Get Trippy with Black-Light Photography

It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, and I don’t know how teenagers decorate their bedrooms these days. But back in the 1960s, we had a pretty universal style: cover the walls with as many black-light posters as you could afford and beg your parents to buy you a black light for your birthday.

Most of us had to settle for screw-in incandescent bulbs, but a few of my friends had huge four-foot fluorescent fixtures — and they enjoyed a very elite social status because of it.

Recently, black lights have been enjoying a rebirth in popularity and I couldn’t be happier; I only wish I’d kept all of those cool posters!

How Black Lights Work

Black lights work by filtering most visible light and emitting only long-wave ultraviolet light. Things that glow under black light are called black-light reactive.

There a lot of natural things that react brilliantly to black light, including: certain minerals (fluorite, calcite, wernerite and more), petroleum jelly, tonic water, Mr. Clean, and even live scorpions. (Yes, if you lose a life scorpion in your house a black light is the way to find it.)

You can also buy things that are specifically designed to react, including paints, balloons, soap bubbles and jewelry, as well as lipstick and body paint should you wish to shoot some haunting portraits.

Retailers like Spencer’s and sell tons of fun things to photograph. Look around hardware and toy stores for likely subjects, too; anything that is labeled “fluorescent” (spray paints, highlighters, sticky notes, etc.) is likely to glow.

It’s also fun to experiment with random objects, because until you place them in front of a black light, you never know how they will react. While shooting with black light in my kitchen recently, for example, I noticed a label on a bottle of olive oil glowing like crazy.

Shooting with Black Light

To take photos under black light, all that you’ll need are an inexpensive black-light fixture, some objects that react to black light, and (preferably) a tripod, since exposures tend to be very long.

I bought an 18″ model Blacklight Fixture with Bulb 18″ and a 24″ American DJ Black 24 BLB 2 FT Blacklight and Fixture, and both work great.

Making the exposures is just a matter of shutting off all room lights and placing your subjects close enough to the light so that they glow intensely. Surprisingly, most digital cameras meter black light quite well (remove the UV filter over your lens), and my exposures were generally around 1/8 second at ISO 200 with the lens wide open. Without a tripod, you could boost up the ISO and probably shoot handheld.

Incidentally, you can shoot entire rooms this way — especially if you line the walls with posters — but you’ll probably get the most brilliant results from shooting close-ups of very reactive objects.

The butterflies and dragonflies here, for example, were just unfinished wooden objects that I found in the local crafts store. I decorated them with a combination of spray and brush-on black-light reactive paints.

Black-light photography is fun, creative and experimental. And if you’re too young to remember the ’60s yourself, that’s OK; you can get started by asking your parents if they have any old Jimi Hendrix posters stashed away in the attic.

7 Responses to “Get Trippy with Black-Light Photography”

  1. Groovy idea and thanks for the flashback : )

  2. Fun fact: it's the quinine in tonic that reacts to the blacklight, hence why selzter normally doesn't.

    Don't most digital sensors have a UV filter built in? That would make me think this is a bit trickier. But your example seems to work, maybe I'll give it a shot.

  3. B, I have noticed a slight color shift of the UV-reactive paints, pink becomes more of an orange tone, for example, and that may be because of a UV filter, I'm not sure. I'd love to ask someone at Nikon, etc. And yes, it's the quinine and in detergents its the brightening agents. If you mix tonic and certain powdered detergents, you get a bright frothy glowy liquid to photograph.

  4. It doesn't seem like you'd need to remove your UV filter. You're not seeing reflected UV light when you look at something that glows under black light (our eyes don't see in that spectrum). You're seeing light emitted in visible wavelengths from black-light reactive material.

    The sensors used in most digital cameras are not as UV sensitive as color film, so AFAIK they only use IR filters over the sensors. Perhaps with the extra UV output from the black light there's enough to change the color slightly (or maybe it's just a funky white balance issue).

  5. That sounds like some fun...I may have to check into this. And no, I am not old enough to have expierienced the 60s, but I do know a little about black lights and how much fun they can be!

  6. Yes, Robert, you could be correct: the color shift might just be (in fact, probably is) a white-balance issue. But even shooting in RAW when I've tried to bring the "orange" reflective paint back to the more reddish tone that it appears to my eyes, it's tough. I keep finding more reactive things to shoot, it's really fun, here's one: vaseline marbles. Go look them up online!

  7. So when did you get the Idea to shoot in black light. I know the exact day the idea came to me and why. Care to share?

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