Drum Art: An Experiment in Light Painting

Baltimore, Maryland --

Personal art projects invigorate the soul. No client expectations, no project deadlines, no limitations; just experimentation, creative thinking, and collaboration.

And though it doesn't always happen this way, it is a special moment when you can combine two of your passions into one personal art project, and then have the opportunity to include your family, who have an equal interest in your personal project.

This year, Steve and I celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary, and unlike some couples, we didn't choose to buy each other fancy jewelry or neck ties. Instead, Steve purchased a pair of LED light up drum sticks for me, something I've been talking about doing for years to experiment with light painting, which is a form of long exposure photography.

The LED sticks produce a green light every time the tip hits a surface, whether that surface be a drum, or your hand. The entire stick lights up when it hits, though some parts light up brighter than others, which would often create hot spots of light.

Upon opening my new drum sticks, Steve and I immediately agreed it was time to experiment with them and we headed to our music room to test our hypothesis. To no one's surprise, we were immediately intrigued by the way the various camera settings and patterns affected the movement and size of the light paint strokes.

Closing down the aperture to F/22, for instance, creates a much darker scene with more finely defined light paint strokes. Conversely, opening up the aperture to F/2 lightens up more of the overall scene and makes the strokes thicker and brighter. The affect of the change in aperture is exemplified in the two comparison photos below, each of which has Steve doing triplets at the same tempo on the snare drum.

Aperture Adjustment

For my next aperture experiment, I asked Steve to play a more complicated drum fill on several drums rather than just the snare drum. For this series, I had him play the same beat on the same drum or cymbal at the same tempo three times in a row, each time adjusting only the aperture from F/22, to F/11, to F/4.5. The lower the F number the wider the aperture opens and the more light is let in. The higher the F number, the narrower the aperture opens and the less light is let in.

You can see each image has the same pattern to it but they differ in how prominent the brush strokes are. With less light coming in at f/22, one hardly notices the drums, which mostly fade into the black background. With more light coming into the camera at f/4.5, however, the viewer gains more context by seeing the drums themselves. The stroke is much harder and defined as well, making it stand out and fill more of the scene.

Whole Shebang

Whereas previous experiments involved a quick drum roll, or a drum beat that lasted no more than 6 seconds, these next two images light paint an entire song -- Rush's Spirit of Radio from 1980's Permanent Waves.

I knew an entire song would involve a lot of light, even in a pitch black basement, so I affixed my 6-stop Neutral Density Filter atop my 35mm lens, dropped the ISO down as low as it could go, and hoped I wouldn't have too many hot spots in my composition.

The first image was taken using an aperture of F/6.3. Thanks to the reduced light from the neutral density filter (which is like sunglasses for your camera lens), there aren't too many harsh strokes, which look more like smoke than defined lines.

The drums themselves were a bit dark in my first exposure, and the smokey light strokes weren't as robust as I would have liked, so I decided to turn up my ISO and open my aperture to F/4.5. The painting becomes much fuller, albeit much more crowded in the second exposure, and the hot spot in the middle of the screen was a bit too harsh for my liking. I haven't found the perfect exposure yet for entire 5-minute song, but I do like the potential of where this experiment is headed.

Movement and Motions

In addition to experimenting with different apertures and how they affect the light paint strokes, I also wanted to see how movement affects the patterns. For my next experiment, I asked Steve to first play a jazz beat, which has tiny motions in between each hit of the drum or cymbal, followed by a more basic rock beat with fewer, larger motions in between hits.

Pulsating Patterns

These next three images are made up of what I consider to be aesthetically pleasing patterns created by a random steady beat. Because Steve has been playing drums for more than two decades, his strokes are much smoother and symmetrical (Images 1 and 3) compared to Julia's pattern (Image 2). However, Julia's rather haphazard beat, hitting just about every drum available to her, creates brush strokes that give the image a sense of its own style and rhythm.