The Flaming Lightbulb Trick — How Not To Get Burned While Having Fun

Hello once again,

Due to requests from those that have seen my “Lightbulb going up in smoke” shots, I’ve been asked to explain how it’s done. It seems I’ve posted this before, but I’m unable to locate it, so, maybe I’m remembering something I haven’t really done.

Just my twisted mind playing tricks on me again, I’m sure.

So, here it is — The “Burning Lightbulb” photograph.

First — Safety! What did I just say?

First — Safety!

You’re going to be playing with electricity and fire – Be Safe, while having fun! I’m going to give you lots of safety tips, but we’re all adults here (if you’re not an adult, either find another photo trick on my blog to try, or, make sure you’ve got one or more adults with you before attempting this!), so act like adults and pay attention to what you’re doing. I cannot and will not be held liable for you hurting yourself, others or your property. Those Fine Folks in some Legal Dept. told me to say that. So take responsibility for what you’re doing. Thanks

OK, here we go. So hold on.

What we’re watching here, is the first few seconds, well actually the last few seconds of a lightbulbs filament burning itself out. To photograph this, we must first break the glass bulb around this delicate filament.

Start with at least 6 or more inexpensive 40W bulbs from your local hardware store. Place the lightbulbs, one at a time in a plastic grocery bag. Actually, stack several bags inside each other to make it thicker, and safer.  Now, find a nice hard surface, like a tile floor to work on. Put on a glove and hold one of the bulbs by its base and stick it inside the grocery bag. Now the fun part, and a bit hard to do successfully. Smack the glass, from outside the bag with a hammer to break it — the trick is to break the glass without breaking the filament! This may take few attempts. Once the glass is broke, slowly pull the bulb out of the bag, again, without breaking the filament. Also, try not to spill any of the glass that’s in the bag. It’s a mess to clean up (so I’ve heard).

Do this until you’ve got at least 3 – 4 good bulbs with the filaments still intact. Set them off to the side.

Now to set-up the shot. Find a room that you can make completely dark. Have a flashlight ready so you don’t trip over yourself. Have a fire extinguisher on the floor right next to your tripod, within easy reach (remember, Safety). Find a standard desk lamp, one that you can take the shade off to view just the bare bulb. Plug it into a power strip, turn on the lamp with a good, standard bulb and cycle the power strip switch to make sure it controls the lamp — Now, make sure the power strip is turned off! Have the power strip on the floor, near the tripod too. You’ll see why later. Set the desk lamp on a table, at a comfortable working height.

Now, set-up your camera on a tripod, aimed right at the lightbulb in this desk lamp. Get close enough to have the bulb fill the frame. Set your camera to Manual mode, aperture at about f5.6 or so and shutter speed around 1/160th or so. You’ll burn thru (pun intended) a couple bulbs getting the shutter speed just right, but this is a good starting point. Set your Shutter Drive to continuous shooting so that you can get as many shoots as possible in the 2 -3 seconds you’ve got. If you’ve got a cable release for you camera, this will be much easier. If you don’t, see if you can borrow one from a friend. Have your friend come over with another case of bulbs and a hammer so they can have fun too. Oh yeah, you’ll need some needle nose pliers too.

Now, with the power strip still off, unplug the lamp from the power strip – just to double-make sure it’s not live. Remove the good bulb and carefully screw in one of your broken bulbs. Watch out for the broken glass and don’t touch the little wiggling filament thing. Don’t need to make it tight, just screw it in to the point where it stops and is making contact with the bottom of the socket.

Focus on the bulbs filament then turn the auto-focus off.

OK, now plug the lamp back into the (turned off) power strip. Turn on your flashlight and turn off the lights in the room. If you’ve got someone to help with this, now’s the time to enlist them. Otherwise, here we go. Kneel down next to the power strip, take hold of your cable release and set your flashlight down, pointing at the power strip switch, so you can see where it’s at. Now — At the same time as you’re turning on the power switch, push and hold the button on your cable release. You should see the filament light up and smoke while your camera’s shooting as many frames as it’s little heart can do per second. Once the show’s over you can let go of the cable release and immediately turn off the power switch, then unplug the lamp.

Now, turn on the rooms lights and take a look at the screen on your camera to see what you’ve got. If the image is too bright and blown-out, go for a slightly faster shutter-speed, if it’s too dark and you can’t see as much as you’d like, go for a slightly longer shutter-speed. Remember, each stop, or click of the wheel, either doubles the amount of light for longer shutter-speeds, or cuts it in half if you go with faster times. Your mileage will vary.

With the lamp unplugged, remove the burned bulb and replace it with another one. This is where those needle nose pliers may come in handy. Get ready to do it all again.

Point, Shoot, Repeat™

So, this is the fun experiment part. It’s going to take several attempts and several bulbs to get just 2 or 3 good shots. Not to mention how many glass breaking’s it took to get usable bulbs to shot too.

But, that’s why we enjoy this little hobby we call Photography!

Thanks again for coming by and reading my stuff, subscribe so you’ll learn about new stuff, check out some of my other blogs for other tips and tricks. Go to Tony Locke Photography Facebook page and click on the ‘ole Like button thing for other fun adventures and make sure you tell all your friends too.

Tony D. Locke, MM

About masterofmadness

Semi-pro photographer & musician. Co-own a photo gallery with a digital photo-lab in a small tourist town, on an island in the Pacific NW of USA. I also teach and ongoing series of workshops in photography, Photoshop and Apple computers. I shoot mostly landscapes, in the mountains - Giving me a great excuse to go climb them. I also do a lot of fine art, macros and abstracts.
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