Real or Fake?
You’ve seen it before: names haphazardly scribbled in the air with a flashlight; newlyweds kissing under a fiery circle of sparks; glowing orbs like giant out-of-place yarn balls in a landscape. Light painting isn’t new. It’s an exhausted practice, and I always joke it’s the first thing a new photographer explores when learning how to manipulate their shutter speed.
I have a love-hate relationship with light painting. Despite its seemingly infinite potential, most of the light painting I experience is a little on the amateur side — an issue that points more toward a lack of restraint than sloppy execution. Alex and I have been attempting to incorporate precise light painting to an environment using a drone, but while I feel our ideas are consistently tactful, the results are consistently amateurish.
For our most recent trip to the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, I wanted to do an experiment comparing an image made entirely in camera using light painting techniques to an image created entirely in Photoshop using graphic design techniques. We chose to create a blue square for its simplicity and nod to technology. It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized the blue square is ironically similar to the Photoshop logo, further emphasizing the contrast between the natural and the manipulated environment.
If you don’t follow Alex’s blog, you should. He codes and 3D prints cool inventions, and he prepared for this trip by designing and printing “dark feet” — small caps he inserts over the rotors of his DJI Spark quadcopter to block out the native red and green lights. You can see his recent Dark Feet post here.
Despite the preparation, the results were once again inadequate. There are many reasons for this, but the two biggest are that Alex’s drone has sustained multiple crashes that have compromised its stability, and since individual LEDs were attached beneath each rotor, we weren’t able to produce a single stream of light. The success of this image depended entirely on precision, and we didn’t even come close.
After returning home, processing the media and researching for this blog post, I came across some incredible work by Reuben Wu that proves it’s not only possible to create precise shapes with a drone, it’s utterly breathtaking when done correctly. This is exactly the kind of elegant and tasteful light painting I’ve been striving for!
I think the key to producing precise light painting with a drone is through programmable flight patterns. In order to create a precise image, the method used must be precise. And I don’t think humans are capable of that type of control.
We returned to camp a little frustrated and spent the next couple hours photographing this magnificent live oak before heading to sleep.
I woke up at 6:30 to thunder rumbling in the distance. Small rain drops pattered my tent. I knew if I got up then I could pack before the inevitable onslaught of rain. I reluctantly climbed outside.
Alex was still asleep by the time I finished packing, so I covered my pack with a tarp, pulled out a chair and sat snug beneath an umbrella. It was probably one of the strangest and most peaceful experiences I’ve had out in the woods.
I’m disappointed the light painting didn’t go as planned, but I think it brings up an interesting discussion regarding the role the process of creating art plays in the way we view the finished product. I like my photoshopped image. It’s literally exactly what I was picturing in my head, and in my opinion it’s far more powerful than the light painted version. But the methods used to create it make it more of a graphic design piece than a photography piece; and there’s something in me that knows I would like it just a little bit more if I had achieved the end result entirely in camera.
If you have any thoughts about the two images or ideas about how we can achieve more precise results in camera, leave them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!