Lightbomber belongs to a venerable group of iPhone photography apps devoted to bringing specialized photographic processes and techniques, especially those pre-dating digital photography, to mobile image-making. Tilt-shift photography, through-the-viewfinder (TtV) techniques, light leaks—all have been popularized by apps such as Lo-Mob and TiltShift Generator.
Light painting is essentially a form of long-exposure photography, requiring both an extended exposure—a few seconds or more—and the presence of lights in the image. By keeping the shutter open, you’re able to use a flashlight, sparkler, or other light to “paint” in the image, even writing words. Think of an image of a highway at night, with the trails of lights from car headlights and taillights: That’s light-painting photography. The resulting images often have a wonderfully abstract or surreal quality.
Because light painting requires manual shutter-speed control, you can’t really do it—not consistently or easily—with the iPhone’s built-in camera app or other popular camera apps. That’s because the iPhone doesn’t offer manual exposure controls; it sets the shutter speed and aperture automatically. Lightbomber, an app designed specifically for light painting, is programmed to keep the shutter open in order to allow you to produce long-exposure effects.
Lightbomber (and light painting) basics
Light painting photography requires preparation. Bright sunlight? Forget it. A relatively dark room or nighttime scene works best.
To get a sense of what’s possible with Lightbomber, choose a room in your home that you’re able to make relatively dark and light a candle or turn on a light, such as a penlight, with a relatively “thin” beam. If you have holiday lights, use them—they produce astonishingly colorful light-painting images. Don’t overthink things for this initial experiment; you can even achieve interesting results from the tiny red or green LED lights on a stereo or other electronic device. Turn off the other lights in the room, close the shades—yes, you’ll need to do this at night—and open the Lightbomber app on your iPhone.
After the app is open, tap the camera icon to enter Capture mode. Stand about eight to 10 feet from your light, tap the camera icon again (it will turn red to indicate it is capturing an image), and wave your camera this way and that. Lightbomber shows you the light painting as it’s produced. A few seconds of waving your camera around may be enough; don’t overdo it, or you’ll end up with an overexposed mess. Tap the camera icon again, and then press “Save” on the Preview screen. Your image is saved to your iPhone’s Camera Roll, and you’re now ready to take another image.
Light painting requires lots of experimentation. Your results will depend on the brightness of your lights, your distance from them, and the ambient light in whatever setting you’ve chosen. The more light from the sky, streetlights, or nearby rooms, the more likely you’ll capture what’s in the scene, for better or worse. Any lights will do, but fireworks, a campfire and city lights can produce appealing photos. Planning helps, but a certain amount of trial and error is inevitable.
Lightbomber provides a number of handy controls to take some of the guesswork out of light-painting photography:
Tripod or motion?
If you’re waving your camera around a scene, typically as a way to produce an abstract image with Lightbomber, you don’t need a tripod. But that’s not the only approach to light painting, and you can achieve other types of effects by placing your iPhone on a tripod with a tripod mount.
If a person in the scene remains motionless, or your scene is a still-life, you’re able to paint light streaks around the image. With enough ambient light, you’ll have an image with both light streaks and your subject. Using a tripod even allows you to write messages with light. Just be sure to write backwards.
From the Capture screen, you may have noticed a switch at the top right of the screen to toggle between a camera icon and a squiggle. Flip to the squiggle, and you’ll see a selection of lights for use in your light-painting photography. You use these lights just as you would a flashlight or other light. Then how do you use Lightbomber to take photos? Well, you need another iPhone, with Lightbomber on it (or a traditional camera with long-exposure capabilities), and either a tripod or a helper. One iPhone will be used to paint, and the other iPhone will be used to capture the results.
To get started with Lightbomber’s built-in lights, flip through the lights at the bottom of the screen, with their off-the-wall names (Aquarius, Doozer, Champion, and others), and select one. After it’s selected, tap the screen, and the “light” will fill your entire screen. Now you have a colorful light for your light painting.
Here’s one of the chief downsides of Lightbomber: The images are low-resolution (720 by 720 pixels). That’s right: a half a megapixel. The developers plan to address the resolution issues in future releases.
Lightbomber is built by photographers in love with light painting and long-exposure photography, and it shows. It lets the light-painting newbie get started quickly with this photographic technique, yet it also includes sophisticated tools, such as flash integration and timed exposures, appreciated by photographers already familiar with light-painting photography. Though the low-resolution issue hampers its appeal, the images Lightbomber produces can look brilliant on the screen of an iPhone or on the web.
What we like: The app’s mix of ease of use and sophisticated light-painting controls.
We don’t like: Low-resolution images.
Allan Hoffman is the technology columnist for The Star-Ledger and the author of "Create Great iPhone Photos." He misses the smell of fixer in the darkroom, but he loves having a darkroom (and camera) in his pocket with the iPhone. He blogs about iPhone photography at What I See Now.