digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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Three Special Effects for Night Photography

Fire spinning on the beach
Fire spinning on the beach

I've been teaching a Night Photography class for a couple years now and I have to say, I have more fun on those field trips, than all the workshops I lead. I've also been itching to try doing fire spinning since I saw Michael Sutton's about two years ago, and I was recently able to finally do just that. I was thrilled with the results and wanted to share!

Here are a few special effects tips and tricks I wanted to share with you, so you can go out and try some of this fun stuff yourself. It's really not that hard, my only caution is to please be conscious of fire safety at all times!

The basics – equipment needs

tripod head

You do not need a lot of fancy stuff to do night photography, in fact some of my students have even used small point and shoot cameras. As long as your camera has the ability to shoot in Manual mode and do long exposures (up to 30 or 60 seconds) you can do this. Here's a list of the essentials and a few optional items that are really handy to have as well:

  • a camera that can shoot in manual exposure mode (and manual focus as well) and do exposures of 30 seconds
  • a sturdy tripod to hold it still during the long exposures
  • a remote to trigger the shutter release (you can use the self timer if your camera doesn't accept one)
  • a fire extinguisher or bucket of water (if you are doing fire spinning or anything with fire)
  • something for doing the lighting: some options include flashlights, coloured glow sticks, gloves with glowing fingertips, sparklers, steel wool for fire spinning.
  • something for spinning the light if you want to make orbs or spin fire, I bought an inexpensive chain style dog leash at the dollar store and attached my lights to the end

Optional items but really handy to have:

  • a headlamp (the kind you get for camping that slips over your head)
  • a timing remote to count exposures over 30 seconds, or you can use your Smart phone
  • a friend to help you (this is essential with doing some of the techniques)
  • an external speedlight or flash (you can get one for your brand of camera or one that's inexpensive such as a Vivitar or a Yongnuo, as it won't be on the camera anyway (***note: do not attach an older model Vivitar 283 or 285 to your camera it will fry the electronics!***)

Bonus low light photography


As you're waiting for it to get dark enough to do your night photography don't forget to take some tests shots and play around. We did this fun image on the beach just as the sun set following the Silhouette Photography Tips article. NOTE you do not need to have a beach to do this, just a sunset or sunrise.

Camera settings for night photography

Macro image of a digital camera's controls set on autoNight photography requires a few different settings on your camera to get optimal results. Follow these basic guidelines and I'll give you more specific settings for each special affect below.

  • set up your tripod and anchor the camera onto it securely, hang your camera bag or a sand bag under the tripod if it has a hook. That will add extra stability.
  • set your camera's ISO as low as possible, ISO 100 or 200. This will help keep the noise (graininess) of the final image to a minimum
  • set your camera exposure mode to Manual
  • set your aperture to f8 (this is just a starting point you'll have to test your exposure and adjust accordingly if you want more or less depth of field as well)
  • set your shutter speed to expose for the sky (keep it dark but not pitch black, you want only a small amount of detail in your background)
  • set your white balance accordingly meaning if you are using a flashlight that's tungsten set it to that for neutral color; if you're using flash chose flash or daylight; if you're using fire or sparklers try daylight or tungsten. Ideally if you can shoot in RAW format you can adjust it later if the color isn't quite to your liking
  • turn on your autofocus, focus in the right spot, and then turn it off as follows

Focusing your camera at night

Focus is tricky at night because your camera can't see to focus, so this is where a having a friend along comes in handy. Ask them to stand in the spot where you want to do the lighting affect with a headlamp. Have them turn it on and face the light directly toward the camera, this will allow your camera's autofocus to “see” it and focus on that spot. Once you've got it focused, turn OFF your autofocus so it stays locked on that spot, and get your friend to mark the spot so they can find it again later (use a branch or rock that they'll recognize). Each time you recompose or move to a new spot you'll have to run through this procedure again.

On to the fun stuff – sparklers

Done using sparklers and flash
ISO 100, f/5.6, 15 seconds

The image above was made on a workshop I led a few weeks ago. This is the kind of fun you can have with a group of photographers and a great location. We were out in a farmer's field (with his full permission) away from most of the city lights – that is another key to making sure it's even dark enough to do lighting tricks like these.

How this was done was . . .

  • using an exposure time of 15 seconds my husband/assistant lit the sparkler and everyone in the group pressed their shutter simultaneously
  • he then proceeded to outline the shape of my body with the sparkler
  • while that was happening someone else in the group fired a flash a couple of times, once on each side of me, to light me and the grass up a bit. I think we were at 1/4 power but that will vary depending on your flash and it's output. If you don't have a flash you can do the same thing with a flashlight. Just keep moving and don't light up yourself. Move on light painting with flashlights below.

