Unless you have been living under a rock or in a comma for the last year you have probably heard of the light painting tool called The PixelStick. The Pixelstick is that light painting tool that looks a lot like Michael Ross’s Digital Light Wand created around 2010, huh hummmm… The Pixelstick received mass exposure and raised nearly 6 times its Kickstarter funding goal, a total of $628,417.00 to go into production! That was in December of 2013, well just about a month ago veteran Light Painter Ian Hobson got a hold of one of the first production models. Ian was kind enough to put The Pixelstick through its paces and write an in depth, honest and impartial review to let us all know if its worth the $325.00, check it out below.
Images and words by (Ian Hobson)
I have no axe to grind, nor am I an evangelist for fancy tools, but I am passionate about light painting. I want to share my thoughts with others who take the artform seriously, and are not simply looking for a ‘magic bullet’ style device to turn them into spectacularly competent light painters overnight. So by writing this, I’m doing nothing more than calling it how I see it. I’m not sure how well kickstarter projects usually do, but Bitbanger Labs must have been pretty pleased with how their second one turned out. It seemed that almost as soon as they’d set up the kickstarter for the Pixelstick, it had exceeded it’s required target and was set to become a real product. Now it is a real product, and is one of very few commercially available dedicated light painting tools.
Pixelstick is a tool that will allow photographers and videographers to bring a totally new dimension to their work, giving them the ability to “paint”. Pixelstick LED is your answer! Great Tool for Portrait Shooters, Wedding Shooters, Lightpainters, Car Photographers, Glitch Artists, and for Video Shooters. The Pixelstick is a 6-foot long narrow “stick” covered in LEDs that can be manipulated via the attached controller to “print” colors and images in the air and onto your camera. The Pixel Stick is an computerized piece of light painting genius that will allow you to create just about anything your creative little brain can dream up. The Pixelstick is a small miracle to the world of stop motion and light painting animation. PixelStick is a tool for measuring distances, angles and colors on the screen. PixelStick is a measuring tool you can pinch and stretch to measure anything on your screen. Its like an onscreen virtual ruler that you can use vertically, horizontally and at any angle to measure distances, angles and much more just by dragging. In today's show, we are pitting two of the most unique light painting tools; the Bitbanger Pixelstick and the Fotorgear Magilight. These are both light paint.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the Pixelstick is an array of 200 addressable RGB LEDs. This means each LED can produce almost any colour, and each one can be instructed to flash on and off at a particular speed and colour sequence. With the right set of instructions, the LEDs can be used to mimic the pixels of a bitmapped image, so as the Pixelstick is moved through space, the LEDs effectively ‘draw’ the bitmap in midair and can be captured during a long exposure photograph.
As a concept, this is not new. The first such light painting tool appeared a few years ago and in January 2010, pioneering work by Mike Ross (TxPilot on Flickr) used the open source Arduino platform to send the instructions to the LEDs. ( Mike’s first example of this is here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/txross/4268235686)
At the time, this required some tricky manipulation to generate the code to ‘paint’ a bitmap, and the hardware had to be self-assembled. The amount of technical effort made doing this quite a headache, and despite Mike’s excellent online tutorial describing how to build what he dubbed the ‘Digital Light Wand’ many people who were keen to try it, were put off by the headache inducing complications of self-build.
Subsequently, other versions of the concept were tried, such as the LightScythe by ‘Mechatronics Guy’ in Australia, and more recently electronics component suppliers Adafruit have published online tutorials on using the latest versions of addressable LED strips with Arduino and Raspberry Pi platforms. But this still requires the user to self-build, and this puts a lot of people off.
Bitbanger Labs filled the gap in the market in October 2013 when they launched their kickstarter project to produce an ‘off the shelf’ version of this concept. Happily for them, they reached their target with 5 weeks to spare, and the Pixelstick went into production in early 2014, and started shipping in the late summer. Bitbanger are marketing it as a game changer, claiming it will ‘Change the way you take photographs forever’.
So does it live up to the hype?
