Dice In Motion: Behind The Scenes

(When Things Go Wrong, Maybe They Are Really Going Right)

By Riovissi /Updated August 10th, 2020

Usually, when I set out to capture an idea for a specific image, I have thought out beforehand all the details of what will be involved: what I am trying to capture; which lens or lenses I will need; what the lighting requirements will be; what type of post-processing will be required, etc.  I then set all the gear up, appropriately position the subject(s), take a deep breath, press the shutter release… and the result is….WHAT???

You Mean I’m Not A Genius?

As an artistic photographer, I would love to think that I was a creative genius; that I have a special ability to combine magical flashes of inspiration with a mastery of the tools at my disposal to create unique works of art worthy of display in art galleries, showered in universal admiration. The reality is, though, that some of my best images have actually been the result of completely random accidents or miscalculations on my part that ended up pushing me down paths I not only had no original intention of exploring, but whose existence I was completely unaware of altogether. Take this image below, which I have titled, “Red Dice In Motion 1”

three red dice in motion with long motion trails and black background
Red Dice In Motion 1

The Original Intention

The original idea for this image was to capture the roll of the dice in motion, which I feel I have succeeded in accomplishing*. The plan was to set up a black cloth background and surface on which to roll the dice, use a flashlight to create ambient light for the long-exposure blur as the dice were rolled, and to use a speedlight with snoot attached, set to rear-curtain-sync, to freeze the dice in time at the end of the roll:

camera set-up of the image "Red Dice In Motion 1"
Behind-the scenes setup

So far so good. No problem… right?  Wrong! The resulting images looked something like this:

three red dice in motion with motion trails behind them
Image with “unintended” strobe effect

Now, granted, that is a pretty cool-looking image, and I actually kept that one. But this was not the result I was expecting at all from the gear and set-up I was using.

The Investigation

As you can see in the “Behind-the-scenes setup” photo above, I was using a steady ambient flashlight to capture the motion blur. But what was up with the strobe effect? Did my camera malfunction? Was it broken? Maybe my shutter was rapidly opening and closing in a strange burst and combining the exposures—or who knows what? All I knew was that I needed to find out what was going on.

So, I swapped out lenses, checked flash modes, took multiple shots without any ambient lighting, etc. It wasn’t until I thought to replace the flashlight altogether that I found the culprit. What was the offender? (Get ready for it—drum roll) It was the ambient flash light!

It turns out that the light I was using (MAG-LITE LED XL200) doesn’t actually project a steady stream of light at all but, instead, projects an imperceptibly fast strobe light. The strobe patterns are so close together that the naked eye sees only a steady beam of light (that is, unless you use it as ambient light to capture motion blur). This particular flashlight is a tactical light that has a strobe feature whose speed is adjustable. What I didn’t realize was that the strobe effect never really disengages; it simply speeds up to create what looks like a steady beam, as I found out.

In trying to diagnose the strobe “issue”, I swapped out the XL200 with a larger halogen flashlight.  I originally intended to use this light to begin with, but the batteries were running low and I was out of D-cell replacements; but for the purpose of testing I gave it a try. Below was the result:

two white dice in motion with fire-looking blur trails
Halogen light motion blur (as expected)

Because the batteries were running low it gave off a fiery yellow color-cast, which I thought was a neat effect (I kept this photo too). Of note was the fact that the resulting motion blur was steady and smooth–what I had originally expected in the first image but didn’t get.

Never Let A Good Accident Go To waste

Being that I do actually have a modest amount of creativity, and that I never let a perfectly good accident go to waste, I took the original  strobe-looking photo and used the smudge tool in GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) to smear the strobes together, mimicking the intended steady motion blur. The first image at the top is the result.


The moral of this story is that when things don’t go as planned, don’t fight it–let it happen. “Roll” with it (sorry). You never know—the result may be your next masterpiece!

Additional Information:

Main image title: “Red Dice In Motion 1”

Camera settings:

Lens: Nikkor 18-200mm
Camera body: Nikon D7100
f-stop: f/11
Exposure: 1/3 sec.
Focal length: 105mm
ISO: 200
Lighting: 1 off-camera flash with snoot; LED flashlight
Camera mode: Manual
Flash: Nikon SB900 with Pocket Wizard PlusX
Flashlight: Mag-Lite XL200 tactical light

*It took me about 200 tries to get the shots I wanted, taking into consideration the trial-and-error required to get the timing together and dice-throwing technique figured out.

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