How to Create Light Tunnels
Updated: Mar 10
A genre of light painting photography that I like to try out when wet weather prevents outdoor light painting, is Light Tunnels. These photos look like you are looking down a tunnel, heading off into the distance. I’ve taken inspiration from “futuristic tunnel” graphic art found on internet searches, 1990s video game Wipeout, and of course Mario Kart. Whilst Light Tunnels are not a new concept in light painting, and I don't know who invented the technique, my photos certainly re-popularised this technique in the late 2010s. Usually, Light Tunnels are created in a studio setting with a black backdrop, but can be also be created outdoors. This tutorial takes a look at how to create a Light Tunnel using plexiglass light blades and torches/flashlights.
Light Blades and Flashlights
Firstly, you need a light blade, a flashlight/torch, and connector (depending on the light painting system used). Other light emitting devices such as an LED ring can be used instead. I usually use circular, elliptical, or diamond shaped light blades. I've had most success with plexiglass light blades from Light Painting Brushes (LPB) and Ants On A Melon (AOAM). The light blade needs to have enough surface area to cover the camera lens.
To avoid strange artifacts, a blade with minimal scratches on the surface is preferred. Stacked blades, either using the same light source (such as using the Liteblades KYO system) or two light source/blades (held parallel to each) other can create interesting effects.
The edge of the light blade can either be left clean, or modded to create the desired tunnel effect. This can include coloured cellophane or gels, or using ink on the edges. Sharpies are a popular choice for ink, which can easily be removed with magic eraser, though sometimes some sanding may be required for stubborn stains. Using ink will allow for more intricate patterns, and is also faster to apply than cutting out and sticking down cellophane and gels. The amount of sanding of the blade edges will create a brighter and more solid effect if a course sandpaper is used (e.g. 60 grit), and a less bright but more glassy effect if smoother sandpaper (e.g. 1200 grit) is used.
The flashlight/torch choice and setting is also critical in creating an artistic image. A continuous light mode will create smooth light trails. Strobe modes will result in rings. Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) will result in very fast strobing effects. The most recommended lights for Light Tunnels include:
AOAM RGB Critter - amazing range of RGB effects, with adjustable effect speed, adjustable strobe frequency, analogue or PWM output. Product Link. 5% off with code: KNIGHT.
Tail switch Anduril lights (e.g. Noctigon KR1 and KR4, Lumintop FW1A and FW3A) - adjustable strobe frequency at fixed brightness. Tactical strobe (33% on time), party strobe (1.3ms on time), and bike flash modes.
Threeworlds Concentrate C5 - an tiny RGB light that isn't particularly bright, but has programmable strobe patterns.
Ledlenser P7QC - an RGBW light that after a few minutes on high mode, or at any time on low mode uses PWM (so bad, it's good!)
When setting up, you need to:
A black drape (or anything else non-reflective) as a backdrop.
Camera placed on a tripod.
Enough space to swing the light blade in an arc away from the lens.
A range of lens focal lengths can be used, and this may depend on your available space, and the size of the black drape in the background. I typically use between 26-50mm focal length (35mm equivalent). The focus point is a bit trial and error, and usually between 25 to 40cm from the lens. I prefer to manually focus. To add a sense of depth in the photo (e.g. out of focus foreground and background) I would advise using a fairly wide aperture. I most commonly use around f/5.6 on an APS-C camera. Exposure time will vary on your desired outcome, but most of my Blade Tunnels use 1.3 to 1.6secs. ISO will need to be adjusted to get an optimal exposure.
Now it’s time to take a photo, and move that light blade. I use a remote shutter on a 2 second timer. The blade is held (usually by an outstretched hand) with the flat side (not the edge) of the blade against the lens. The edges of the blade(s) should be outside of the lens field of view. As soon as I hear the shutter mechanism open, I move the light blade away from the lens. Most of my movements are in an arc. If you want a smooth (non-shaky) movement, you need to move your arm fairly quickly, or at least concentrate on your arm movements through the air. It is normal to take many attempts until you are happy with the exposure, focus, and movement.
Blade Tunnels do often lend themselves to some global, and occasionally local level adjustments in post-processing. If there are scratches on the blade, an increase in contrast or use of de-haze can reduce the artifact.
Here is a video a created a few years ago, demonstrating how to create a Light Tunnel, and a few other similar techniques.
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