Photo ideas: shoot creative light spirals at home

Got a torch and string? You’re halfway there to shooting stunning light trails in your living room. Follow this easy photography project to start creating amazing light spirograms…

In this photography project, we’re going to show you how to set up and shoot a classic home project in a fresh and original way. Creating light spirograms doesn’t require any extreme photography equipment, and you can take beautiful images in a matter of minutes with the right set up.

In addition to a DSLR and tripod, you need:

A small torch

A pen-torch, such as a Mini Maglite or LED Lenser (available from most good DIY and outdoor shops) is perfect for this project. If possible, try to find a torch that enables you to take the rotating cap off, so that the light isn’t confined to a very narrow beam. A narrow beam is fine when the torch is pointing straight at the camera, but won’t look as bright on the sensor when it’s pointing off to the side.

A length of string

Use a length of string or thread to hang your torch from the ceiling, and a drawing pin to fix it in place. To get smooth, even light trails, the torch needs to be suspended so that the string lines up with its main axis. If the torch doesn’t have an integral fitting point in the middle of its base, tape a small loop of string to the bottom and suspend the torch from that.

A remote shutter release

Using a remote shutter release is essential for this technique, as it’s the only way you can lock the shutter open for as long as required without jogging the camera. It also enables you to time the start and end of your exposure precisely.

Insulating tape

A roll of insulating or gaffer tape isn’t crucial, but it does enable you to fine-tune the flight of the torch, and to alter the way it moves through the air (and therefore the patterns you end up with). Try attaching longer or shorter tails to the torch or string, and varying their shape and distance from the torch to see what works best.

Camera settings and technique:

1. Hang up the torch

Start by finding an open area of ceiling. If you don’t want to put a pin in your ceiling, suspend it from a light fitting, but this will affect how smoothly the torch rotates. Higher ceilings are better as they enable you to use a longer piece of string, which means the torch will rotate for longer. Tie your torch to a length of string, then tack the other end to the ceiling.


ensure you fix your torch securely to the ceiling – if it falls, it could damage your camera or lens


2. Lens choice and exposure settings

Fit the widest lens you have and mount your camera on a tripod. Point it straight up, ensuring that when the torch is hanging still, it’s right in the middle of the frame. With the light turned on, autofocus on the end of the torch, then set manual focus to lock it. Use an aperture of f/11 to ensure adequate depth of field as the torch swings towards and away from the lens, and select bulb mode (B) to enable you to open the shutter for anything up to a minute or more.

3. Send it spinning

To avoid ambient light affecting the exposure, it’s best to wait until night to take your shots. With the room lights off and the torch on, pull it back as far as the string will allow, and send it spinning as smoothly as possible in a circular motion. Using a remote shutter release, start exposing your shot, and keep the shutter open for about a minute.

4. Add a tail-fin

Once you’ve checked the whole spiral is in the frame, you can experiment with how you send the torch spinning, and how long you keep the shutter open. A smooth circular spin will result in a symmetrical pattern, while a more erratic one will produce more complex patterns. To make the movement of the torch smoother, attach a small piece of tape to the string. This will act like a tail-fin ?on an aeroplane, reducing wobble and resulting in smoother loops.

Top tip: avoiding ‘loose threads’

One of the challenges when creating spirograms is knowing when to start and stop the exposure. Ideally, you don’t want a loose thread, as that will give away the point where the exposure has been started and stopped.

The solution is to time the start of the exposure for a moment when the torch is passing across a part of the frame that will be thick with light trails. This is usually when the torch is close to the centre of the frame, and is easier to pinpoint than you might think. As ever, it pays to experiment a few times first.

Taking it further:

To introduce some colour into your spirograms, try placing coloured gels over the torch. Another option is to attach the torch’s collar to create a pattern that’s bright in the middle and that fades out towards the edges. If you’re proficient in Photoshop, you could try applying a Gradient Map Adjustment Layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Gradient Map) and selecting one of the coloured presets, such as Violet/Orange (pictured).

Like this creative photo project? Now try these:

Photo ideas: photographing smoke and smoke photo art

Photo ideas: amazing water drop photography

32 photography projects for 2011

10 photography project ideas to try at home