'Light Goes On' - 2013

& 'Lightspeed' - 2015

Let's get into the basics first - this is no easy task and if you think animating on paper is tough, this is a bit more physically demanding than that, it's hiking, balancing, squatting, wild hand gestures, intense focus, and most importantly, a grand vision!

My first recommendation is trying it on paper, if it works there, it will work with light! Here is an example of the kind of sketches I like to do before light-drawing the animation: 

sketch_animation_sabretooth_frames_drawings.jpg

Sometimes, I will reference videos on youtube (pressing the spacebar like a spaz to play/pause the frame). Other times I will reference images and videos I capture myself, it all depends on your vision. 

After you can ace the flipbook test, it's time to move toward the light-art animating. For starters you need a dark location - somewhere that has a unique view, or perhaps build it yourself? Up to you! 

You'll need a DSLR, remote, tripod and light - I use Night-Writer because I made it for drawing with. First part is setting the scene - I like to scout locations in the day so I know exactly what I'm getting into at night. Often I will take phone pics to get a general idea of what angles I'd like to use later that night. 

Once on location you'll get to the spot, set up your camera on a tripod, take the lens cap off and start to compose a scene using a high-powered light. Manually set your focus on the area you would like to animate around and set your camera to 'Bulb'. You may need to adjust your camera settings so that you can use the remote. After you think all the settings are correct, it's time to test it out - do something basic to start with and then adjust camera settings to get the right look you're going for. 

Common settings for different lighting conditions:

City Lights: F.16-22 | ISO 50-200 | 100-150 sec

Full Moon: F.7.1-9 | ISO 200-400 | 150-250 sec

New Moon: F.16 | ISO 1600 | 50-100sec

Using your remote - trigger the beginning of the shot, then hop in front of the lens and draw each frame (I like to use a rock or something to mark where my character needs to be for each frame), slowly move your character and motions with each consecutive long-exposure (just like with a flip-book). Trigger your remote for the beginning and the end of each frame in the animation, I like to animate at 24 frames per second because I think it looks best. 24 frames is equal to one second of footage!

Once I have all of my frames, I will edit them using lightroom or photoshop so that they all look like similar exposures. After this, I open all the edited images in Adobe Bridge so that I can see the first frame to last frame files in one place visually.

I open the first frame in photoshop and then stack the next frame on top of the first into separate consecutive layers. Once I've compiled all of my 24 layers on top of each other, I open the 'Timeline' tab from the 'Window' top selection. There's a button that says 'Create Frame Animation' - click it. 

You should see one frame in the timeline, but you will need to select the upper right drop-down menu, there is a selection called 'Make Frames from Layers'. Use that to have all of your layers import to the timeline. 

Now it's time to select the frame rate, adjust the delay as needed to make for the smoothest animation. I like to use a .06 sec delay on each frame.

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After you're happy with your animated sequence, you can export it to video or save it as a .gif, you may need to resize the file along the way.

Flipping Out

Location: Pine Mountain, CA

 See more in  animation / licensing  collection

See more in animation / licensing collection

It's good to try new things, so I brought a step-ladder with me on my most recent night mission during the last full moon.

The few extra steps gave me enough height to animate my red light-skeleton running up the walls ala Gene Kelly from 'Singing In The Rain'. 

I used a remote controlled color-changing 'LED Pod' to color the shadowed areas blue and a Night-Writer with red color-tip for the skeleton character. 

For these type of time and energy dependent projects it helps to have a well defined process and stick to it through the length of the shoot, otherwise the animation will never get done. You've got to find your groove.

Mine was roughly 3 seconds of blue light exposure from the 'LED-Pod', and then drawing out the skeleton while the full moon illuminated the background, each long exposure frame was about 150 seconds.

Here's a kinetic blend of the different drawings together:

kinetic LP

Here's a quick GoPro time-lapse of the process:

The next image was a special one for my Mother, it was Mother's Day after all.

Here's a 'Mama Bear and Cubs' walking along a fallen tree under the full moon.

Mama Bear

Thanks for reading and stay bright light fam!

Keep the Beat

Location: J.A. Studio - Los Angeles, CA

Here is an idea that took a little while to coordinate and a long while to actually accomplish. The idea is always the easy part! Special thanks to Joey for helping set this up and borrowing his camera to get a second angle (below).

These are the sorts of projects where it helps to have a light designed for drawing! Animation is one of the main reasons I started making my Night-Writer product. After the 20th frame, no matter how much experience you have in animating, the mind and body begin to get fatigued. Muscles begin to cramp and it makes finishing the project more difficult to achieve. Luckily a hand cramp is not something I have at this point, thanks to the ergonomic design of my Night-Writer tool.

 So, how does one animate this sort of thing?

