Sparkler Art: Play Like Picasso

Growing up in North Carolina, I never got much experience handling fireworks, other than the slim box of sparklers I held while my brother slipped out a thin metal cattail and presented it to our dad for lighting. The roar of cicadas in the backyard seemed the perfect soundscape for the electric trail of light and smoke that mesmerized, lasting briefly after the sparkler was spent.

Photo: Karen Kelly

Years later, seeing those fabulous photographs by Gjon Mili of Pablo Picasso drawing with light, I was reminded of the sparkler trails my brother and I loved to create, like so many children, and I always wanted to know how the path of light got captured forever.

“It’s mostly a matter of slow shutter speed,” says NCMA photographer Chris Ciccone, “and stabilizing the camera.” He recommends using a tripod and establishing these settings in Manual mode on your camera.

Camera (DSLR) Tips:

Shutter speed: 10 seconds
F-stop: 5.6
ISO: 100
White Balance: Auto, or try out Tungsten
Focus: Use manual focus (rather than auto-focus), and have a flashlight handy to find your subject in the dark before the sparkler is lit.

Use a shorter (three-second) shutter speed for simpler drawings. Photo: Toni Chester

Smartphone/Tablet Tips:

Download one of many affordable slow-shutter apps that enhance your mobile device’s camera. We like Slow Shutter Cam, which has a simple “Light Trail” button and works as well at dusk as in the dark. Though you don’t need a tripod, stabilizing your device will give the best results.

“Capturing light trails has interested photographers for quite some time,” says Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Jen Dasal. For more inspiration she suggests looking at the work of Barbara Morgan, in the NCMA’s photography collection. Photographs by Barbara Morgan will be on view this fall in The Energy of Youth exhibition in East Building.

Make your own sparkler art, snap a pic, and share your photos via social media with the hashtag #NCMAspark. We’ll repost our favorites! (And be sure to follow these Sparkler Safety Tips. Have fun!)

Use a longer shutter speed to capture more light trails. Photo: Toni Chester
Set your flash to go off, and you’ll freeze your subject at the start of her drawing. Photo: Dave Rainey

P.S. No sparklers? Try glow sticks–perfect for little ones.

Glow stick trail captured with slow-shutter app. Photo: Karen Kelly
Want to spell a word or name? Remember to write backwards, as the camera sees the mirror image. Photo: Karen Kelly

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top