Lighting up Megatron: A Short Guide to Light Painting

One of the most difficult challenges you have to overcome when exploring abandoned buildings, large vehicles (a vessel for instance), tunnels or mines, especially at night, is darkness. As anyone who has taken a photograph with a DSLR will know, it’s incredibly difficult to get a clear and detailed image when there is limited light available. What this means is that we have to adapt our photograph-taking skills to suit a variety of different environments. Aiming to provide a short and concise guide, this article will focus specifically on light painting inside contained spaces. By this we mean spaces that receive little or no natural light. This article does not touch upon light painting using tools such as steel wool and small LEDs; we will perhaps save all that stuff for a future post.

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(The result, after light painting inside a storm drain)

In brief, light painting is a technique used by artists and photographers that involves waving a torch, or some other light source, around in a poorly illuminated space while taking a long exposure photograph. That sounds simple enough. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy though, and there are a few other tips you need to know which will make the whole endeavour all the more rewarding. At the outset, it’s easy to fall victim to over complicated ‘rules of method’ created by big bearded photography wizards, so we’re going to keep things very simple. First of all, you need to be prepared that you’ll need to have a certain level of patience. But, this is no more than you need when waiting in a queue at a brothel or a supermarket for instance. If you can’t manage that, it’s likely you won’t even make it to the end of this article. Second, you need to grab some equipment. Your personal light painting kit should include the following items:

1. A camera (preferably a DSLR with manual settings and bulb mode). If you don’t have this essential item, stop right here and get yourself onto Ebay. You will find light painting much less rewarding without a camera;

2. A sturdy tripod. Ideally you want one with three legs. Three legs are the optimum number of legs; you never hear a three-legged man complain;

3. A camera switch. This device can be either a cable release (if you’re poor, like us), or a remote shutter release (if you have a few more pennies lying around in the coffers);

4. A torch, or some other light emitting device. For an easy and more comfortable experience, we recommend a proper torch that has changeable settings, as opposed to things like mobile phones, wax candles or sticks with combustible material attached to the end etc. You also need to choose a torch that doesn’t have a ‘hot spot’; you can paint with a torch that has one, but you’ll struggle to get more intricate details when painting more slowly;

5. A stopwatch. Conveniently, most mobile phones come with one of these, so you don’t have to go out and buy one immediately. Just remember, though, the light from your mobile phone screen can affect your long exposure photograph slightly. With that in mind, a small handheld stopwatch might also be useful.

It’s likely all of the above-mentioned gear will come in handy at some point while exploring, so it’s good to carry it all with you whenever you explore. Next then, with all your gear packed and ready to go, it’s time to get down and dirty. To keep the article interesting, we’ve decided to incorporate a real-life exploring example, to aid clarity and give you something to relate to as you read. The example is taken from a specific explore where we showed another ‘urban explorer’, ACID-REFLUX, where the entrance to a popular drain in Sheffield is located. It was from this little excursion that we would emerge with a wealth of knowledge about light painting.

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(Walking down the river towards the entrance of Megatron)

One by one Ford Mayhem, ACID-REFLUX and myself stepped over a large branch that had washed up in front of ‘Megatron’ – the large Victorian storm drain we were attempting to enter. The last thing any of us wanted to do was pierce our waders; especially since the water can be waist deep in the second section of this drain. Past the dead branches, we walked swiftly towards the entrance, to avoid being seen by someone on the street above. After all, it only takes one socks and sandals wearing beige twat to ruin a perfectly planned endeavour. The water was only an inch deep here though, so walking quickly wasn’t too much of a problem. A waft of stale, damp air smacked our nostrils as we walked across the smooth concrete floor of the mouth of the drain. Like Marmite, it was strangely satisfying.