The Parts Unboxed
The main thing that stands out is the Pixelstick is pretty much plug-and-play. There’s no mucking about with soldering irons, no banging your head at a screen trying to program arduino code. There’s minimal assembly, slap a bitmap onto an SD card and away you go. For those who aren’t sure how to manipulate a bitmap, Bitbanger provide a few pre-loaded test patterns that don’t even require an SD card, and they also have a few pre-prepared bitmaps for download from their site.
Another major consideration that formed a large part of the pre-release update emails for the Kickstarter is the build quality. Bitbanger seemed quite determined that they would produce a robust piece of kit. They have used extruded aluminum for the backbone and decent quality plastic to form the control box housing the circuitry. The cables are well sheathed and have durable connections to the LED strips and the control box. Nothing rattles about, the LCD screen displaying the user interface is just about the right size to combine ease of use without being so big it gets in the way. The LED strips are good and bright, being able to shine through ambient light well enough to allow it to be used under moderate streetlighting. The LED strip is in two sections, and they fit together snugly, with an adjustable bracket holding the two sections of supporting aluminium securely together. The control box and the battery holder are both attached to the back of the aluminium backbone by adjustable screw fittings, so they can be positioned anywhere along the length of the device. The central bracket also has a fitting to insert a small length of metal rod which serves as a handle, and a surrounding section of tube allows the stick to be spun around the handle should the user so desire.
So far so good, when assembled, the pixelstick feels solid, but is not so heavy as to be unwieldy. At 1.8m length, it’s not something you’d wave about easily like a lightsaber, but there is the option of using only half the LEDs to create a more manageable tool, and it works perfectly well in this configuration if you need to fit it into small spaces where the full length would be a hindrance.
The big winner for me though, is the interface. I’ve used a few variations of self-build Arduino Digital Light Wands, and whilst the current state of the art versions using the adafruit SW2012 Neopixel LEDs have the edge over the pixelstick in terms of image quality, they suffer from less accessible interface. In short, it’s awkward to change from one bitmap to another, or to alter the speed at which the bitmap is displayed by the LEDs. This is where Bitbanger have come up trumps.
The Pixelstick interface is intuitive, being simple to use yet also comprehensive. It allows to user to easily select from the bitmaps loaded onto the SD card, and has a number of other features that indicate the designers did some serious thinking about what light painters would want to do with the device. It allows you to alter the speed, brightness of the bitmap with ease, there’s an option to repeat the bitmap up to 99 times, or even reverse the left-right direction by which the bitmap is displayed. There’s an option for a timer delay, so the LEDs will wait for the prescribed number of seconds before lighting up, all of which increase the creative potential of the device. Another aspect of the interface that shows the designers were thinking of functionality is that the buttons are extruded from the control box enough to allow operation in the dark, i.e. with a bit of practise, they are big enough, and well spaced enough that you can feel where they are without needing to see them. The ‘fire’ button which sends the selected bitmap to the LEDs is set apart, and is bright yellow, which is a small thing, but it helps a lot when you’re jumping about in the dark, as does the separate power switch, which is placed on the top edge of the box, where it’s easily accessible, but out of the way so you don’t hit it by accident when operating the device.
A well designed interface
Another function I have not yet had time to explore fully is the ‘Increment’ feature of the interface. This allows sequentially numbered bitmaps to be executed one after another by hitting the ‘fire’ button. Making it very useful for those who seek to create light painted animations of the bitmaps stored on their SD card. Add to this the nice carry bag (handily sporting a bright yellow interior to make it more visible in dark situations, so you don’t find yourself scrambling about looking for it when shooting), the option for inserting different grades of diffuser in front of the LEDs and the ability to trigger the LEDs via a standard wireless remote control, then there are a good number of positive points to be made about this device.
But it can’t be all perfect can it? No. There are a few issues I have with the pixelstick, because I’m a picky so-and-so.
First off, the handle is wrong. It’s a short pole sticking out at right angles from the main section, and it is fixed centrally, so there’s no option to place it where you as an individual feel comfortable with it. A handle more like a pistol grip would have been a better option, as though this wouldn’t allow spinning, it would make it a lot easier to pull the stick through the air, and the way the device is designed, the two types of handle could easily be interchanged.
