How to Photograph a Smoking Lightbulb

Here’s your cool photo exercise for the day: a smoking light bulb. It’s an awesome experiment for not only the photographer, but also the electrician, the carpenter, and even the physicist in us. Light bulbs work because their inside is a vacuum—it contains no oxygen, which keeps the fragile filament from bursting into flame (instead, it only glows brightly with its own heat energy). If the seal of the vacuum is broken, though, that is exactly what it does—the tungsten wire succumbs to the electrical charge being pumped through it, producing smoke and eventually igniting, with some very beautiful results. In this video, photographer Craig Colvin walks us through his technique of creating and capturing this phenomenon:

The basic idea is to puncture the bulb, breaking the vacuum and allowing it to fill with air. Colvin shows us two methods of doing this: smashing the globe and drilling a hole into it. The first option allows the smoke to float freely, while the second leaves the shape of the bulb intact, trapping it all inside.

light bulb photography

Trying to photograph light itself introduces a lot of problems though, ie. how do you light, light? Or more specifically, how do you not light it. Photographic lighting is just as much about removing unwanted or excess light as it is about adding it. In the video, Colvin explains how he places the bulb against a dark background but still manages to light it from behind—the backdrop is a black gobo, attached to the front of a large soft box.

light bulb photography

If you don’t have a large soft box, this lighting technique could be mimicked using a white sheet over a bright window, with a black card taped onto it. Alternatively, you could place two separate lights behind the bulb, one on either side. The important part is the background . It should be pitch black for maximum contrast, so it’s important to position the gobo in front of the light source to ensure that the light doesn’t spill onto it and turn it grey.

light bulb photography

Colvin goes on to explain how he created the simple dimming light socket, and how he carefully breaks his light bulbs to get the effect he’s after. What he doesn’t mention, though, is how to screw the smashed bulb into and out of the socket. “Be careful” goes without saying; make sure you unplug it first, and consider wearing protective rubber gloves. The pieces of a light bulb are very delicate, and sharp when they break. Use needlenose pliers to grip the edges of the threads. When using a drill, it’s best to hold the bulb lightly in a vice grip. Keep your hands clear and use extremely light force to avoid smashing the bulb and/or slicing your fingers. Squeeze the trigger very gently to drill slowly.

light bulb photography

Colvin’s complete instructions can be found at his website, including the electrical map for his dimmer light (yes, you can probably build it – it’s about as hard as hooking up a TV).

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3 responses to “How to Photograph a Smoking Lightbulb”

  1. Burt says:

    Interesting video. I did something similar last year. One result I liked was a triptich as the filament died:

    Another variation was using a candle-shaped bulb, light it normally and then shoot it with a BB Gun. Trigger the camera 100ms later (using sound trigger) for the result:

  2. Terry says:

    Great post! However, there is a safety concern with the wiring diagram. When the circuit is wired per the diagram, the lamp socket is always hot. The white (neutral) wire should be connected to the socket and the black (hot) wire to the switch. If the black wire is connected to the socket without going through the switch and someone touches the socket and a ground source (an appliance for example), they could be electrocuted.

  3. Tim says:

    Terry — You’re right about the wiring being incorrect, but it’s really a moot point. This whole experiment is a safety concern, with the risk of laceration, electrocution, and fire. Not that it’s not worth doing anyway!

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