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Playing with Light — by Nicole S. Young

Today on Answers by CanvasPop we’re featuring an article written by our friend, photographer Nicole S. Young. Nicole is a member of the CanvasPop Pro Community. She’s a full-time photographer based in Seattle, who’s also an author, poet and dreamer. We love her work!

As photographers, we work with light all the time. And sometimes we can use that light to not just light our images but also to add drama and effects in ways, which can enhance and change the feel of the overall photograph. Here are three ways you can play with light to have fun and add an element of interest to an otherwise static photograph.


Canon 5D Mark III, 70-200mm lens, 28 sec at f/22, ISO 100
I used a very small aperture for this image to give the lights a “star” effect.

If you’re photographing anything with pin-point lights, such as a cityscape or Christmas tree, one thing you can do to add an element of fun is to make those lights really pop. My favorite trick is to make those lights “starred”, which I did with this example image of a bridge in Vancouver, Canada.

So, how do you create your own “starred” lights? The answer is simple: use a small aperture, such as f/16 or f/22. The smaller your aperture, the more clean the stars will be. Also, the amount of blades in the aperture of your lens will determine how many points there are in each tiny star, so you’ll get different results with different lenses.


Canon 7D, 70-200mm lens, 1/40 sec at f/4, ISO 100
I hung string lights a few feet behind this cake pop, used a large aperture and a long lens (200mm) to make the background bokeh very large and soft.

One of my favorite techniques to use and add an element of romance or softness to the background of a photo is to use holiday string-lights and overly blur them in the background. You can also get this same effect with any type of light source behind you that consists of a lot of little lights, such as a city background, candles or even sparkles of light reflecting off of the water.

The principles behind doing this are relatively simple. You need a to use a large aperture, such as f/2 or f/4, with lights in the background at a fairly decent distance behind your subject. Also, using a longer lens (like 100mm or 200mm) can make a difference in the overall size and softness of the bokeh.


Canon 7D, 50mm lens, 1/8 sec at f/11, ISO 1600
The on-camera flash, a long shutter speed along with movement of the camera during the shot were all integral to creating this “swirly flash” photograph of my friend.

One thing I love doing is integrating an on-camera flash to my images when there are fun lights in the background of people to add a “swirly” effect behind them. This is one of my favorite party tricks, and the best part about it is that it can be done with practically any camera! I often like to borrow cameras from people when we’re hanging out, change the settings real quickly and then take their photo. Their response is typically “How did you do that!?”, and then the fun starts where everyone gets their photo taken with a “swirly” background.

Here’s how to create a swirly-flash photograph:

  1. First, make sure that your on-camera flash is set to “on”.
  2. Next, set the shutter speed to something slow, such as 1/15 or 1/8 of a second (you can also try setting it to “night mode” on a point-and-shoot if you can’t manually adjust the shutter speed).
  3. Place your subject so that there are lights in the background (I used the ceiling of a restaurant for my example image).
  4. Then, photograph someone while twisting the camera about 45º while the shutter is open, and try to keep the center-point of the twist at the lens (almost like you have your camera impaled on a horizontal pole and you’re spinning it on the pole). Do this quickly so you get a good blur of lights behind your subject.
  5. Experiment with the shutter speed, flash intensity and twist technique until you get it down.

Nicole S. Young is a full-time photographer and author currently living in Seattle, Washington. She specializes in food and stock photography and licenses her images through iStockphoto and Getty Images. You can find Nicole on her blogGoogle+ and Twitter.