We almost look forward to power outages in my house, because we have a tradition.
It started a couple of years ago. A thunderstorm plunged large parts of Brisbane into darkness for several hours. We’re in the subtropics here, so this is not unusual. Enthusiastic storms are always keen to down a few power lines. I’ve seen distinctly Independence Day-style cloud fronts roll toward my house, so dark and spattered with lightning that I felt sure the alien spaceship was going to burst through any second.
So on this particular evening, deprived of our television and our internet connection, we had to find another source of entertainment.
I don’t know who suggested it, but at some point we pulled out my housemate’s camera, grabbed all the flashlights in the house, and started light painting.
If you’ve never done light painting before, it’s pretty easy. You just need a tripod (or steady surface), a camera that can do long-exposure shots (ideally at least 10 seconds), and a flashlight or other light source (e.g. sparklers). While the shutter is open, you paint shapes or highlight objects and people with light.
The appeal of it is you can create some quite eery supernatural images. I like to call this one “multiple me”:
Anyway, only a week or so ago, we had another blackout. This time it was just our block, and there was no storm. Perhaps a wayward possum decided to suicide on a power line somewhere nearby.
So when the lights died we pulled out the camera, and… well, here are some of the results:
Why Not Just Photoshop It?
Nowadays, with digital photography and the plethora of photo editing software available, it’s possible to doctor photos as much as you want. You can edit yourself into movie scenes and create eery effects, can take ordinary photos and make them extraordinary. If you want to depict yourself in a giant Star Wars battle holding a lightsaber, you don’t need light painting to do it.
However, I think there’s still something to be said for the in-camera rather than in-computer approach.
Light painting feels more reminiscent of the pre-digital era of photography, when you played with camera settings, adjusted light sources and exposures, and tried to compose the perfect photo for that one moment of capturing it.
Then you took your film to a dark room or a photo store and got the images developed. There was always the suspense of not knowing how your images would turn out.
Okay, with this light painting there wasn’t the same degree of suspense. It’s digital and you can see the image on screen a second or two after you close the shutter. But you still can’t really line up a shot and compose it, and you never know what it will look like till you’re done taking it.
Then, when you see the photo, you start trying to think how you could improve it, or wonder what it might look like if you did this or that with the flashlight, or tried a different light source, or a different effect. You start getting creative and testing things just to see what it’ll look like.
When The Lights Come On
The funny thing is, during these blackouts, by the time the lights finally come back on we’ve often gotten so carried away with trying out different effects that we turn them off again.
Maybe it seems like a nerdy or childish or purposeless thing to do – running around with flashlights and then rushing to the camera to see what the result is. But it’s fun and doesn’t involve staring at a computer or TV screen. It reminds me a little of when I was a kid, when I’d embark on odd creative projects with my friends simply for the fun of it.
I almost feel like now, when the power goes out, it’s like the world is reminding me to take a break from the focussed routines of my life and do something random, just for the sake of it.
So, light painting. Maybe worth a try if you’ve never done it before. And you can paint yourself holding as many lightsabers as you want.