Not wanting to waste too much time taking photos of the concrete-coated entrance tunnel, we quickly took a few snaps and moved on towards a larger chamber section. Although we didn’t spend long in this first part of the explore, ACID clearly took note of the interest we were taking in him as he waved his torch around wildly, lighting up all the intricate details of the tunnel. Needless to say, his photograph was the absolute business (very good). He went on to explain that you need to provide additional light when taking photos in dark places, because cameras need light to produce images. Who would have thought… Attempting to steal ACID’s light, as he waved his torch around like a madman, we tried to mimic the photographs he was taking. Unfortunately, we failed miserably; our shots kept coming out extremely white, or as real photographers would refer to it, over-exposed. As it turned out, what was wrong was that we were clueless about using the settings on our cameras properly. A short lecture ensued and ACID pointed out what all the buttons and features on the camera do:

1. Mode (a little dial on my camera). You need to twist it to set the camera onto manual;

2. Auto white balance. Turn it off, if you plan to edit your photograph later on;

3. Image quality. Ideally this should be set to RAW. It’s easier to edit a photograph that was shot in RAW, but this is only a suggestion, you can stick to JPEG if you don’t feel confident;

4. ISO. Contrary to popular belief among amateur photographers, this should be set fairly low (100-400) works well enough. A good tip is to remember that higher ISO often produces ‘noisier’ images;

5. Shutter speed. This should be set to bulb mode. You will have control of when your shutter opens and closes using a switch. The length of time you leave your camera to take the photograph varies from place to place. Sometimes 5 seconds is sufficient, in others 20-30 seconds is necessary. This part involves a little bit of trial and error. The greater the area you are trying to capture, the longer you will need to paint it;

6. Aperture. This setting controls how much light your camera lets in. Once again, you have to play around with the settings on this feature, to find the one that’s just right. I tend to start with F/8 and a timer of 10-15 seconds;

7. Mayhem’s Tap Theory. A good way to remember the difference between the shutter speed and aperture is to think of a water tap. The aperture of the lens is how wide the tap is. The shutter speed is how long the tap is open for.

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(Looking down the spray-concrete tunnel towards the large chamber)

Having noisily splashed our way into the larger chamber, where the water was slightly deeper, we set up our tripods once again. As I was setting up I noticed a couple of Tesco carriers bags float past. Then a small pink condom, and after that a 1980s porn DVD; X-rated type of stuff by the look of the front cover – frizzy hair, tight leotards, that sort of thing. You certainly find some very strange things inside drains. With all of our torches turned on at this point, I could see every detail of two large pillars in the centre of the chamber. One was constructed out of a dark brick, while the other was made from a much lighter sand coloured stone. Moisture clung to the supports, surrounding walls and ceiling, and it glistened brightly when torch light elegantly glided over it. But, how the fuck were we going to capture it all? That was the major question floating around mine and Mayhem’s minds.

The answer, according to ACID, who was frantically trying to dry off a spare camera battery he’d just dropped into the water, was to adjust the settings of our cameras, as he’d explained several minutes earlier, and have a go at gently painting the darker areas in our shot. It was crucial, he said, to shine the torch light evenly across the dark areas. Leaving the light focused on one spot for too long would create a ‘light spot’; therefore, using small up and down, or circular, wrist motions helps to prevent this.

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(Standing inside the large chamber)

Staring ahead, down one of the main passageways that’s constructed entirely out of stone bricks and slabs, I concentrated on where the darker spots were. As the stone bricks making up the walls and ceiling were much darker than the floor, I guessed I should probably shine the light at those rather than the water. Sure enough, after a bit of trial and error I discovered that the thin layer of water covering lighter coloured stone didn’t require any light at all. Shining the torch light directly at the wall and ceiling cast enough light alone to illuminate the floor.

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(Looking down the original Victorian storm drain)

To sum up how I captured the photograph above, then, I made sure to:

1. Focus the torch light on darker areas (i.e. the walls and ceiling, where the stone was naturally darker than that on the floor), using an up and down wrist motion (as though you are pretending to paint a garden fence) or small circles (making sure, in both techniques, to constantly moved the beam of light, never leaving it in one spot for too long);

2. Direct the torch light straight down the tunnel ahead for a longer period of time, using small circular wrist motions to stop a light spot appearing in my photograph, because that was the darkest area;

3. Have the remote for the switch in hand at all times, so the shutter can be closed exactly when I want to close it;

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(A little further into Megatron)

After taking nearly fifty shots of the same chamber and surrounding tunnels, our journey into the abyss continued. A small slippery stone ramp led down into the original Victorian tunnels which were built in the mid-1800s to tackle regular flooding in the area. The first section was easy going and the water was still only an inch deep. Further on, however, the water gradually grew deeper, and more rubble and debris had accumulated, which slowed our progress to a snail’s pace. Nonetheless, we persevered and eventually reached a large brick section. Although the water became much shallower here, it was incredibly slippery underfoot, so we decided to keep up the snail pace. The last thing we wanted to do was drop a camera, or another battery.

