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Write your subject's name in light

How'd they do that?


The technique shown here has a very simple concept, but getting it right requires an assistant with a degree of "air-writing" skill that can be mastered with patience and practice, and a subject who can remain completely still while posing.

Our model, Savanna, held perfectly still for several seconds while her name was being written in light above her head.
Our model, Savanna, held perfectly still for several seconds while her name was being written in light above her head.

The concept: With your subject posing stock still against a dark backdrop, an assistant holding a small flashlight must write the subject's name in the air above her while you make a time exposure photograph of the scene.

Basic requirements:

  • A dark setting, which can be outdoors at night or indoors with the lights switched off;
  • A small flashlight;
  • A camera that is capable of time-exposure photography, mounted on a tripod to avoid blur;
  • A subject who can hold a pose without moving for several seconds;
  • A light source in front of the subject to illuminate her or him. (We used a standard table lamp in our example, which also shed some light onto the plants beside her);
  • And an assistant behind the subject, aiming a moving flashlight beam indirectly at the lens to write the subject's name in the air.

The technique requires an assistant to use a flashlight to write the subject's name above her head.
The technique requires an assistant to use a flashlight to write the subject's name above her head.

Key considerations:

Having your subject comfortably seated and relaxed can be a help in avoiding subject movement.

Writing speed - The subject's entire name must be completely written within the amount of time needed for correct exposure of the subject. This, of course, is while the shutter is open. Then, the flashlight must be immediately switched off to avoid unwanted extra light streaks.

To further complicate the task, the subject's name must be written backwards - that is, as if your assistant was writing it so it would appear correctly to him or her when reflected in a mirror. It's a bit tricky to do properly, but it can be done. A few minutes of practice in front of a mirror is very helpful.

Be prepared to make several attempts - viewing, assessing and correcting each one after it has been photographed - until one of the images is acceptable.

You can expect your asistant to make several attempts at correctly writing the model's name.
You can expect your asistant to make several attempts at correctly writing the model's name.

The subject's name in the picture above is almost legible, but the writing clearly needs some improvement so that its letters can be read.

Another problem shown in this picture is the amount of unwanted light falling on the assistant in the background. The assistant should not be visible in the photograph.

During each attempt, your assistant must be careful to:

  • Not point the flashlight directly at the lens. It must be aimed obliquely away from the camera to avoid creating "hot spots" in the image.
  • Avoid being illuminated himself by the light. This is accomplished by having the assistant stand further back and holding the flashlight with a straight arm, providing enough distance from the subject to prevent light spill onto him.
  • Aim the flashlight's beam slightly upwards to avoid light spill onto the subject and the assistant.

Our assistant did a great job of writing Emily's name in the picture below left, but unfortunately, the lower part of his body can be seen in the image, and there are some small distracting background lights.

When you have taken an almost-satisfactory photograph like this, you can use image-editing software, such as Adobe PhotoShop, to remove the assistant's body and other distractions for an effective final image. We did just that. The result can be seen in the picture below on the right.

The assistant's body as he or she moves across the scene in the left-hand image above, seen as a blur behind model Emily, was partially illuminated by light spill. Adobe PhotoShop's tools were used to remove the unwanted distraction.
The assistant's body as he or she moves across the scene in the left-hand image above, seen as a blur behind model Emily, was partially illuminated by light spill. Adobe PhotoShop's tools were used to remove the unwanted distraction.

ACHIEVING PROPER EXPOSURE

How much time should the shutter remain open for proper exposure?

Some camera's light meters will give you a fairly accurate reading of the amount of light falling on the subject (not the light from the flashlight used to write the letters). If your light meter won't provide a reliable time exposure reading, you can use a "trial-and-error" experimental method, adjusting your camera's settings to overcome exposure flaws.

You must be sure that the shutter will remain open long enough for the assistant to write the name in full.

Select a shutter speed/aperture combination that gives you, say, roughly five to ten seconds and doesn't over- or under-expose the subject. You may need to adjust your camera's ISO sensitivity setting to do this. We used an ISO setting of 100 for our attempts.

GIVE IT A TRY

This is a photo project that provides you and the other participants with a pleasing sense of accomplishment when it has been successfully carried out. The finished product will appeal to its viewers and have your friends asking "How did you do that?"

Now you know, and you can try it for yourself.

But you don't have to duplicate our set-up. Use your imagination to come up with other scenes suited to this photography trick. For example, photograph a sleeping baby with his or her name written in light within the frame. It will work just as well with a pet, providing the animal remains absolutely still, perhaps snoozing, throughout the exposure.

You can even place a colored gel in front of the flashlight's beam to produce lettering that is red, blue or another color.

SHOW US YOUR BEST EFFORT

If you produce a similar picture that you feel pleased with, send us a copy and we may share it with our viewers, giving you credit for the shot.

 
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Painting with light