“Funlight”: Experiments in Photographing Lights

Photo of Christmas lights made while zooming the camera lens by Noella Ballenger.

Let the lights shine and let the fun begin.

As the Christmas season approaches with all its decorative lights, here’s a a fun and imaginative way to photograph all those colorful rays. It’s also a great way to loosen up and unleash your creative powers. “Funlight” is any light that is used as you’d use a paintbrush on a canvas. It is a means of breaking all the photographic rules and opening the doors to creative exploration during the holidays and all through the year.

Photo of Christmas lights made while zooming the camera lens like a trombone by Noella Ballenger.

Play with the zoom lens like a trombone.

A photography friend and I frequently drive into the night to reach our photographic destinations. Night driving can be long and tedious. To break the monotony, we turn to our cameras and experiment with color and light. Our subjects include not only Christmas decorations, but lighted signs, headlights, taillights, and any other lights we pass. By turning sound photographic rules upside down and inside out, we open up new channels of creativity. The results of our early experiments were delightful, but more importantly, the process itself refreshed us and gave us a ready-to-go attitude for the next day’s assignment.

Important note: one rule we never broke was that the driver couldn’t drive and photograph at the same time.

Photo of colorful lights made while swinging the camera in an arc by Noella Ballenger.

 Swing that camera in an arc.

Where to Start

Start wherever you find lights–neighborhoods decorated for the season, along downtown city streets, on the freeways, or along old country roads. We prefer places that have lots of fast food establishments or gas stations. The neon signs are bright, colorful, and offer a variety of shapes and designs. When you can get out of the city, there will be no intrusive city lights and/or tall buildings, so the background canvas will be as large as the night sky.

It’s best to wait for the sky to grow dark rather than to start at twilight. With a rich, black background, the color and intensity of the lights will be more vivid. Any camera with a variable shutter-speed control can be used. It’s important that your camera has long exposure capabilities (eight seconds or more) or has a Bulb (B) or Time (T) setting. Automatic cameras need to be used at their long auto exposure settings (if they are long enough) or switched to manual mode.

Photo of Santa and reindeer Christmas lights made while wiggling the camera by Noella Ballenger.

Wiggle more – bounce more!

Photo of Christmas lights made while swinging and looping the camera by Noella Ballenger.

Have some crazy fun – swing it and loop it.

Our lens preference is a 70-200mm zoom lens. If you’re using fixed focal length lenses, stay with the medium-to-long telephotos, as they help to condense distant lights into a more concentrated array. Use the lowest ISO possible – 50 to 100, because you’ll want the longest exposure times. You can even play with the various white balance settings on your camera, such as tungsten, for a variety of effects. Remember, abstract design and visual exploration–not reality–are the objectives.

The key to painting with light is to keep the shutter open long enough to record the streaks of light. The exposure time can be from 1/30 to several seconds (or even minutes) or more. There are no hard and fast rules in determining correct exposure with this type of photography. The variables include the amount of bright light available, the cumulative length of time the shutter is open, and an even balance between the light and dark tones in the image area.

If you’re trying to meter the scene, keep in mind that a camera meter can easily be misled. The camera’s meter will give the wrong exposure unless there is a balance between the amount of light and dark tones. If they’re balanced, its meter will be accurate. Compare the amount of dark, black tones against the brightness of the lights. If the scene has more black tones, the meter will call for long exposures and not take into account the intensity of the lights in the scene. In this instance, you’ll have to compensate accordingly.

Photo of Christmas lights made while zooming the camera lens on a star by Noella Ballenger.

 Zoom, zoom, and more zoom!

Look at the amount of light you’re going to include in the image area. If you like dainty, small streaks of light, use a wide-open aperture setting and a faster exposure time. On the other hand, if you prefer an overall multi-patterned abstract, try a long exposure time and a smaller aperture setting. Experiment with both the aperture and shutter speed settings to determine the results you prefer.

Get Ready

To get your creative juices flowing, open the channels in your mind. Permit yourself to be receptive to new ideas and new concepts. When we learn photography, most of us begin by memorizing some very rigid rules. These are good for beginners, but tend to stifle the spirit of exploration and discovery that are the building blocks of creative advancement.


1. When handholding your camera, let it shake. Help this along by slowing your shutter speed to no faster than 1/30. You camera isn’t a camera any longer; it’s now a paintbrush. Hold it like a paintbrush and use it like one.

2. Ignore the edges of your viewfinder.  In fact, don’t even look through the viewfinder. Try to do a true “point and shoot.”

Abstract photo of lights made while moving the camera by Noella Ballenger.

Let your abstract mind play with the lights.

3. Forget about keeping the filter over your lens free of dust and fingerprints. Your “filter” is now the dirty car windshield. Dust and fingerprints don’t matter in Funlight, and photographing through the windshield beats hanging out the window.

4. Forget the super-sharp, well-focused image for a little while. Experiment by not focusing your lens or by turning the focus ring while you’re making the image. See if you can make your image work with little or nothing in focus. Think in the abstract. Then, think more abstractly; think super abstractly!

5. Fly by the seat of your pants; leave exposure considerations to chance. Ignore your meter. Set the camera manually for a slow shutter speed or set on bulb (B) or time (T) and push the button. When your finger becomes tired of holding the shutter open, let the button go. Remember, no cheating by counting out the seconds!

Photo of Christmas lights made while bobble and weaving the camera on a santa display by Noella Ballenger.

Give that camera a little bobble and weave.

Photo of Christmas lights made while dancing with the camera by Noella Ballenger.

Go wild! Dance to the music with a small aperture and ‘sort of’ long exposure.

By Noella Ballenger
© 2014 Noella Ballenger. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.