Home Photography Ideas: Dancing Painting, Using Flash Magic


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In photography, sometimes the joy comes from creating a beautiful image. At other times, the end result is more of an added bonus, and it’s rather the process behind the image that is the happy part.

This project is definitely part of this last camp. Sure, it can make for some vibrant photos, but the technique is just as compelling. It’s because here we make painting dance! To do this, place drops of paint on a speaker, then play a song at a high volume.

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When the speaker expels air, the paint jumps to the beat. There is something extremely appealing about capturing music in this visual way. Of course, the speaker is just a way to create vibrations, the music is a bit secondary.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

However, you will get variations between different songs depending on the beat. Thus, the choice of music gives character to the shot, and you will get different patterns and movements of the sound of Beethoven, or James Brown, or Daft Punk. In a way, it’s music in the form of a painting.

It also happens incredibly quickly, so we have to prepare to capture the high speed action. It involves speed of light and an understanding of flash duration. Simply put, the flash duration is the time that the flash burst takes from start to finish.

Turning in a dark room, we use the incredibly fast duration of the speed of light to freeze the movement of the painting. In this way, the duration of the flash effectively becomes the shutter speed. Here’s how this exciting technique is performed …

How to make painting dance

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

01 Speaker
We need a loud enough speaker with lots of bass to blow our paint up into the air. We used the subwoofer of a TV sound bar, placed on the side and connected to our phone via bluetooth. We place our camera on a tripod in front of the speaker.

02 Stretch film and paint
The paint drops are carefully placed on a taut piece of cling film that has been stretched over the speaker. After a few seconds of frantic hopping, the different colors will blend into a muddy green, so we need to refresh the paint and the cling film after a few strokes.

03 black background
The black side of a reflector acts as a dark backdrop for our scene. It is placed far enough away that the flash does not spill over it. Paint can cause a lot of damage, so it’s a good idea to protect floors and surfaces by covering them. Also consider wearing old clothes.

04 Close-up lens
We used a macro lens for this, but you don’t necessarily need it. Our paintings here covered an area of ​​about 15 cm in diameter, which is not necessarily macro territory. Any long lens that lets you shoot close-up will do. A low camera angle will emphasize the height of the jump painting.

05 Darkroom
We need to keep ambient light to a minimum – the brighter the room, the greater the risk of motion blur. By canceling out ambient light to near darkness, we can ensure that it plays a minimal role in our exposure, allowing us to use very fast flash durations to freeze the action.

06 Lighting
Our single speed light is placed on a stand to the left of the paintings, with a silver reflector held in front to reflect some of the light back into the shadows. Our flash is set to manual, for better control, and with a power of 1/32. It is pulled wirelessly with a trigger and a receiver.

Lightning dance

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

01 Manual shooting

Our camera is in manual using the following settings: 1/200 sec, f / 32, ISO1000. The narrow aperture means we get a wider focus plane, with a greater depth of field, which is especially useful here as we can’t know exactly where the paint will bounce.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

02 Pre-focus on a spot

Accurate focus is essential in close-up photography, but it’s impossible to focus when the painting is in motion, so we have to pre-focus on the most likely spot beforehand. Set the lens to manual focus and use Live View to focus on the center of the still painting. We use a macro lens for best results, but long lenses can do the trick.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

03 Use low flash power

A lower flash output setting will give us a shorter flash. At full power our Yongnuo YN-560 IV has a flash duration of around 1/300 s, but at 1/32 power this changes to a much more efficient 1/7000 s (approx.). For faster flash times, reduce the power of the Speedlite.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

04 Mix the paints

We used a combination of water based paints. This is important – if the paint is too viscous it won’t bounce back, but if it’s too thin it might spill all over the place. Experiment by mixing the paint with water until you reach the correct thickness.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

05 Turn up the bass

Part of the fun here is discovering how different music affects the movement of the painting. A tune with a fast pace can work well. Whichever genre you choose, crank your speaker bass setting to the max – it makes a huge difference in how powerful the rhythm is.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

06 Shot timing

The time you use while shooting is crucial. It can be difficult to predict the best time to press the shutter button, so after turning on the music, trigger a series of images as quickly as your flash allows. After a while the paints will mix, so refresh them to try again.

Control colors in Photoshop

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

01 Store the backdrop

First, enhance the colors and add oomph by increasing the saturation and contrast. If there are unwanted reflections on the cling film, grab the brush tool and paint with black on it. You can use the Burn tool set to Range: Shadows to darken the parts that appear messy.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

02 Change shade

It’s easy to change colors completely using the Hue / Saturation control. Click the “Create Adjustment Layer” icon in the Layers panel and choose Hue / Saturation. The settings will appear in the Properties panel. Just drag the Hue slider left or right to skew the colors.

(Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

03 Change individual colors

In Hue / Saturation mode, you can also target individual color ranges. Click the main drop-down menu to choose a range or grab the hand tool in settings, hold Cmd / Ctrl, and drag across colors in the image. For other color adjustments, try using the Selective Colors adjustment layer.

Read more:

The best macro lenses: get closer than ever to your subjects!
The best flash: the best strobe units for Canon, Nikon and more cameras
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