We have two “ghosts” in this image, can you see them? What do you think caused that to happen? Make your guess in the comments section below.

Light painting and orbs

ISO 100, f/5.5, 30 seconds
ISO 100, f/5.6, 30 seconds

In it's most basic form, lighting painting is simply the technique of adding light to your scene. It can take many forms including all the ones mentioned in this article, the most common one I use is flashlight. I like the look that I can attain with a flashlight as it gives me more finite control than flash. If you want more information and a detailed breakdown on how to do light painting I've written a two part article on Digital Photography School, you can see Part One – the Photography here. Part Two is image processing in computer. The tractor in the image above is lit by flashlight during my last Drumheller workshop.

Making the orb

An orb, or ball of light, is created by swinging your light in a circle and rotating to create the sphere of light. It works great with colored lights, as you can see here. I managed to find some small flashlights that came in three colors (red, green and blue) and had a string already attached to them so they were perfect for this technique. Look around at your local camping or hardware store to see if you can find something similar. You want it to be lightweight (hitting yourself in the head with a big flashlight really hurts) and easy to twirl, it also helps if it glows out the sides and the end (glow sticks work well). If it doesn't come with a string attached, just rig up something using a dog chain or similar. You want it to be just above the ground when you extend your arm outwards, so you aren't whacking the ground when you spin it around.

Then when you actually twirl it you need to find a spot on the ground and spin the light as consistently as possible directly over top of that spot. That means that instead of you rotating in place, you will actually be walking around that spot. If you don't do this and just rotate you'll end up with a sort of square looking orb. Try both ways and you decide which you prefer.

I also found that I didn't need to twirl for the entire exposure, for this scene I only did so for about half the time, or 15 seconds. It's easier to start midway through than try and shut it off during the exposure. Get someone to time and tell you when to start. It will take some practice twirling to get it round and get the brightness just right. If it's too dark twirl longer. If it's too light twirl for less time.

The Pièce de résistance – steel wool or fire spinning

Fire spinning on the beach
Fire spinning on the beach – ISO 100, f/11, 2.5 seconds

Basically what you need to do to achieve this is put some steel wool into a regular kitchen whisk, light it on fire, and spin it around. The camera settings are very similar to light painting, you just need to correctly exposure for your background, and have a long enough exposure to capture the sparks flying off the wool as it spins.

***Disclaimer: I am NO expert at doing this, as I mentioned this was my first attempt, but the one thing I do want to make 100% clear though is that fire safety was and is our primary concern. Do NOT attempt this anywhere near anything that could potentially catch on fire such as grass, trees, a wooden dock, houses, etc.

Having said that, if you want a more detailed tutorial on how exactly to do that, visit Photography Extremist. He too stresses fire safety but I'd be even more cautious than he is in the video and avoid doing it near anything remotely flammable. These sparks really fly quite a ways and can seriously start a fire or you can get burned. Take every precaution if you attempt this, as we did, including safety googles.

Finding the right location

Living in Alberta on the prairie where it's dry much of the season doesn't afford a lot of opportunities to do something like this, so our recent road trip to the Oregon coast had me hopeful I'd be able to pull it off. We literally checked out almost every beach up and down about a 30 mile area on the coast looking for just the right location. The criteria for me was: it had to be sheltered from the wind; secluded so there's not a lot of people around; and have some sort of interesting background so it's not just plain black behind the sparks flying.

We selected the beach above and it turned out great. The only thing I'd like to change is have a slightly longer exposure to capture more of the flying sparks in one image. As I'd not done this before I had no idea how long it would burn, how bright or how far they'd fly. The image above was literally my first shot out of the gate. I got one more fired off before the first wad of wool burned out, see below.

ISO 100, f/11, 2.5 seconds
ISO 100, f/11, 2.5 seconds

Remember I mentioned it's fun to bring along a friend? Well we actually did just that on this photo excursion. We shared a rental house Christine Hollister at a conference called the World Domination Summit in Portland the weekend before. As we were both heading to the coast we agreed to meet up and camp together. So I invited her along on the photo shoot as well. She's a journalist from Nebraska (the first person I ever met from that state!) who also loves photography, so she was keen and intrigued by the prospect of fire spinning. I lent her my tripod for one go round (see her result below). We adjust with a long exposure after my first couple of shots and I think it turned out even better. Remember that making the exposure longer to capture more sparks will also brighten up the overall image including the sky. So you have to keep an eye on both and do a balancing act to keep get them both right. It's all about trial and error and experimentation.