Together as a group we stopped inside the large brick arch for a moment to take a couple of shots, and it was here Mayhem discovered a new problem: focusing. He was struggling to focus the camera, and because it couldn’t focus properly it refused to take the shot he wanted. It doesn’t matter where you are, focusing your camera is a vital step when taking photographs, if you fuck this up you will end up with a blurry unfocused image. Turning to ACID for advice, he suggested that the simplest way to sort out the focus problem is to shine a light towards the central point in your image. Autofocus can be used to position the focus on the light spot. Once this task is completed, the camera’s setting can be changed from autofocus to manual. Following these general guidelines, Mayhem quickly discovered he was able to capture the photograph he was after. Of course, it is important to remember that if you move the camera, autofocus should be turned back on to refocus the lens. Following ACID’s advice, we were able to take a half-decent shot:

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(Above: Left side of Megatron – looking back)
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(Above: Right side of Megatron – looking back)

Now, feeling like absolute masters of the art of photography and legends in the making, we continued on across an open-air section into a very dirty stretch of tunnel. As we stumbled on loose rocks, crisp packets and branches, we noticed several small stagnant pools of water which had an orangey sort of algae growing inside them. Determined not to fall into it, we whacked out (performed) some incredible gymnastics skills, in waders, and somehow managed to avoid them all. At this point all we had left was a short trek down one last stone passage to reach the last section of the drain; a large arched structure that is commonly referred to as ‘the Cathedral’. Very creative, I know.

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(The stagnant orange pools of water)

Bats flew overhead as the three of us entered the large intimidating structure, chasing the flies and other flying drain insects that were within the vicinity. In the deep water ahead the reflection of the ceiling shone clearly, so flawless it seemed almost real; it was a veritable antithesis. Following ACID’s lead, we reassembled our gear and set about focusing our cameras. Hoping to catch a bat flying past, we started snapping. Utilising our newfound skills, we were happy snappers. Up until ACID gave us a few last pointers:

1. You can paint from different angles. In other words, you don’t need to stay glued to the spot behind your camera. As we quickly discovered, painting different surfaces from the sides, for instance, or from a different position, brought out the textures in the stone in different ways. Take a quick look at the first photograph in this article, it’s quite a good example;

2. Clothing. If you plan to use steel wool or a small LED (to paint your name for example), it’s best to wear dark clothes so that you don’t appear as a ghost in your shot;

3. Try not to stand between the camera and your source of light. If you do this, chances are your silhouette will appear in your photograph;

4. Use a torch that has different brightness settings. You can produce a really good image by simply being able to adjust the amount of light your torch sends out. Alternatively, you can carry a few different torches which each cast different degrees of light;

5. Keep your light moving. As noted previously, don’t leave your torch beam in one spot for too long; it will produce a light spot;

6. Remember that different materials absorb light differently. To reiterate, darker and rougher materials require more light to capture any detail. Smoother and lighter coloured surfaces will reflect light much easier;

7. The first shot is almost always a fail. Be prepared to go through an initial period of trial and error. It’s important to remember what settings you have tried when trying to take a particular shot. Gradually you will find the settings that suit your location and surroundings;

8. Take your time. Light painting takes patience and can be quite time consuming. Treat your desired image like a canvas. If you paint too quickly and rush the job, to put it bluntly, your picture will look shit.

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(Standing just before the ‘Cathedral’ section of Megatron)

And there you have it, a quick guide to light painting.

Following our crash course, as it were, we decided to turn back and head for the exit. You can’t really exit via the ‘cathedral’ side, unless you fancy a swim, and going swimming in waders isn’t something we’d recommend either. As always, it took half the time to get back out again.

Explored with Ford Mayhem and ACID-REFLUX.

*Special thanks to ACID-REFLUX who kindly shared his light painting tips with us.