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Business Issues - Marketing

Photographing Lasers

Introduction

Laser shows are a visual medium thus it is important to have good pictures of the work you have done to show to clients and for advertising and promotion purposes.  Lasers are also more difficult to capture on film and video than are traditional subjects.  This article gives some tips and techniques for making better visual images of your laser show.

 

Photo of a laser billboard at a trade show

Photo of a laser billboard at a trade show.  This is a very difficult situation in which to capture a good image of the laser due to the very high ambient lighting conditions in the venue. Photo courtesy of Derek Garbos

Film Photography

A traditional camera and film is sometimes the best way to capture images of lasers.  This is particularly true if the image is to be used for an enlargement or print applications as film has far higher resolution than most digital cameras.  Depending on if you plan to use the photos as slides or prints, you must choose an appropriate film.  A high speed film such as 400 ASA is best as higher speeds tend to become 'grainy' when enlarged significantly.
You will need a tripod as large apertures and slow shutter speeds are needed to capture the relatively faint light from the laser - relatively faint when compared to thousands of watts of room or stage lighting.  If you have the opportunity to "pose" the shots, you can adjust the ambient lighting to 50% of normal so as to give a better contrast ratio with the laser image or beam effect.
Logos are scanned many times per second so depending on your shutter speed, you may only pick up a portion of the logo.  Logos are best shot in controlled conditions in your studio.  Use an 18% gray screen or a rear projection screen to cut down on scattered light from a white surface which can make the edges of the laser image fuzzy.  Your best approach is to use a shutter speed that will allow the scanners to 'draw' the image onto the film several times while the shutter is open.  Speeds of 1/4 or 1/2 second work best but do not hesitate to experiment.
You need to "bracket" your exposures, thus a camera that allows for manual operation is the best for this application.  Bracketing is the process of taking the same picture over and over but with different exposure settings.  For example, with the shutter speed set at 1/4 second, you would shoot an image at full aperture [usually f1.4 or f2.8 depending on the camera/lens combination], then the next smaller aperture, then the next smaller, etc.  Remember that as the aperture gets smaller, the f number gets bigger - f2.8 is a larger aperture then f4.5. In all, you should try 6 or 7 shots in order to find the optimum exposure.
Keeping track of the exposure can be problematical.  One solution is to have the laser projector display the shutter speed and f-stop as part of the image.  Shoot a test roll bracketing your exposures generously and then take it to a one-hour photo lab.  When you get the results back, you will see what exposures seem to be best for capturing the image and you can now do the photo shot without the laser projecting the exposure information. You will still need to bracket each shot to insure the best results but you can now bracket in a narrower range to conserve film.

Capturing images of your laser at shows can be much more challenging as you have little or no control over ambient lighting [unless you can "pose" the shot].  The best strategy is to shoot lots of pictures and bracket each exposure as much as you can.  Once you have made some studio shots, you will have a good idea of the range of exposures that works with your camera and film combination.  At live shows, you may want to use higher shutter speeds such as 1/8 or 1/10 second to prevent any people in the photos from becoming too blurred.
For the final photos, it is best to have your images processed at a professional lab rather then a one-hour lab.  This is because the professionals labs charge a bit more but take extra care with the processing work and you usually get better results that at a one-hour lab.  Professional labs generally have higher standards for chemical purity and more tightly controlled solution temperatures which can add to the quality of the finished product.
If you are planning to use the photos for web pages, it is well worth the small charge to have the lab put them onto a Photo-CD.  This is generally done directly from the negatives or slides giving a better quality image than you can obtain by scanning the prints.