Image by Christine Hollister - A Spicy Life
Image by Christine Hollister – A Spicy Life

This is what she had to say about the experience:
“You might wanna join us for a night photo shoot. If the wind lets up a bit we are going to attempt fire spinning.” I had no idea what this text from Darlene meant, but as I’m always up for an adventure, I didn’t ask questions. I grabbed my new Nikon and headed for the Oregon coast.
When I arrived a few hours later, Rob was standing near the back seat of their car, a pair of goggles hanging from one wrist and a wire pancake whisk in his opposite hand. “What are these two up to?” I wondered. They explained that once the sun set and the wind let up, we would go onto the beach for “fire spinning” a photo technique Darlene had heard about and been wanting to try.
We prepared our cameras and the spinning supplies while we waited for the weather conditions to cooperate with our mission. Finally, the wind settled down to a light breeze and we headed for the beach. Rob went further out to where the sand met the water and pulled the goggles down over his eyes. Once Darlene gave him the go ahead, he lit a chunk of steel wool within the whisk on fire and began spinning it round and round his head until it died out about 30 seconds later. We repeated this a couple of times and after Darlene got a few good photos she let me borrow her tripod and helped me set up my camera so I could give it a try. I had the chance to take three shots before we spotted the ranger's truck coming down the mountain toward the parking lot, thus ending our photo session.

I learned a lot about my new camera and had a ton of fun; it was an unforgettable experience. And those three photos? They’re now my favorites — and the most commented on — from my 17-day road trip.

A Spicy Life is her website if you want to follow more of her work.

Christine shooting the fire spinning
Christine shooting the fire spinning

Another bonus tip for night photography in the city

I just wanted to leave you with one other fun tip that requires no special equipment other than a zoom lens on your camera. If you aren't able to get out of the city to try some of the techniques above, you can do this one right in the city. In fact it works best when photographing bright lights.

ISO 100, f/22, 5 seconds
ISO 100, f/22, 5 seconds

The only things you really need to know about this technique are:

  • set your shutter speed to 2-5 seconds and the aperture accordingly to get a good exposure
  • zoom in as far as you'd like in the closer image and focus there, then shut off your focus
  • during the exposure manually turn the zoom ring on your lens to zoom out to wider angle (this may not work on small cameras where this isn't possible but you can try it)

That's it! You'll find that you'll get a different look if you give it more time at the beginning that at the end, and how fast you actually zoom. Try it a few different ways and what is the message and lesson for today?

Practice and experiment!

Go forth and try out some of this fun night photography. It's a blast with a group of people and a few flashlights. Share your results and any other tips or techniques you've discovered.


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  • Philip Hallam

    As usual, a concise and easy to read tutorial Darlene.
    I started doing this sort of light painting just over a year ago after reading another tutorial and I too, had instant success and a lot of fun. All of mine were lone missions as I live in a very small town but that has distinct advantages. I have NEVER had the “fun police” kick me out. In fact I have never seen another person while doing this!

    I prefer to call this “Light Drawing” as the camera sees the source of the light. “Light Painting” is where the camera does not see the source. (My interpretation!)

    A couple of extra points that may be of benefit are:
    1.Don’t wear a polar fleece or similar clothing. (Mine was peppered with tiny burnt holes all over it after my first mission!)
    2.Use a small 9 volt transistor battery to light the steel wool instead of matches. Just hold both terminals on the wool and it will ignite. (Caution!! Don’t hurriedly throw the battery down amongst the roll of steel wool or that will ignite too. Yep…..done that too!)
    3. If you don’t want yourself in the picture……..KEEP MOVING!
    4.If you don’t want yourself in the picture……..wear black or dark clothes…..AND keep moving.

    I have included below an example of a light orb for 2 reasons. I am in the photo because I did not move enough and also to show the benefit of reflection.
    Another example is the one at Remarkable Cave (Tasmania). This was a 30 second exposure but the time spent was less than 15 seconds. You can see where I let go of the burning whisk as it flies away to the right of screen. At the same time, I jumped off the large rock and ran out of the frame in the other direction to eliminate me from the photo.
    (Very difficult shot to do and get the outer part of the cave in the centre of the ring of fire. Took me 3 nights to get it right!)

    • Philip – nicely don!

