By MARTIN COLES THIS WEEK'S picture, with its cheery "Hi", demonstrates an unusual photographic technique - writing with light. This photo was not created in the dark- room - the woman in the picture actually wrote the letters in mid-air while I was taking the shot. She did the "writing" in a darkened room using a small, battery-powered lamp as her pen. I locked open my camera shutter so the moving light forming the word would be recorded on film. The writer herself was illuminated with electronic flash, which I triggered just as she finished her message.
You have to get everything right to make this shot effective. I needed a room that was totally dark because the shutter would be open for several seconds. I used a light-tight photographic studio but if you want to try a shot like this at home, wait until after sundown, and even then cover the windows with heavy, dark curtains or black garbage bags.
To have the white writing stand out as clearly as possible, I made the background with a wide roll of seamless black, photo background paper.
As for the light with which to write, I didn't think a pocket flashlight would be suitable because it would give results of irregular brightness, depending on whether or not it happened to be aimed directly at the lens. So I fashioned an ideal light from a tiny reading lamp - the sort that can be clipped to a book - by removing its reflector to leave a bare bulb at the end of a black plastic stalk.
Working out exactly how my model was going to write her message was a challenge. If she wrote the letters in the normal way, from left to right, the word would come out back-to-front in the photo, since the camera would see the writing from behind. Furthermore, the letters would be directly in front of her body when she completed the word, and thus would block her from view. To get around these problems, I asked my model to pen the letters in mirror fashion, starting from her right and going to the left. She also had to remember to switch off the lamp after completing each writing stroke, then click it on again at the start of the next. And she had to turn her body toward the camera just before dotting the "i".
Getting the correct exposure for the shot was complicated as well, so I decided to take the easy way out and shoot with a medium-format camera loaded with Polaroid Type 665 posi- tive/negative film, which is rated at ISO 75. This instant-picture film, which, unfortunately cannot be used in a 35 mm camera, is ideal for a trick shot like this, since it gives both a positive and a negative. The positive is an instant black-and-white print which shows whether the shot has come out to your liking; the negative can be saved and, if it is good, used later to make a top-quality print.
A couple of test shots told me the image would look best if my model moved the light rather slowly, while the camera was set at an aperture of f/8.
So I finally switched off all the room lights, locked open the shutter and told my model to start writing the word "Hi" in the pre-determined mirror fashion. When she completed the letters, before dotting the "i", she paused briefly to turn her body towards the camera. As soon as I saw the dot of light come on, I manually fired the flash.
Then I closed the shutter, switched the room lights back on and processed my instant picture. The first three attempts weren't quite as I wanted, but the fourth was a real success, as you can see.
"CAMERA ANGLE The camera sees the light.(Features Column)." Globe & Mail [Toronto, Canada] 6 July 1985: E12(ILLUS). Popular Magazines. Web. 5 Dec. 2009.
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