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Adventures In Light Painting: Using the PixelStick

Adventures In Light Painting: Using the PixelStick

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Some First Steps With the PixelStick

As mentioned in the accompanying article with our Super Crown set one area we’ve been wanting to explore with our work has been with light painting and what we could do with it. I had done some experimenting at home with various tools but I knew there was one I wanted to get my hands on: the PixelStick. I already had some various projects in mind but when the Super Crown project ended up on an accelerated schedule we thought there could be some neat way we could apply it to that project.

Once they arrived I knew I was going to have to do some initial testing so I could get some understanding of how it works, what I would need to do for images, etc.

The first thing I noticed: holy shit is this thing bright. Have you ever been driving at night and you drive by a place that has one of those LED signs that are able to show multi-color images? Where you can tell the image has been tuned so be clearly visible during the day… but would be way too much for a night time display. The kind that makes you go GOOD GOD THAT’S ABSOLUTELY BLINDING WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU.

Initially I figured that utilizing the Brightness adjustment would solve for this. But while testing along with some things observed during the shoot I pondered if there could be more done to prepare the images to get the best output from the PixelSticks.

Working With Images To Find Good Combinations

I had some ideas on how I could possibly make adjustments to the images to make them work but first I needed some test examples.

Since we’re all fans of Sailor Moon I thought that trying to find backgrounds from the transformation scenes would be a good starting point. Actually trying to find screencaps proved difficult but I found another source that in my opinion was better. There is an artist on DeviantArt by the name of Anna Mary Marian who did some fantastic recreations of the background art. So we did purchase some images from her to use for this test. There are watermarks so people can’t use us as an avenue to get something for free but you should at least get a good idea of what we were starting out with.

So first off I wanted to see what would happen if I only adjusted the brightness on the PixelStick itself. For everything except the very last test I shot on a FujiFilm X-T2 with the 18-55mm f/2.8 lens. Settings were 23mm focal length, ISO 200, f/4 aperture (I used this since that’s the aperture I tend to use most), and a shutter speed of 6.5 seconds.

Here is the first background image where only the brightness on the PixelStick had been adjusted from 100% brightness down to 25% left to right.

Yeah, pretty much unusable without stopping down the aperture (and if you were doing portraits with this, adjusting your strobes accordingly).

So here I had to wonder what we be the best way to adjust the images so the Brightness setting might play along a bit more. Darkening the image somehow seems to be the way to go but just dialing down things via a Brightness adjustment layer didn’t come across as the best way to go about it. So why not use a tool I was very familiar with: the Camera RAW filter.

For the sake of simplicity I decided to make adjustments to the exposure in half stop increments. When I first saw the images at -1.5 and -2 exposure I did initially have some concern on how they would turn out during testing.

The images below are with the PixelStick at 100% brightness and images at -0.5 to -2 exposure left to right.

Still way too bright. I decide to skip testing at 75% since earlier tests didn’t really show much of a difference when compared to 100%. So the same exercise was repeated at 50% brightness.

And once again at 25% brightness.

One thing that became obvious: the PixelStick isn’t quite designed to handle smooth color gradients. In some cases it’s not as jarring (I liked how it looked in the 50%/-1.5 example) but this is something to keep in mind.

Let’s move on to our second image applying the same exposure adjustments as before.

I decided to skip 100% brightness for testing from here on out since stopping down the aperture wasn’t part of the exercise. Here we have the PixelStick at 50% with RAW exposure from +/-0 to -2.

Once again the same image at 25% brightness.

I liked how the image looked at 50%/0 and 50%/-0.5. And the one at 50%/-1 might be be considered usable. The ones at 25% brightness… this image straight up would not work.

For the final image test I decided to go for something with a different look.

The third image at 50% brightness.

And at 25% brightness.

For me this one worked really well at 50% brightness from +/- 0 to -1.5. 25% at +/-0 would be fine but all the others I would not use at all.

Now as mentioned earlier these were all shot at the base ISO of the X-T2 which is ISO 200. But what if you had to shutter drag due to real world shooting conditions? We actually did run into this when we shot Super Crown. After we made some adjustments to the PixelStick we noticed we got some really oddly colored images out of it. A slight adjustment to the PixelStick got us normal looking images. While we were shooting I had a hunch as to what was happening but I couldn’t confirm it until I specifically tested for it.

In the shots below the only change made to the camera was changing the ISO to ISO 800. I went over each of the three images again this time with the first shot at 25% brightness and the second at 5% brightness.

Yyyeeeeaaaaahhhhh no.

Though this test did show my hunch was correct. At 5% brightness the LEDs don’t have enough power to render all the colors correctly. So you will typically get green and sometimes white depending on the image. Here I would say that if you had a very specific use case to where you would take the brightness below 25% you should make sure your images will not come out looking weird.

Final Thoughts

Going through these tests was a really good exercise. There could be more testing done especially when considering what kind of results we might get if the aperture was stopped down further than f/4. But I would say this is a good start for not only ourselves but for others to consider what images they may want to use when it comes to light painting and how to adjust them in order to get the best effect. So pre-planning and testing is highly recommended if you want to use one of these on a project.

Overall I’m happy that we invested in a couple of PixelSticks. There’s a lot of possibilities out there with these. Though with that I will say we’ll use these only when it makes sense for a project. Using something just for the sake of using it has a really good chance of actually detracting from your photos. But with the right kind of forethought and planning items like the PixelStick is certainly one way to help you stand out.

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