The Fire Effect: Long Exposure Light Painting Photography

learn the basics of long exposure light painting using electroluminescent wire and glow sticks

I’m amazed by the number of people impressed by my ‘Jeep in Fire” photograph that I posted on social media a few days ago. This “Fire Effect” through some long exposure light painting photography was pretty much a first attempt at this process. It’s also simple and cheap to re-create (and experiment with).

A lot of you also believe this is a Photoshop effect – in reality, I think it would take a considerable amount of time to do something like that in Photoshop. But what you see in my photo, is in a fact, a single photograph using long exposure techniques and a couple of extra low-cost tools.

What you’ll need:
1) a DSLR camera capable of “manual mode”
2) a remote shutter release for the camera (optional, but quite handy)
3) a sturdy tripod
4) a glow stick – I get low-cost battery-powered glow sticks from Amazon here http://amzn.to/1SN8lmF
5) electroluminescent wire – Amazon again. Fast shipping lots of selection. http://amzn.to/1Pq2yOD
6) a small flashlight
7) your imagination

nikon camera showing bulb shutter timing and manual exposure mode

Start by ensuring you are familiar with your camera and it’s controls. You’ll be adjusting things in the dark (or using your small flashlight to see), so it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of what you’re doing before hand. You should also know your camera lens – where are the ‘sweet spots’ for focus and aperture settings. Again, you’re dealing with all this in the dark, so it is helpful to already know a bit about your equipment.

some different colors of el-wire - or electroluminescent wire

Figure out what kind of shot you want to create using your electroluminescent wire (commonly referred to as just “el-wire”), and then set your scene up. There are a lot of things you can create with this stuff, and it’s just up to your imagination to dream it up, and then use your camera to capture it!

For my Jeep in Fire photo, I just parked my Jeep in an area where there was an open work space around it. I wanted a location up beside some forested area, but the area I first choose just wasn’t working for me. I moved to an open area to more or less just experiment this time around.

Setup your camera on the tripod and frame your photo. Take a few test shots as necessary to ensure your focus is crisp (be sure to set to manual focus). Once you’ve done that, put your camera into manual mode (or Shutter Priority if you’re just learning). You’ll want “bulb” or “time” mode on your shutter speed – we might work with a 15 second exposure, or it could be a much longer exposure. Set your aperture as required, or desired. For the “starburst” effect from the headlights and my side light, I use a narrow aperture which is a larger “f-number”. It lets in less light, so your shutter can remain open longer too.

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To create my fire-effect, I used a red glow stick and just set it on the center console of the Jeep – that’ll fill the Jeep with ‘red’ light. Grab your el-wire and turn it on. I set it to fast strobe and then doubled it up so it wasn’t all one big long piece.

Get yourself into position and activate the camera shutter with your remote. If you don’t have a remote, set the ‘self-timer’ on your camera and click the shutter. It’ll count down from ten then open the shutter.

At this point, you’ve now started creating your photograph. Wave the el-wire around in random motions, sweeping along the ground and lifting it up at different heights to create ‘flames’. When done, turn off your el-wire and click your camera remote or shutter again to stop ‘recording’ your still photo.

a first attempt at the fire effect with electroluminescent wire and the jeep wrangler

Preview your image on the camera and repeat the process until you’re happy with your photo. My above photo wasn’t good enough. I didn’t like the angle of the photo, the way the Jeep was parked, and certainly I didn’t have much of a fire effect going on here. This would have been my first photo using EL-wire outdoors in a ‘large’ light painting.

In my photo below, I choose a new shooting location, dialed down my aperture and spent more time creating the “fire effect” – to end up with a result I was quite happy to have captured.
my final jeep in fire attempt with el wire and long exposure light painting techniques

It took me a 60 second exposure to ‘paint’ the ground in flames including behind the Jeep with flames shooting up high. A similar exposure time might be perfect for you and your conditions, or you might need less time or more depending on what you’re looking to achieve.

Experiment with the process – it’s a creative thing so there are no right or wrong exposure times!

I’ve picked up a few other colors of EL wire and will be experimenting with those too as I get opportunity.
Here are a couple of test shots.

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The thing I love about night photography and light painting is that it’s limited by your imagination and artistic skills. Below, I’ve used a red glow stick and created a bit of a “pacman ghost”. The other elements of the photograph ‘failed’ in many ways, but it’s a first attempt and just playing around.

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Here’s what I call “Back From the Future” with some flames from the Jeep tire tracks.

back from the future - a tire fire effect from the movie back to the future and the delorean

It’s all about your creative mind at this point. So experiment and have fun with the process!

Have you any experience with light painting or using EL wire? Perhaps you’ve taken some creative shots and you want to share with the readers here, or have links to some of your photos using el-wire or other light painting creations you’ve done – let us know in the comments!

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