Photography Project – A Burning Light Bulb

burining light bulb - flame out

Bulbs, lots of bulbs. This is what you need if you are going to do this project. In the picture you see the bulb’s filament’s burning, isn’t it a pretty site. For all you pyro’s out there, this is yet another thing you can burn.

And if you can take a picture of this little fire, why not.

So here is The Full Guide for Photographing a Burning Light Bulb – have fun!

Step 1 – Get what you need

photography project - burning bulb 01The first step is to get some bulbs for your shots. As you can see from the picture, the more bulbs – the better. For my initial curiosity and experiments, I tried several types of bulbs, deferring in their WATTS power rating. Without going into detail of the electricity of the light bulb, watts power rating is the parameter that indicates the power that goes through the bulb. The more WATTS – the brighter the light that this bulb will emit. This is why 60W bulbs are dimmer then 100W bulbs (more about power ratings here). I learned that high powered bulbs burn faster and give brighter light while burning. This information is relevant because it will influence both your aperture (keep correct amount of light in) and shutter time (get the most interesting action in the photo). Once the bulb is broken the filament inside the bulb is not protected anymore, and is in touch with oxygen. It is this oxygen that will allow it to burn.

The second thing you will need is something steady to place the bulb in. I used a regular floor lamp from IKEA, though any floor lamp will do (here is an example of what I used, of course you can buy those anywhere. Actually, you probably have a stand like this at home. Check your living room). I took the shading part out of the lamp – for the shoot, and mounted it back when I was done – to my wife’s relief.

photography project - burning bulb 02

Three important instruments of destruction for breaking the bulbs are a big Ziploc bag, padded with paper, a hammer, and pliers. This is also a good time to read the words of caution.

Lastly, you will need a dark room. And I mean dark.

Step 2 – Prepare the setup

Here is how it’s done: get in the dark room, and set up your stuff. OK, it should no be dark yet. My setup includes:

  • One floor lamp, with plate removed so the bulb socket is viewed clearly.
  • One switched (i.e. has a switch on) power strip.
  • One camera (beloved D70) mounted on a tripod, set to be triggered by remote. Exposure set to “bulb”. (Note the irony here, we are taking a picture of a bulb and setting the exposure to bulb. I wish everything was that simple). I tried to set the camera so the bottom of the frame will “just” catch the bottom of the lamp, leaving plenty of room for smoke.
  • Black paper to serve as background
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Before you continue, you need to learn how to break a light bulb. So here is the Complete guide for breaking a light bulb:

  1. Use gloves
  2. Place a paper inside the Ziploc bag. This will help saving your floor tiles.
  3. Place the bulb inside the Ziploc bag. I found the best way to do this is to hold the bulb screw thread through the bag, while placing the “head” of the bulb on the paper.
  4. Hit the bulb with the hammer
  5. Take the bulb out of the bag. Make sure you do not tear the filament, and use the pliers to carefully remove any remaining glass into a bucket.

Step 3 – Take the picture

Now, on with the show…
Connect your power strip to wall socket – make sure it is off. Connect your lamp to the power strip. Make sure the power strip is off. Carefully screw in the bulb. I did this by using the glassy “core” for leverage (see picture). Now, all you need to so to make the lamp go “on” (or go “burn”) is to switch the power strip.


photography project - burning bulb 05

This is the time for final check ups. Is your camera focused? Is it set to manual focus? Is it set for bulb?

If all is set to yes, you should stand next to the rooms light switch, holding your remote. Place one hand on the power strip’s switch. Turn the light off. Now, use the remote to start the bulb exposure, and then switch the power strip on. Here comes the fun part – let it burn. Click the remote again to stop the exposure. Turn the light on. You are done.


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Some tweaks and ideas

  • Photoshop manipulations
    Try playing with white balance. Try to paste several such manipulations in one frame. Paste the bulb next to your friend’s heads
  • use different power ratings light bulbs.
    I tried 25W, 40W, 60W (this tutorial), 75W and 100W. The higher the WATTS the brighter the light and the filament takes longer to burn
  • Set the exposure to a predefined time.
    The smoke coming from the bulb will rise to different levels, and you might even avoid over exposing the filament


The reader Rich Legg tried a different approach – he set the camera to shoot in sequence and took several pictures of the light bulb while it is burning in high shutter speeds. Here is the result:


burining light bulb - flame out

Picture by Rich Legg

Here is the setup and instructions for doing something like Rich’s great shot:

Set up the camera in drive mode then power up light socket.

The light burns out in about a second, so you end up with 3-5 shots (depending on your camera’s FPS speed). As for the exposure, we were shooting in manual. After taking some readings, I ended up shooting this shot at f/4 at 1/640 a second. This particular bulb was a 40 watt. On the shots with 60 watt bulbs, I upped the shutter speed to accommodate the brighter light.

The red hue was added in post-processing.

If you have photographed the burning of a bulb filament, please post a comment with a link to your photos – show off!

A word of caution #1

Your brain does not like high voltage – you may have noted, that this project involves some exposed wire. Please, please be careful. Do not touch the wire. Make sure you know if your lamp is turned on or off when screwing the bulb in (hint – it should be OFF). You also want to have a fire extinguisher handy (thanks Howard)

A word of caution #2

Your skin does not like glass – This project also involves breaking glass. Make sure you know what you are doing. Use gloves, break the bulb inside a bag, and don’t go barefoot in the room. is not responsible for any damage you may inflict upon yourself trying to reproduce this project. is also not responsible if you do anything stupid and burn your house (or your eyebrows).