How to photograph a burning light bulb filament

Friday, December 29, 2017

How to photograph a burning light bulb filament


Need abstract photography ideas? Light bulb without glass? In this tutorial, Harley shows how to photograph a burning light bulb filament. A burning light bulb filament creates a dramatic abstract image. This video covers how to setup the photo how to prepare the light bulb without breaking the filament, how to configure the camera, how to take the shot and how to do the post processing. Inspiration of this photo came from an article on the web site.

Time codes for this video:

Bulbs used in this video (Affiliate link)
Exposure and the Histogram explanation video
Original inspiration at
Rich’s post that hit the front page of
Engineer guy has a great video about making incandescent bulb filaments
The Action Lab shows what happens when you put a broken bulb in a simple vacuum
Wikipedia a history of the incandescent bulb

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There's a playlist containing videos talking about the House of Hacks' values.

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For a written transcript, go to How to photograph a burning light bulb filament

Music under Creative Commons License By Attribution 3.0.
Intro/Exit: "Hot Swing" by Kevin MacLeod at


Are you interested in making some abstract photos of lightbulbs burning up?

Today at the House of Hacks, we’re going to look at creating these types of photos.


Hi Makers, Builders and Photographers. Harley here.

Today I’m going to revisit making a photo my buddy Rich and I first did just over 10 years ago.

In February of 2007, I ran across this idea in an article on and knew I wanted to try it.

I had some spare parts in the basement, threw them together and called Rich.

He came over and we made some pretty cool images that ended up on the front page of Digg.

Today I’m going to show:
  • What’s needed for the shot
  • How to setup the shot
  • How to prepare the bulb
  • How to setup the camera
  • How to take the shot and
  • How to do the post processing

I’ll leave links in the description to each of these areas if you want to skip directly to one section.

And you’ll want to hang around to the end to see some images from this session as well as some slow motion video of the burning bulb.

If you want to learn and be inspired to make things out of items such as wood, metal, electronics and photos, subscribe to the House of Hacks channel and ring the bell to get notified of more free videos in the future.

Before we get into the details of the shot, let’s talk a minute about two things that are happening.

First, fire needs heat, fuel and oxygen to burn.

incandescent light bulbs work by running power through a small wire, causing the metal to glow white hot.

To keep the wire from burning up, light bulbs' glass bulbs keep the oxygen from the hot wire.

If oxygen gets to it, the wire will quickly burn up.

We’re going to remove the bulb to allow oxygen to get to the wire and capture the briefly burning wire.

Second, the exposure.

When dealing with things that use bright flashes, whether it’s studio or strobe lights for photography, or in this case, burning light bulbs, there are two exposures involved.

There’s the exposure caused by the flash of light and the exposure of the area we’re in, called the ambient exposure.

If there’s enough difference between these two, the ambient exposure can be ignored because it’s not providing any light to the image.

This can be used to our advantage, both in the studio and in these shots today, so we don’t have to work in the dark.

With those explanatory details out of the way, the items needed for this shot are

An area without much light.

We’re going to be using an exposure that needs a fair amount of light so an area that isn’t too bright allows us to work without the need for pitch dark.

A room lit just with lamps at night or an interior room without windows work well.

A light base.

This could be a table lamp with the harp removed

or I took an inexpensive bare bulb holder that you can get at a home improvement store and screwed it to a piece of scrap wood.

Then you need a way to plug the light base in.

If you’re using a pre-made lamp, it will already have a plug attached.

Since I was using a light holder, I took a piece of romex and wired it between the lamp holder and a switch.

Then I took the plug end of an extension cord and wired it to the switch.

A plug strip with an on/off switch or an extension cord.

You need to plug and unplug the lamp between each shot, so having an outlet near the setup makes things much easier.

And you need to turn the lamp on while pressing the shutter, so having a switch somewhere makes things much easier.

Several plastic bags.

They need to be on the larger size, so not sandwich sized lunch bags.

Plastic grocery bags work well.

They will contain broken glass, so make sure it has no holes.

A way to break a light bulb.

Slip joint pliers work best for this as they’re adjustable and have long handles.

Large Vise-grips also work.

In a pinch, a hammer may be used, but it’s not as ideal as it’s easier to break the bulb’s filament and ruin the bulb.

Gloves and safety glasses.

You’ll be breaking glass, so personal protection for your hands and eyes is a good thing.

Bulbs. You want to be sure to get incandescent bulbs with filaments in them. LEDs and fluorescents will not work.

Get the cheapest ones you can find. You’re going to be destroying them, so you don’t want to invest a lot of money in them.

As far as wattage is concerned, there are two things to think about.

Lower wattages burn faster giving a more dramatic image whereas higher wattages burn slower giving you more images per bulb and a greater chance of getting a good image.

So it’s sort of a trade off.

If you have a camera with a slower frames per second in drive mode, a higher wattage might be better.

If you camera has a higher frames per second in drive mode a lower wattage might give a more dramatic image.

Or you could get some of both and experiment. I’ll leave a link to Amazon for some we used in this session.

A camera that can be set to manual exposure and has a shutter release drive mode.

A tripod. The camera needs to be on a sturdy setup.

Optional: a trigger release for the camera.

To setup the shot, you want to prepare the light bulb holder.

A table lamp with it’s shade and harp removed is one option.

As I showed earlier, I put a light socket on a piece of wood and wired it to a switch and plug.

