Photograph by Mark Whitney
Artist: Mark D. Whitney
Media: Digital Photograph

Trails of light

When I was in the fifth or sixth grade I found a Kodak travel camera tucked away on the top shelf of the hallway closet buried under a pile of winter gloves and hats. It had a bellows on the front so it could be folded up flat and carried in a leather case. It didn’t need batteries because it didn’t have electronic anything – just manual levers and dials. I used that camera for quite a while. I wonder what ever became of it.

Anyway, the best feature about it was that I could lock the shutter open and take time exposures. Next thing you know I’m in the garage converting my father’s transit tripod that he used for work into a camera tripod (sorry Dad) and shooting long exposures of waterfalls or of the stars wheeling round in the night sky. I’ve been fascinated with time exposures ever since.

Fast forward more years than I care to admit to find me digging around in some boxes of old stuff and I stumble across a stack of photos that I had taken with that camera way back when. Photo number 1 is one of them. Remember that this is a scan of a print made by a kid and it has been knocking around in dresser drawers and cardboard boxes for decades so it’s in pretty rough shape, but you get the idea.

Photograph by Mark Whitney
Photo 1: A vintage light trail photo I took when I was a kid.

I thought this image with the wild spinning trails of light was pretty cool so I decided to see if I could re-create it.

My kid setup was a bare flashlight bulb and some wire taped to a D cell battery hung from the upstairs hallway light by some black thread. Closing all the bedroom doors I made the hallway almost as dark as night. I set the camera on the floor. I didn’t have a cable release so I put a card over the lens and locked the shutter open. I turned on my light bulb and gently started it swinging around. I removed the card from the lens and watched as the light went spinning and whirling through the darkness. After a while I put the card back on the lens and closed the shutter.

Of course I was using film back then so I took exposure after exposure without knowing what I was capturing until I developed the film. I tried different camera settings and different swing patterns just going by feel and my minds eye. Would be photographers had to use more imagination back then – no preview windows on the back of the camera for instant feedback.

My new setup didn’t use an incandescent bulb and a heavy battery. Instead I used a small key chain light with an LED in it and a digital camera with a remote shutter release. The LED gave me a nice clean thin line, but I think it was too lightweight and too balanced. The heavy uneven weight of the battery and bulb kit gave a more complex pattern of swirling and spinning.

Light trail photograph taken with my new digital setup.
Light trail photograph taken with my new digital setup.

It was fun to go back to my childhood for an afternoon and do some experimenting. Someday I may try it again. I have some ideas for more complex light arrangements that could produce some real Spirograph type effects. Maybe I could add in some color too.


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