How to shoot a Spirograph

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

Long exposures are a beloved technique of shorter days but it’s not
all orbs, traffic trails and fluffy-water landscapes; there are some long-exposure techniques that can happen indoors too. Light painting is fun for any age and it comes in so many beguiling forms that it’s an art-form unto itself in the after-dark photography world.

Light painting can be as simple as illuminating a subject matter with a soft, continuous light source during a long exposure or as complex as using different lighting tools of various shapes and strengths to ‘draw’ creative shapes and effects. In this case, we’re using it to create colourful abstract patterns similar to what you’d create using a pen on a spirograph. Such a technique requires minimal kit – although you can upgrade to specialist light brushes for high-end equivalents – and is an easy gateway into low-light photography and light painting.

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You’ll be controlling the exposure using your camera’s Bulb mode as it’s likely you’ll need to leave the shutter open for longer than 30 seconds to let the small light source burn into the exposure. It’s crucial there is no ambient light in the room for this reason as it too will be recorded by the camera’s sensor.

Once you’ve taken a few shots and got into the swing of it, you can integrate different colours and sizes of torches, or modify the quality of light. By simply placing a piece of black card over the lens, you’ll stop the camera exposing the scene even though the shutter is open – once you’re ready with your new light source, you remove the card to begin exposing again, blending the different effects into the same frame. It’s a very unpredictable effect with random results that will change with the size and direction of the swing, the colour of the light and its size, so play around and see what happens.

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1 Hang your torch

Attach a small pen torch to a piece of string – the thinner the torch the better the results. To make my torch’s beam sharper, I created a small cone from black card to funnel the light. It’s important to keep the torch’s bulb parallel to the ground, so you may need to secure the string so it hangs down. Depending on your lens’s focal length, hang the torch close enough to the camera so the light’s movement fills but doesn’t leave the image frame.

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2 Camera set-up

Place your camera laying on a surface, pointing directly towards the overhead torch; try to position the lens so the torch hangs centrally. Using a wide-angle lens, such as the Nikon 18-35mm f/4.5 I used, gives your camera more field-of-view to include the swinging torch when you get it going. It’s a good idea to attach a UV filter to your lens too on the unlikely chance the torch comes loose and lands on the lens, it has modest protection.

3 Camera settings

While the room lights are on, focus on the torch before switching to manual focus to stop the lens hunting in the dark. Set f/11 for adequate depth-of-field, ISO 100 and Bulb/Timer mode; a remote release can help too. You’ll be in control of how long the lens will expose the patterns for, but initially aim for 20-30 seconds and shorten this if you begin exposing the ambient light and lengthen it if the trails aren’t burned into the exposure.

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4. Take your shots

Turn off all ambient lights and swing the torch. Once the movement has settled to a gentle sway, fire the shutter once to start the exposure and again to finish it. If you want to add more shapes and colours to the exposure, you can place a sheet of black card over the lens mid-exposure and switch the type of torch, add a modifier, try different coloured gels or swing the torch in a different direction. Remove the black card to finish the exposure.

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