Step one for me is usually sketching out some expressive stick-figures for each frame in the animation. It doesn't have to look pretty, but the movements have to appear natural:

Doing this type of work is almost identical to drawing a flip-book. I will say it's a little tougher with light because you can't see what you've illustrated and it has to be life-sized in order to interact with life-sized props. 

For stationary animations it's easier in the sense that we're not moving around the camera each frame or moving around the character. To do more dynamic animations like on my 'licensing page', I often use markers to move each piece of the scene one step at a time, sometimes its just the character that moves, other times it's both the character and the camera moving for every frame.

What song do you think this skeleton is drumming to? 

Here's a full time-lapse of the drawing process:

How to Light-paint with a GoPro

Here's a neat little trick I've been using to capture light-paintings using a GoPro Hero 4 Silver along with a clever stacking technique in Photoshop.

In this article, I'll go over how to set your GoPro for Night-Lapses at 15 secs each, and then show you how to combine 10 selected images in post-production using Photoshop to make one long exposure equivalent of 150 seconds.

LP with a GP

In the gallery below you'll find an easy  7-step guide that you can follow along with to set your camera for light-painting, click an image below to see it larger:

Now that you're all set for the light-painting part, I'll shift gears into what happens after you take a bunch of 15 sec images. For this part we will probably need to hop on the computer.

You'll want to use a program like Adobe Bridge so that you can see all your files visually in one place - you're looking for the puzzle-pieces that will make up a good light-painting. We'll be using Photoshop to open one layer and then stacking other pics on top of it, building out our light-painting 15 seconds at a time.

Click an image to see it larger:

After we've followed these steps, we should have a stacked image that would be the equivalent result of a 150 second exposure - not bad! 

For more tips and tricks, check out my EDU section.

How to Light-paint with an iPhone

Here's a how-to post for anyone that's not sure about buying an expensive DSLR camera, but still wants to experiment with light-painting and night-photography.

Don't believe you can shoot a decent light-painting image with a cellphone? Check out this gallery of images I've collected over the past few months - I'm pretty happy with them! Shot using an iPhone 6 and 6s Plus along with the Night-Writer & various Color-tips as the light-source:

To shoot these type of images you have to be totally dialed in! It takes a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it - it's a great option to have on hand when you don't happen to have a DSLR handy!

Step One: Download the Right App

I used Night Cap Pro to shoot these images, but there are other good options like Slow-Shutter app.

Step Two: Dial it In

The right app settings are crucial to pulling this off! 

Here is a cheat-sheet for Light-painting with NightCap Pro:

1. Start off with selecting 'light trails' - tap the star icon on the right to toggle this option.

2. Just above the star is a lock button for once you get your settings down - don't do it yet, but just know it's there and that the green light should be on for at least 'FOC (focus)' and 'EXP (exposure)' options before you start your shot. 'WB (white balance)' is not something I used very often - I think it's set to 'auto' if you do nothing, which looks fine.

3. Adjust the exposure setting by sliding your thumb up on the right side of the viewer - I go with 1/2 - do this unless you want your light-lines to be dotted (no thanks!).

4. Set your ISO - I went with 50, but I've tried higher - 400 is ok, but it starts to get pretty noisy after 800.

5. Set your focus using the bottom slide-toggle - '0' is for super-macro stuff while I'd assume '100' would be for far away star-trails. I usually go with something from 69-75 - this is good for that 35mm look that most of us are familiar shooting with.

Step Three: Steady as She Goes

Please know that the camera has to be totally still while the long-exposure is happening! So use a tripod. If you don't have one handy - a coffee mug on a table will suffice (the dude abides): 

coffee mug tripod

Now that you've got your settings locked (Exp + Foc have green dots) you are ready to start your light-painting! Tap the large button to start (it turns red when on) and tap it again once you are finished with your light-art.

Step Four: iPhone Presets

Turn your Auto-Lock off. You don't want your camera shutting down during the middle of your light-painting, right?

Here's how you do it: Go to 'Settings', select 'General', select 'Auto-Lock' - switch to 'Never'.

Bonus Tip: Dim that light-source for best results!

My first results light-painting with the iphone were pretty dismal - I found out quickly that the bare Night-Writer light was too bright for the lens. I tried diffusing the LED with a crumpled-up receipt which resulted in more balanced exposures. Color-Tips worked great for diffusing the light also.  

The reason you need a fairly dim light-source is because your phone has a tiny lens, with a tiny sensor, and mostly automatic features - like what aperture to use when shooting in dark environments.

You're best option to get a well-balanced exposure is to control the brightness of your light-source. Bright light is great for casting toward environments, but not for using toward the lens (light-writing).

