“Coloured lights can hypnotize”

“Coloured lights can hypnotize.” “Sparkle someone else’s eyes.” Two lines from “American Woman” by the Guess Who—inspiration to create different backgrounds to otherwise ordinary photos.

The photo that illustrates this article was captured around 1985 to illustrate a newspaper article about the musical group, The Spoons. They had just released their hot single and the hometown paper I worked for ran a front page story about them. The weather was iffy and the paper’s studio space was not much bigger than a broom closet. I had the choice of three different plain paper backgrounds; I opted for “none of the above” and pulled down a black backdrop on which I could create my own background.

I used two flashes with umbrellas umbrellas to light the front of the scene— newspaper reproduction requires fully lit photos with detailed shadows and limited highlights. The background was lit with a string Christmas tree lights. I wrapped the string of lights around a stick about 50 cm long and plugged them in. I metered off the Christmas tree lights, determined my exposure, and set the flash to the same f-stop.

I posed The Spoons, told them what I was doing, and turned out the lights. George, one of the other photographers at the paper, was sceptical but went along. He clicked the shutter, set on B and held the shutter open while the flash went off. I then stepped into the background and moved the lights about. 

A dozen shots later I changed film and asked The Spoons to move around a bit during exposure. This put some light streaks through them. I also took a couple of straight ‘insurance’ shots in case the editor didn’t like my more creative photos. (Always make sure that you have a ‘good enough’ shot in case your more imaginative ideas don’t work.) All this was done using transparency film—long before digital photography became available to most people.

Today, I would do things much as I did in 1985 but I would do an exposure check several times during the session to make sure the exposure was right. I would use a string of LED lights or a light wand much like Eric Pare uses in his light painting photographs, and I would take a good look at his YouTube videos. 

Light painting is much more than just creating streaks of light; it is about adding light or colour to a photograph that is otherwise devoid of interest. Light painting can be as simple as directing a light upon the background or as elaborate as creating fanciful light designs.

Variations I might have used for the 1985 photo include moving the lights further away from the subjects to create a more blurred colour effect (I lacked space to try that) or passing the light in front of the subject, encouraging deliberate subject movement, or using the light stick alone to illuminate the photograph. These variations would have produced some strange colours, perhaps more than the editor would have liked. As well, in today’s digital world, parts of an image can easily be added or subtracted using layers. 

Total shooting time was about 15 minutes, all the time I had time for.

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