Joe Pflueger's Photo blog

January 25, 2012
Exploding lights
Creating exploding lights in a single frame

The reaction so far from showing off this photo has been limited to, “Woah, how’d you do this?” and “That’s Photoshoped.” I can’t tell you how disappointed I am that anybody has yet to offer me money simply for doing a “good job”.

So I figured I’d do the next best thing to receiving money for a cool photo. I would share my knowledge in hopes of one day seeing awesome photos that will, in turn, inspire me. After all, I didn’t invent the technique; I learned it from someone.

It’s a fun technique to play with when these little lights are strung up. And I’m sure there are still some displayed in most necks of the woods. So here’s the basic set up:

  1. Attach a zoom lens to your camera.
  2. Steady your camera on a tripod in a scene with decorative lights, and in a scene that will allow for an exposure of at least three seconds. I set up in my dark living room.
  3. The subject to remain in focus in the photo works best at about halfway between the lens and the lights, but there is tons of flexible room for experimentation. In this case, the space was limited to about 10 feet to work with.

To capture your image, you’re going to snap the shutter and zoom into the final destination for your image. The majority of time with the shutter open will be spent with the glass resting in the full zoomed placement.

  1. Zoom in all the way to compose your image. The subject in focus, in my case, the fiddle, should not be in the “path” of the light trails. Determining the trails will take practice. Once I got the fiddle in focus and placed right in the frame, I zoomed out to my starting point. Or the point at which I released the shutter.
  2. Keep your autofocus fixated on the subject if that’s what you’re using, otherwise if it’s on manual, simply release the shutter and immediately zoom in to the final destination having left two or three seconds remaining on the exposure.

This exploding lights look is created because the light trails are going to burn a path along the image no matter how long they are exposed for. The neat effect takes place when the camera rests on the subject for about 2/3-3/4 of the exposure time. That image – the fiddle – is then burned into the photo because it has time to establish itself.

This is where a high f-stop in low light can work to your advantage. The effect is easy to grasp when the subject sits at the bottom on the photo and that is when the lights look like an explosion best. But the possibilities are endless to create new and compelling images.

Some of my past work on JPGMag