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 just had little screw-in incandescent black-light 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—if only I’d kept all of those cool posters!
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 and there are a lot of natural things that react brilliantly, including: certain minerals (fluorite, calcite, wernerite and many more), petroleum jelly, quinine (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 known to react—including paints, balloons, soap bubbles and jewelry (to list just a few), as well as lipstick and body paint in case you want to do some very haunting portraits. Places like Spencer gifts (in almost every mall) and online sites like blacklight.com sells 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.
The real fun of playing with black light, however, is just experimenting with common objects because until you place it them in front of a black light, you never know what will react. While doing test shots for the photos here, for example, I was shooting on my kitchen counter and I noticed a label on a bottle of olive oil on the counter was glowing to beat the band.
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 both an 18" model Blacklight Fixture with Bulb- 18" and this 24"version American DJ Black 24 BLB 2 FT Blacklight and Fixture and both work great. (If you're thinking of buying one, please use these links and you'll help support this blog!) 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 was 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 tulips, butterflies and dragonflies here, for example, were just unfinished wooden objects that I found in the local crafts store and then painted with a combination of both spray and brush-on black light reactive paints. Martha Stewart did a great article on black light photography in her 2009 Halloween issue and there are so cool room shots, so look it up next time you're at the library--it's a good thing (the issue and the library, by the way).
Black-light photography is very experimental and tremendous fun—and just think how excited and proud your parents will be when you ask them if they have any old Jimi Hendrix posters stashed away in the attic.
Photo note: Incidentally, the green in this shot is much cleaner and nicer looking than it appears here. Google really slams these images with compression and it strongly affects the image quality.