Oar-inspired lightpainting

March 23, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

A Halo for an AngelA Halo for an AngelStartrails, the effect of the earth's rotation captured over a long exposure, encircle Anthony Gormley's sculpture "Angel of the North". Apparently there's nothing new under the sun. Photographically speaking, however, once the sun's gone there's still opportunity to produce original work and, for me, that's a huge part of the appeal of long exposure photography. As much as possible I try to originate rather than copy, even if it is *only* recording a familiar scene at a different time of day night. 

Of course, like most artists, I also take inspiration from many sources: my contemporaries, other creative practitioners/ wider media, social trends and technology. It was this last point that got me hooked into the idea of working with elite rowers from Oxford University Women's Boat Club, even though the style of image has been done before. Most notably, Steven Orlando (aka MotionExposure) has worked with Canadian kayakers to produce a super-clean set of images.

I had my technological eureka moment in the early discussions about this shoot, organised for BBC's The One Show. If we did X with Y we'd get a very particular result; a new technique to create a new look. Despite pursuing this down to the final day, we ran out of both time and budget before this idea could be fully incorporated. That left us in an interesting predicament with many last-minute changes of plan, no certainty that we were going about things the right way, and precisely zero opportunity to practice before the cameras started rolling.

Much of the jeopardy you see in short films like this is carefully presented; there needs to be a sense of suspense in order to keep viewers engaged. In our case, on a clear but cold February night, the risk of failure was very, very real.

To start with, we had no idea if the lights we were using were even going to withstand immersion. That meant introducing a waterproof layer- clear duct tape- as a safety barrier, but even that carried a "do not immerse" warning. Not ideal, then. Next up, where to position the lights on the blades (oars) and how to affix them. If it held up, clear duct tape had that latter point sorted around the business end but some cable ties were introduced along the shaft as a backup.

With duct tape and cable ties, I should have been feeling a little more secure but it wasn't the case. Timing meant that, once the boat was on the water, we'd be limited to one hour to shoot & film. It was taking, on average, 20 minutes per oar to rig the lights so there'd be no chance at all to reposition anything if the effects didn't work. On that basis the installation had to be right first time, including navigating the lights and wires around the oars' fulcrum.

The first time the boat came towards us, high above the river on a noisy road bridge, the vivid colours we could see were greatly at odds with the boat's silent progress along the water. Worryingly, the visual effects were also at odds with what my camera was capturing. I was prepared to write off this first attempt as a trial run but at that moment I was concerned for the result.

Thankfully, by design and default, when the boat turned round and rowed away from us the light trails were much more like what we'd hoped. Crucially, nothing had fallen off yet either.

Take 5... or was it 6?Straight from the camera. With any cooler a white balance, the purple would have been lost to blue

The next challenge was to get the boat to follow a particular path along the river and that, too, was harder than I'd imagined. This kind of boat is built for speed not agility so expecting them to maintain a specific heading was a big ask, especially in the dark environment where the rowers' night vision was being disrupted by the bright oars. The next attempts- four in total, if I remember rightly- failed on account of directional errors.

With a cancer research charity as a key benefactor from the Boat Race's fundraising efforts, up 'til now we'd been using purple illumination to co-ordinate with their well-known colour scheme. We still didn't have a shot I was fully happy with aesthetically when the call came that the next attempt would be our last.

With a near-full moon, my two minute exposures had the potential to render with a gorgeous blue sky. But the need for a useable, out-of-camera result with the purple LEDs meant selecting a white balance setting that instead gave us a pale brown murk above the horizon. Time to break out the yellow for our final effort. In this instance I could set the white balance to reinstate the blue sky which would, in turn, contrast perfectly against our own lighting. On this attempt, the rowers were right on target too, delivering our best take of the night.

Oar-inspiredFinal image from the film. Single continuous exposure from Sony A7s, RAW file with minor tonal adjustments.

Meanwhile, progress continues with the technological idea that didn't quite get finished in time for this project. I'm staying tight-lipped for now but I'd expect that images will start appearing over the course of summer.


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