In a room that doesn’t have much light, place the lamp on a table at working height.

Run an extension cord to be near the setup and plug the power strip into it.

Plug the lamp into the power strip and put a normal light bulb in the lamp.

Turn on the switch to make sure the light works and everything is ready to go.

Turn off the power switch and unplug the lamp.

Setup the camera on the tripod so the base of the light bulb is at the bottom of the frame and there’s enough space above the bulb to capture the flame and smoke.

Vertical orientation works best with the top of the bulb just below the half way point of the frame.

And now remove the light bulb.

To prepare the light bulbs put on the gloves and safety glasses.

You’ll need the plastic bag and pliers for this operation.

Adjust the pliers so when the jaws are closed, they are just a bit smaller than the base of the light bulb.

We want them smaller than the outside of the bulb but larger than the glass support with the wires running through it on the inside of the light.

Put a light bulb between the jaws of the pliers.

Wrap the plastic bag around the bulb and pliers and squeeze the pliers closed.

The bulb should shatter inside the plastic bag without breaking the filament.

Carefully remove the pliers and light bulb remains from the bag.

Take care not to break the filament or spill the broken glass.

Alternatively you can put the bulb in the plastic bag and strike it with a hammer, but this takes much more finesse.

The goal is to break the outside glass without breaking the internal structures of the bulb.

It’s more efficient to break a number of bulbs all at once.

Now we’re ready to configure the camera.

Put it in manual mode.

The exposure settings I used as a starting point were f/4 at 1/640th of a second and ISO 100.

Start with this and adjust as desired.

Then set the shutter release to Drive mode.

This will allow us to take multiple shots in rapid fire succession.

If you’re using a shutter release, configure your camera to use it.

Make sure the power switch is off and the lamp is unplugged.

Put one of the broken light bulbs in the lamp.

You don’t need to screw it in tight, just enough to make electrical contact.

And be careful not to cut yourself. Using the gloves might be a good idea.

Focus on the filament either using auto or manual focus.

Once you have focus, make sure the camera is in manual focus mode.

We don’t want the camera hunting for focus when we actually take the shot.

Now we’re ready to make the images.

Double check that the power switch is off.

Plug in the lamp.

Simultaneously press and hold the shutter release button and flip the power switch to on.

The light will briefly burst into flames and then burn out.

This will take about a second to a second and a half.

Let go of the shutter release button and turn the power switch off.

Unplug the lamp.

And review your photo and make any exposure adjustments as desired.

The histogram is a good way of evaluating exposure.

I have a video explaining exposure and the histogram up here as well as a number of other histogram related videos in the playlist.

To reset for the next shot, verify the power switch is turned off and the lamp unplugged.

Carefully remove the burned out filament from the lamp and use one of the plastic bags for waste.

Put in another prepared bulb.

Double check the power switch is off.

Plug in the lamp.

And make another image.

After you’ve done this to your heart’s content or you’ve run out of light bulbs, you’re ready to process the photos.

Let’s go to the computer and see what we can do.

I’ve copied the photos off my card into my computer and am now looking at them in Bridge.

As you can see, there are quite a few black ones. These are the images where we’re just getting the ambient exposure.

There are two cameras and two types of bulbs here.

These exposures are with my slower 5D and a quick burning 25 watt bulb. You can see I only got one or two shots per bulb.

These exposures are with my faster 77D and a slower burning 70 watt bulb. Here you see I usually got several more shots per bulb.

I’ll quickly go through and mark the images that are not black so we can look at just the ones that have some interest to them.

Now I’ll look at each image and decide which ones I find most interesting and want to process.

These I pull into Photoshop to do final post processing.

I shoot in RAW which is typically a tad bit soft. So the first thing I do is add a sharpening layer.

There are a number of ways to sharpen an image.

Personally I use a high-pass layer. I feel it gives me more control over the process.

Leave a comment below if you would be interested in a video detailing how to do this.

Next I add a layer to adjust the contrast. I like using a Curves adjustment layer for this.

The brightest portion of the image is already slightly blown out and we don’t want to blow it out any more, so we won’t change the top right corner.

But the smoke part is in this mid-range area so I’ll pull that up a bit to make it a bit more obvious.

Finally, I want the blacks to be darker to increase contrast and so will pull this lower part down.

Next I add a layer to increase saturation. I use a HSL adjustment layer for this and just bump up the global saturation a bit.

Those are my standard adjustments. You can either leave it as is if you’re happy with it or start adding additional effects.

One thing that can be done is add some color to the smoke.

One way is to add a color layer and change the blending mode to only color the white areas.

Then a layer mask can be used to only color the smoke area.

Another thing that can be done is change the flame color.

Add another HSL layer and move the hue slider. It will change the flame, that is typically in the reds and oranges to other colors.

Or you can combine these effects or do your own.

If you make some images like these, please share links to where I and others can see them in the comment section below.

I’d love to see what you come up with.

If this is your first time here at House of Hacks: Welcome, I’m glad you’re here and would love to have you subscribe.

I believe everyone has a God-given creative spark.

Sometimes this manifests through making things with a mechanical and technical bent.

Through this channel I hope to inspire, educate and encourage you in your creative endeavors.

Usually this involves various physical media like wood, metal, electronics, photography and other similar materials.

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Thanks for joining me on our creative journey.

Now, go make something.

Perfection’s not required.

Fun is!