A good rule of thumb: If you can glance at the light without hurting your eyes, so can the camera.

Check out the video tutorial below:

More tips and tricks for light-art photography can be found in the EDU section.

 

Shoot for the Stars

Location: Rocky Mountain National Park / Settings: (14 vertical images) shot at F2.8, ISO 6400, 15 seconds

The first thing to note about this image is that it was taken at an elevation around 12,000 feet. The red you can see projected on that rock in the left third of the frame is due to a passing car on the nearby Trail Ridge Road.

To shoot a similar image, you'll want to be visiting a dark area away from city lights - priority number one in seeing any stars. A high elevation seems to have helped also but that's not 100% necessary. Another few important factors are the season you're shooting in, moon phase and astronomical timing (where and when the Milky Way will be most visible) - each of these can be figured out with the following online tools:

Online Tools:

Dark Site Finder - This is an awesome global map to help figure out where the best dark skies are in your location.

Sky Guide App - Use this to figure out where and when the Milky Way will be visible via GPS on your phone.

Camera Gear:

In terms of camera gear you'll probably want a camera with a great full-frame sensor - that means one of the following is your best bet:

Sony A7R ii - A great camera with a killer low light performing sensor, what a lot of the low-light pros are using nowadays. It'll set you back around $3.5k.

Sony A7S ii - Another great offer from Sony in the low-light department - most of what I've seen and used on the older model A7S carried over here with a greater emphasis on filming - this thing is insane at night, the only drawback is the smaller image sizes (roughly 12-17mb files). This camera (body only) will set you back about $3k.

Canon 6D - This is what I'm using now, full-frame sensor, good battery performance, quick, great low-light performance, awesome lens selection, and decent video capabilities. A bit more heavy compared to most mirrorless cameras, but at 1300 for the body and an accessories bundle, a pretty sweet deal overall.

Canon 5D mkiii - Another great low-light camera from Canon - I won't go into details about what this is a good full-frame camera, or why I'd go with this over the Nikon D800, but I will link a video here telling you all the reasons you might consider buying one over the other.

Super Wide-angle Lens:

In terms of Lenses, I'll just say that wider is better in terms of capturing the sky, and you'll need a very open aperture to capture the low light.

A good option that I've found is the Rokinon 14mm, they have one for almost every camera make, and at around $300, it's a pretty good deal for glass.

Rokinon 14mm F2.8: CanonFuji X-mount, Pentax, NikonSamsung NX, Sony Mount.

Now let's keep in mind that this is 14 vertical images stitched together using Adobe Photoshop CC's 'photo-merge function'. Here are all but 2 of the individual frames as viewed in Adobe Bridge:

process

The first step in actually shooting something as large as our Galaxy is to visualize what the end result should look like. Backtrack from there and figure out how many shots it will take to achieve, leaving a little room for error/aberration at the sides and verticals. 

Last step is make sure the tripod you've brought out is level throughout the pan. Shoot one frame for each slight rotation, moving the camera across the environment to capture it in overlapping frames.

You may want to try live-view focusing on a distant bright star if you can (must be using the zoom 10x feature). Otherwise, a focus set to infinity works pretty good, but it's not optimal all the time.

Onto the Post-Processing:

Here's an illustrated breakdown of how to combine your images into a Pano via Photoshop CC photomerge function, first open Photoshop CC (or equivalent version):

Give the computer time to take care of business:

You may as well make yourself a cup of tea or coffee during this period, because your computer may crash in the process of putting these huge files all together.. Either that or it will turn out awesome!!! Now flatten and crop the massive image - enjoy the view!

To see more beautiful landscapes and purchase prints, check out my Nature Gallery. For more tutorials, visit the EDU page.

Light-paint a skeleton (step by step tutorial vid)

Location: Mt. Pinos - Frazier Park, CA

Here it is, a little how-to video on the subject of light-skeletons - I've been asked, and the idea of other people illustrating their very own skeletons with light makes me pretty damn amped!

Good luck out there with your creations! Please share them with me if you think you've got a good one - If you're on instagram, you can tag me @dariustwin - otherwise, email works ok too.

To learn more about light-art photography, you can visit my new EDU page devoted toward the education of light-art photography.

Fire-buds

Location: Giant Rock - Landers, CA / Settings: 11 shots at F2.8, ISO 3200, 13 seconds

firebuds

Info on how this shot was created:

Gear: Canon 6DRokinon 14mm LensManfrotto Tripod, and Remote Shutter-release.

For this quick gif I set up the camera in a half-circle space around the fire and shot 11 images - moving the camera and tripod a foot or two each shot and combined the shots using the animation window in photoshop.

animation tip

Just a couple of friends telling stories around a campfire with the universe above twinkling on to oblivion. Have fun out there!