Bellingham Street-Fighter Photo (LIFX Ambassador)

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Making a Tool out of WiFi Lightbulbs

For me, I view technology as the means or a tool for solving problems.

For my wife and I, we did have a problem that our lightbulbs were not solving. It was the simple function of having the ability to wake up in the winter months to a gradual fading or sunrise simulation, to help combat SAD (seasonal affected disorder) that plagues most of us here in the PNW. I tried a “connected” bulb solution that used  “bridges” and “hubs;” but the results were always something was clunky. Many of these ‘smart’ home solutions provided bridges that allows the user to connect several devices and can have a high level of customizability for home automation. However, I really just wanted something with high reliability and simplicity. Again; its a lightbulb, it shouldn’t require a lot of forethought to make light.

I stumbled upon a wifi connected lightbulb that could be controlled without a bridge called LIFX, and saw they had two LED flavors white-light and color-light bulbs. I brought a white bulb and brought it home to test. After quite a bit of updating of the firmware to the bulb, and setting a schedule, over the next few mornings, our bulbs gradually woke us up in our dark PNW winter mornings. It just worked. No clunkiness or feeling like I had to hack the thing to work correctly. So much so, my wife immediately went out and bought another white bulb and two more but this time the colored LED versions.

LIFX App and Networking

The way it works is simple. To set up the bulb, it sends out a wifi signal. You connect to it by way of a mobile device, and tell it what home network you want it to join. After which, whether you are home or away, as long as the bulb is on you have control over it. The bulb will remember the last color/brightness you had if you manually switch off the light switch. Additional functionality through developers are becoming available, and what is interesting is seeing app developers looking to use LIFX as a way of engagement. Nest thermostat and smoke alarms can talk to these lightbulbs for added safety in the case of fire or carbon-monoxide. And, just the other day I found out about an app that will listen to you read a book to your kid, and change the light in the room as you read.
That led me to wonder; what if I could interact with this bulb as a controlled light source for photography? I figured that with the app I might have enough control over kelvin color and brightness to create some pretty interesting light painting. I began to sketch out a scene I had in mind, and how I might make a staff that would help create a light painting scene. I figured if anything, if I could use things around the house to make this happen, I was curious to seeing if a little controllable lightbulb could be used in my photography.

Building a LIFX Photography Staff

I wanted to use things I had on hand use as much parts someone might have just lying around. I was planning on using one of the bulbs we had, but ,as a LIFX ambassador, LIFX did gift a bulb to me for this project.

I set out to build a staff for this bulb, as it would give me the most flexibility for the photo I wanted to stage. I bought a simple light receptacle with an extra long cable (about $10 from Amazon and prime shipping of course) and electrical taped it into a paper tube. For a power source, I found was a little more tricky as I planned on being away from an outlet. I ended up using a UPS (uninterrupted power source) I use at home to supply power to a few devices during electrical outages and put it in one of my camera bags so the staff can run off its battery. Being a LED light bulb, I figured it would run quite a while off a small UPS. The set up made me feel more like a Ghostbuster than a photographer, but function over form.
Before the shoot, I set up the bulb to connect to a mobile Wifi hotspot  through my phone, so it acted as a router out in the field. My wife would stand to the side and would now control the bulb from a mobile device  and would change the colors, as I painted around the models and called out the colors. I recruited two models (and fellow geeks), and located a few alleys locations in the streets of downtown Bellingham where I wanted the scene to take place.

All that was left; was a warm night…

The scene

img 5353As a photographer, and gamer, I’ve always wanted to do a light painting scene paying homage to the vintage Street-Fighter style arcade games. The mix of martial arts and magical powers on an urban street isn’t an everyday occurrence in our mundane lives. And this DIY project, just seem to be a perfect fit. So I went out and harnessed my inner 13-year-old self, and take to the streets in an epic light-painted Street-Fighter scene. To achieve the affect, I had my camera set to bulb, triggered the shutter by way of IR remote control, and had my lens stopped down to around f8 to help with the abundance of street light.

I’m pretty happy with the results of this experiment and it turned out pretty interesting. I found using the bulb in three ways.
  • As a background light for portraits; in this case to show what color of ‘magical force’ each of our characters have.
  • As a substitute flash (as my flash kit battery overheated and had an electrical fault and failed in the middle of the shoot). You can see the bulb made for some harsh light on my subject as the latency between the mobile wifi and the bulb made for a very slow sync’d flash.
  • And lastly as a light painting wand, to paint the magic effects between the two models. What I found interesting is the blue light spectrum from the bulb. The faster I moved it, the more intense the blue light came out. The slower, and the more white-fuzzy the blue came out.
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