I’ve always really enjoyed the aesthetic of out of focus lights in photography, in particular the hyperspecific subgenre of shot whereby someone inside a rain-slicked car at night takes a photo looking out the car, focused on the water droplets with the lights of other cars and the city blurry in the background. I’ve got a long-term goal to try and recreate that very particular sort of image in a studio setting but in the meantime I thought I’d play around with some Christmas lights to see what I could do with the bits and bobs I had laying around my apartment.
For all these setups I was using my Nikon D3300 with a Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm lens that had that widest aperture available off any lens in my kit at f/1.8, along with a Nikon MC-DC2 wired remote, and all of this mounted on a Dolica Proline tripod.
Trial 1: The hallway
My first crack at this was to run a bit of rope between a couple of command hooks in my hallway and drape the lights over the rope loosely. The camera got set up at the other side of the hallway and I took a few shots with varying densities of lights (1 string, 2 strings, etc.) and different focus points to get smaller or larger circles of light.
This turned up some pretty decent first attempt shots. The gallery below includes the raw images, devoid of any editing.
Trial 2: The Hallway
I enjoyed the randomness of the just sort of tossing some lights up and seeing what came up out of them but wanted to see what I could do about trying to exert more control over the lights, perhaps try and play with patterns and add a bit of precision. So to that end I came up with a plan to take a bit of cardboard and use an awl and T-square to create a fairly precise 10×10 grid of points 2 inches apartment. I was thinking I could “sketch” out designs using a spreadsheet which seemed like an easy way to create and record designs.
This more or less worked, with some major caveats. The advantage to this set up is being able to customize the strings of lights with specific patterns of colors, and this is where the seams start to show in the plan because Christmas lights are fiddly little bastards. My first crack at this ended with me getting my pattern all set up and then plugging it in only to find the stretch of the string that I had just meticulously planned out stubbornly refused to light. The lights also have a tendency to seat at different angles due to the tension from the wire on them so they don’t uniformly point forwards. This worked, but seemed like more of a pain than it might be worth, but resulted in some decent shots (again all unedited):
The real kicker though was when I first set this up; I get all the lights in place, I plug them in, they finally light up correctly, and then I come around to see how they look and it hits me like a thunderbolt: I’ve recreated a very low-rent version of a 50-some odd year old toy.
Trial 3: The Toy
Why go to all the effort of recreating this effect if there is already something out there that will make the process much easier, not to mention it’s only fifteen bucks at Target. Thus:
I’m going to do more testing with this tonight when it gets dark, but I dragged my new children’s toy and camera into the bathroom just to see how it would perform and the results were definitely mixed.
I’m wondering if the Lite-Brite I got was defective or if you really just can’t expect much out of a toy, but the lighting was really uneven. Some areas were quite bright, while others barely lit up at all. Luckily the most important part of this set up isn’t really the lighting, it’s the purpose built plastic peg and board setup. I’m fairly confident I can just crack this thing open and maybe even rip out the lighting and just absolutely fill the interior with LED strip lights for more powerful and consistent light.
In the meantime if curious, the edited and finished images can be found at the following Google Photo albums.