      Yes the reflections are indeed nice when you can make that happen. The pink orb would show up a bit better if the sky were darker. Could you have waited another 30 minutes or so to do it? How did you trigger the camera and walk all the way around the other side to spin??

      • Philip Hallam

        Yes, it would have been better a few minutes later.
        I had the camera set on 10 second timer and I started spinning the torch with most of the string in my hand. Pressed the shutter and ran as fast as I could to the other side of the small dam (pond) to my pre determined spot. As I ran, I slowly released more string so it was full length by the time I got there and the shutter was about to open. Quite a few times I didn’t make it in time.
        Got to get creative when you work on your own as I usually do.

        • See if you can purchase a wireless remote that has a decent range so you don’t have to use the self timer.

          • Philip Hallam

            Thankyou. I recently purchased an intervalometer for doing star trails and bulb exposures and I can also extend the 10 second timer to whatever I want.

  • Philip Hallam

    About 4 weeks ago, my first attempt at zooming through the exposure.
    This was in Hobart (Tasmania) and the blue light was a one-off event which was lit every night for 2 weeks. It goes 15 kilometres high and could be seen many miles away on a clear night.
    Thousands of photos appeared locally so I had to find a different perspective….and this was my effort and as far as I know, the only zoomed exposure.

    • Good job! Being different and finding a different way of doing it is a great way to stand out – keep doing that!

  • Thanks for your tuition – I still have so much to learn, and it’s kind of you to share your expertise with others

  • Donnalee

    Another thing to consider if you don’t want to see the individual that is being light painted or the individual twirling the fire have them wear all black. This makes them virtually invisible.

  • Saurav Dhyani

    Hi Darlene,
    This is a great Article. I am also a fan of Night Photography and have done various experiments with it. I just loved your article and hence sharing a few pictures that I have clicked.

    Sleeping Baby : thts my daughter sleeping on her bed and all her soft toys keeping an eye on her. light around her was from my Mobile phone torch, which i took and walked all around her. This picture was clicked in a 100% dark room late in the night. Reflection of torch light and light absorbed by the sensor when the shutter was open gives tht dramatic look around the bed area (on soft toys and wall)

    PRACHI… my Wife : That’s my wife’s name. I have written using only candle light. This was done by making candle stand on the floor and while holding the camera, I moved it to make different alphabets. Then created a collage of different letters.

    Pls do give your valuable feedback on both the pics here… thanks much 🙂

    • This is very fun, great job. I can’t see the one with your daughter though?

      • Saurav Dhyani

        Thanks for your encouraging comments,

        Attaching the pic again, i think it got lost last time. Hope you’ll like this as well..

  • Saurav Dhyani

    Not sure, if my daughter’s picture could reach you or not. Thus posting it again..

    • Yes it came through thanks for sharing this is very adorable

      • Saurav Dhyani

        Thnx for liking this Darlene… I feel great.. 🙂

  • Saurav Dhyani

    Also share some light trail clicks which i shot last year during Diwali (an Indian festival of lights, sweets and happiness).
    I hope you are able to see both the images… sry, but i feel site shows only one picture whereas it allows to upload multiple images.

    • Yes I can only see one. Some people have been able to add multiples maybe it has to do with file size? How big are your images? Nice job on the lights. I have actually been to that festival but in Singapore in Little India not actual India. I will get there for that and Holi one day too.

      • Saurav Dhyani

        great to hear tht … you are always welcome to join us during these two most celebrated festivals of India… I am sure, you’d get to capture a lot of frames..
        size of file is not too big. since i downloaded them from my page, thus these are <1MB in size. Not sure if there is some technical difficulty

        • Hmm, I checked with Disqus and it says 2mg so that should be fine. I’m not sure, sorry.

          Also I want to visit the Pushkar camel festival!

          • Saurav Dhyani

            Thanks much for checking that for me.
            All these things have one thing in common… “Colors” im sure you’ll have a great time. I will feel great if I get to join you for this. You may also like to go Kerala, it is Spice valley of India and it has lush green mountains along with Back waters which allows you to stay in House boats

          • That sounds lovely. One of my best friends lives in New Zealand now but he’s from Mumbai and his family is there so he’s said he will give me a tour one day.

  • Old John

    I have finally found the manual settings that are beginning to give me decent moon shots.
    ISO 100, f5.9- 6.3, !/500. Using bracketing and processing jpeg images with FDR Tools HDR software(free download) I am zeroing in on better moon shots using a Panasonic ZS9 without expensive expensive equipment or software. Now just need more clear nights.

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