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.
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.
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.
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.
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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