In terms of the quality of the images it produces, I have no complaints. The firmware interprets 24 bit .bmp files very well indeed. The colours are accurate, and if they seem a bit washed out, then just drop the brightness, or increase your F Stop, and all will be well. The resolution is very good, with 100 LEDs per metre being substantially less than the 144 LED/m available from Adafruits Neopixels, the diffuser compensates to a large extent, and the images do look sufficiently photorealistic. It’s worth putting some dither on tight edged lines in bitmaps though, as I found that the smooth lines from rasterized vector graphics do look a little jaggedy around the edges without a bit of dithering.
I’m also critical of the SD card slot, it’s tight and holds the card well, but the card sticks out slightly. There’s nothing to stop grit/moisture from getting in around the edges to infiltrate the control box, which could become a problem eventually. A flexible cover like those found on cameras covering the usb slots would have been much preferable. But it shouldn’t be too much trouble to make one from Sugru or even just a bit of tape will be better than nothing. A raised plastic ridge around the slot would have been a good thing too, as I’ve noticed a tendency for the card to release when the device is laid down on that side. As the card hits the ground first, it springs out as if you were pushing it with your finger to get it out. A ridge would prevent this.
Out and about at the beach, sand or water could get into the control box
One last niggle. The firmware seems to ignore trailing or leading black pixels in a bitmap. So if you have a 200px wide black bitmap with a small white dot in the middle, when you hit ‘fire’ the white dot will appear at the edge of the image displayed by the LEDs. I assume there’s a workaround out there, presumably by using a line of pixels that are 99.9% black, but not entirely, so that the firmware doesn’t ignore them, but they’re not bright enough to show up on camera.
In conclusion, the Pixelstick is a decent bit of kit. It’s not a game changer in the way that had been suggested before it’s release, as it’s not offering anything substantially different from the functionality already on offer from it’s precursors, to whom it undeniably owes an unacknowledged debt, and which can be created for a fraction of the price. But if you’re not keen on making your own tools and you’re prepared to shell out the cash, it will offer hours of fun and increase the creative opportunities for light painters.
Other reviewers, perhaps less immersed in the world of light painting have declared it to take long exposure photography to the next level and that it’s the best light painting tool they’ve seen well, that’s a matter of opinion.
For light painting snobs such as myself, the lack of skill required to employ it in it’s most basic form means that the novelty could wear off pretty quickly. But it also means that the creative challenge to use it in ways that go beyond simply dragging a bitmap through the air is worth taking into consideration.
One thing I can confidently state is that it lives up to my expectations, I didn’t expect it to revolutionise my light painting, but I did expect it to be worth the financial outlay in terms of it’s quality of construction and operation, and it is. Above all, I hope it’s success as a business project will inspire other manufacturers to realise that there is a vast untapped market for quality light painting tools out there.
Bottom Line: It’s a good piece of kit and does the job well, but you could make one yourself for less cash.
(LPP Admin NOTE)
One other subject that should be noted are the incredible opportunities Pixelstick offers in the field of stop motion animation using its ‘Increment’ feature as seen in the video below, create by Bitbanger Labs. Check it out and to get your own head on over HERE.
Bitbanger Labs is a small Brooklyn-based maker group that focuses on creating niche technology that inspires. First conceived in 2010 by founders Duncan Frazier and Stephen McGuigan, BBL has since designed and launched its first product, the Remee Lucid Dreaming Mask, first through an exciting (and successful!) Kickstarter and then on to a worldwide audience.
In October 2013, Bitbanger Labs launched a second phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign for their revolutionary photography product pixelstick, which shipped to rave reviews in August 2014. Check out some of the amazing things that photographers all over the world are doing with pixelstick!
In October 2017, Bitbanger Labs launched our third and most recent Kickstarter campaign for colorspike, a multi-purpose photo/video light that that completely redefines what is possible in studio, on set, or on the go.
About the Founders
Duncan McCloud Frazier is a photographer, artist, and programmer living in Brooklyn. When not making things for other people, Duncan tends to make things for himself, usually resulting in a lumpy but nutritious mash of photography, video and code.
Steve McGuigan is a jack-of-all-trades interested primarily in the written word, coding, design, gadgetry, and, when time permits, music.