UV or Black Light Photography

Posted on March 17, 2012


Have you ever been in a night club and everything just glowed really bright from the black lights? Have you ever thought about doing photographs with a similar effect on people or another subject? How about with paint?

UV photography or black light photography requires only two things: a) a black light to shine on your subject, and b) something that illuminates with black light.  I also recommend having a small torch or flashlight because you will be working in low light. Some people use UV filters to keep the UV or black light from being photographed, but they aren’t a requirement.

The best black light I have found is an inexpensive shop light from the local hardware store – you can get one for around $15-20. Next, you have to get black light bulbs. You will find those at your local hardware store, too. You will need two bulbs, and they typically cost $20-25 each. The bulbs must be a black light bulb – they block visible light and only allow UV or black light to pass. If you have been keeping tabs, that means you will need to spend around $60 for the light.

The next thing to get are objects that react to black light, clothes that reflect black light, or paints that reflect black light. I usually use paints. There are lots of paints around, but make sure that you talk to someone who knows about them and will get you paints that are non-toxic and water based and safe to use for your specific application. I use body paints that glow with black light. Part of why I say you need to talk with someone who knows is that there are many considerations for each use. Find a good body painter, and spend some time learning — or just get them to do the painting for you. The body painter would also have a good idea of how long it will take to paint your subject, too. Also, save yourself some time with hair and don’t paint your subjects hair… use a wig that reacts instead. This will save time in cleanup and keep your subject from getting annoyed when the coloring doesn’t come out.

The last step is photographing your subject. This is best done is almost complete darkness, so make sure you have a safe room for walking around in almost complete darkness. A black light does emit some light, so it won’t be completely black in the room. I always shoot UV photography on a black background. Then comes the hard part: testing. Each time you shoot, you will need to test for exposure. In time, you will learn what works and what doesn’t. The bad news: your meter might not work so you have to set your camera to manual and change the settings from there. If you try to shoot in automatic or program, your image will be over exposed if your meter doesn’t work. I highly recommend you start at ISO 400 when you do.  The light should be about five to ten feet away from your subject if it is a person.  The closer it is, the brighter it will glow.

Finally, start composing and taking pictures.

[Edit: Some more images with a different model have been posted on this blog post and third model at this blog post.

There has also been a request for items needed to do a shoot:
-Simple Shop lamp fixture that is UL approved
-two UV compatible light tubes
-UV paints
-black back drop
-dimly or no light in a room]

A special thanks to Nika for being my muse and being tolerant while she was painted and for being a wonderful model.

Update 17 Feb 2013: Several people have asked if this is safe and with all the press from dermatologists about UV not being safe. The amount of radiation is minimal with the typical 9 watt UV black light fluorescent lamp. A typical tanning session exposes most people to more UV-A radiation than from a typical photo session using UV light. Some links to other articles on this can be found below:
UC UV Lamp Safety Sheet
E-How post on UV Black light safety
Glow Inc. Post on UV Black Lights
Cyberback Guide to UV black lights
The UV bulbs should be safe for normal use. These aren’t disinfecting bulbs and are intended for safe use in clubs and other environments intended for entertainment purposes. Do NOT ever use UV-B or UV-C lights that are used for disinfecting or sanitizing.

Update 13 Jun 2013: I have used some of the LED type UV lights that are recently being made available. At $50-80 for each light, they are very pricy. I recommend that you not use these lights for another reason: they show more blue colored light than UV light, and the “glow” from UV sensitive pigments isn’t nearly as strong. Additionally, Linsey Adler did a segment on UV strobe photography on her Creative Live presentation using UV Strobes. Those strobes are regular studio strobe units with the UV coating removed from the flash tube, and putting a “UV pass through” filter in the front. I have not set up my lights in this manner, but will be looking into this as an option. Please note that these flashes MUST be very powerful to generate the amount of light necessary – 1600 effective WS or higher (for around 30-40 cm light distance). Do NOT USE fused silica flash tubes! They are very dangerous with the amount of UV light they produce and will cause eye damage to anyone around them when they are used. They are designed for use in research applications for creating lasers and not photographic purposes.

Update 2 Sep 2013: Please note that if you use models or subjects that are into BDSM activities that their busies will show unless they abstain from those activities for a few weeks prior to the shoot. Alternately, you could crank up the contrast in post. Your experiences may be different, but beware that this may be a problem for you when you shoot these types of images.

All information and images are ©2012-2013 Don Krajewski on this post.

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