 

Digital Photography

"Point and Shoot" type digital cameras do not usually offer the wide range of adjustments and the possibility of bracketing exposures in the same way that film cameras do.  The newer DSLR cameras often do have a full set of controls allowing for adjustment of many parameters.  A DSLR type camera usually also has a larger sensor so the pictures have higher quality - even at the same megapixels as a "pocket" type camera - due to less digital noise in the image.  Many of the same rules stated above such as posing the shots or reducing ambient light apply to digital photography.
Your best approach is to shoot as many pictures as possible in the hopes that you capture a few good ones.  Digital photography is cheap and you can well afford to shoot 100 images over the course of a show to get 6 to 10 that look great.
If your digital camera supports multiple image resolutions, try shooting at both large and small picture sizes to see how the results look.  Often you will find that the lasers show up better on the smaller size image as it is crated by sampling all of the pixels in the camera's CCD and then averaging the results to make a smaller sized image.

 

Photo of lasers at a dance party

Photo of lasers at a dance party.  This image shows the lasers well as they were in a somewhat dark space with lots of haze and which was lit with a contrasting colour. Photo by L. Michael Roberts

One aspect of digital cameras that is helpful is good image processing software.  The most popular program is Adobe's Photo Shop.  A good approach is to shoot as high a resolution image as your camera allows, and then reduce the image size in the processing software.  Good image processing software will sample the pixels and and 'add them together' so that the beams appear brighter.
Image processing software also gave your the ability to adjust brightness, contrast, colour balance and other parameters to obtain the best results.  Be wary of over processing the the image as the end result can look fake.

 

Video

Producing a good video, especially if you are targeting the corporate market, takes more than just setting up a camcorder and pointing it in the general direction of the laser show.  The use of high quality professional cameras can give far better results, not to mention that professional pacing, titling and editing can add production value to your finished demo tape.  If you are marketing to corporate clients, have your tape professionally produced to make the best impression.
You want to keep your demo tape short while still presenting a range of your work.  There is no hard and fast rule here however under ten minutes is probably optimal. If you feel you have more good material than can fit into ten minutes, then you might want to consider making a longer video and then making a much shorter edited version,  You can then have the shorter edited version at the beginning of the tape followed by the full length version.  That way, clients who would like to see more of your work can view the longer version.
Lasers form a rapidly moving subject and due to the scanned nature of many effects, "beats" between the laser and the video system can occur giving the image on the tape a flickering look that is not evident when viewing the original laser image.  This can be particularly troublesome with logos or animations.  This occurs because the laser is drawing the image at say 20 frames per second, while the video camera is capturing it at 25 or 30 FPS [deepening on the video standard you use].
Fortunately, video is a real time medium so it is possible to set up a monitor connected to the camera and look at the image being captured.  Often adjusting the frame rate of the laser projector can help to ameliorate flicker in the taped image.
Some of the more advanced video cameras offer low light or shutter settings that can be helpful.  Using these settings, the image is sampled twice for each frame so that the results are added together to increase light pick-up.  You will need to experiment with your camera to find the best results.
Logos and animations can be shot in the studio and then edited into live footage as close ups so that they can be seen in the context of the show.  At the show, place the camera in a good vantage point and avoid fast of sudden camera moves during the show, or excessive zooming.
One final item is to have the finished master tape "watermarked" with your logo.  Watermarking is the effect where a semi-transparent logo appears to be embossed on the bottom right hand side of the picture.  This serves two purposes; it keeps your logo subtly in front of the client while they are watching the video tape, and it prevents people from stealing your material and claiming it as their own without having to take measures to remove your watermark.
Once your master has been prepared, it is best to contract with a professional duplication house to make copies.  They can provide very economical short tapes so you are not paying for a lot of tape you don't use and they use professional equipment such as Time Base Correctors to ensure the highest possible quality copies.  Don't forget to label the finished tapes with a label including your logo, company name and address, phone number, E-mail and web address [URL].  For the most professional look, there should be a label on the top of the cassette and on the spine.

 

DISCLAIMER: Some of the information in the Backstage area is provided by the persons or companies named on the relevant page(s). Laser F/X does NOT endorse or recommend any products/services and is NOT responsible for the technical accuracy of the information provided.  We provide this information as a service to laserists using the Backstage area.

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