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7Nov/1615

Projector Photography Tutorial + Aaxa M4 / M5 Review

Projector Photography involves projecting patterns, shapes, textures, or photos onto objects, people, and/or landscapes to create interesting effects and accentuate form.

 

The Projector

The DLP projector I am currently using is the portable Aaxa M4 / M5 / M6.

 

M4 specs:

  • Lumens: 800 lumens when plugged in, 400 lumens on battery
  • Native Resolution: 1280x800
  • Contrast Ratio: 2,000:1 (this basically means that a white pixel with RGB values maxed out at 255,255,255 is 2,000 times brighter than the darkest black pixel with RGB values of 0,0,0.)
  • Inputs: HDMI/VGA/AV/USB/Micro SD 🙂 (I prefer the Micro SD card because it remains inside of the unit, whereas USB protrudes out)
  • Onboard Battery (90 Minute)
  • Can project images onto surfaces 9 to 150+ inches away from projector. When the projector is X centimeters away from the projection surface, the projected image will measure as X centimeters in length, diagonally.
  • Tripod mount on bottom of unit 🙂
  • Keystoning: auto and manual, vertical only (I'll show you what keystoning is later on in the article)
  • Manual focus only
  • Dimensions: 8.3" * 5.3" * 3.1", small enough to fit in a camera bag 🙂
  • Weight: 2.44 lbs, lightweight enough to confidently put on any tripod or light stand 🙂 Attach a Giottos Mini Ballhead to enable vertical orientation if using a light stand.
  • Can read PNG, baseline rendered JPEGs (not progressive), BMP, and MP4 video files.
  • No zoom, so there is no rotary dial for that

The M5 is the same thing as the M4 except that it is more rectangular, so it can be placed vertically on a table. The M5 is 100 lumens brighter, has 70 min battery, and is smaller.

Not all projectors are perfect, here is what I mean...

The Aaxa M4 does have the screen-door effect and is more pronounced when projecting images onto surfaces that are further away from the projector.  The screen-door effect can be reduced by slightly defocusing the focus ring on the projector.

Aaxa M4 Screendoor Effect (1:1)

The screen-door effect is more noticeable when viewing the image at 1:1, as shown above. The screen-door effect looks like little lines of un-illuminated space between each pixel, like a screen-door.

The M4 also has the rainbow-effect and doesn't have the best contrast ratio:

contrast ratio, rainbow effect long exposure

The image on the left demonstrates the 1:2000 contrast ratio, meaning that black pixels still project out light that can be seen (see the faint rectangle?), which is unfortunate, because usually you want only non-black pixels (ie the circle) to be projected/seen, without even a hint of anything else. The only semi-workaround for this problem is to make sure the ambient light level of the environment is brighter than the black pixels being projected from the projector. The image on the right demonstrates the rainbow effect and is a 1.6 second light painting long exposure of the same circle shape being projected as the image on the left, with the only difference being that I moved the projector back and forth to create light trails throughout the 1.6 seconds. As you can see, the circle does not render as white when moving the projector around, because the projector rapidly shifts between projecting red, green, and blue. In order for the projection to render with no rainbow effect, you will need to use a shutter speed of 1/80th or slower and make sure that the projector or whatever comes into contact with the light is not moving at a fast pace. You could also use a LCoS projector instead of a DLP projector. The projector was roughly 2 meters away from the rock.

 

The Aaxa M4/M5/M6 projector could be improved in that:

  • A gapless video looping option would be very useful, as well as the ability to display animated GIFs. (email them and tell them to update the firmware!)
  • When displaying an image with a small resolution of say 4x4 pixels, it will resize that image to be 800x800. There should be an option that allows you to stretch it to fit screen (in this case 800x800) OR to display it as 4x4. (Email them!)
  • Keystoning should be more expandable.

With all that being said, you can do some pretty cool stuff with this projector. Here are some ideas:

Techniques and Ideas

Projecting patterns onto humans, landscapes, flora, and objects all work well.

projector_photography_tree_nature

Projector camera right, roughly 5 meters away from the tree base. See a previous image in this article to see how the screen-door effect is noticeable when this image is zoomed in at 1:1.

 

Notice how the 1:2000 contrast ratio is not noticeable in this photo - the projected blacks are not noticeable/illuminated. This is because this picture was taken just before night time, where there is enough atmospheric ambient light to over-power the black pixels of the projected light.

Notice how the 1:2000 contrast ratio is not noticeable in this photo - the projected blacks are not noticeable/illuminated. This is because this picture was taken just before night time, where there is enough atmospheric ambient light to over-power the black pixels of the projected light.

 

The screen-door effect can be significantly reduced when placing the projector extremely close to surfaces. Nothing really noticable shows up even at 1:1, besides the exception of maybe some chromatic aberration.

The screen-door effect can be significantly reduced when placing the projector extremely close to surfaces. No screen-door effect is noticeable even when viewing the image zoomed in at 1:1, although you may notice a tiny bit of chromatic aberration.

 

tree_projection_art_photography

Concentric circles being projected onto tree branches. For tree branches in particular, placing the projector as close as possible to the camera will produce the cleanest, in-tact projection. The further the projector moves away from the camera, the more difficult it will be to identify what you are projecting and the image being projected will just appear to be a jumbled mess of light due to the chaotic complexity of the tree branches.

 

Using a projector to project specific colors works very well.

The projector can be used to light up your scene with psychedelic colors.

religious_experience

projection photography male model black and white grid

 

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The sharpest lines able to be projected are horizontal and vertical lines. Diagonal lines can be projected, however you may see some pixelation. The screen-door effect is apparent when projecting horizontal, vertical, or diagonal lines. The screen-door effect is not noticeable in this image because the projector was close enough to the model. One projector aimed at his back, the other at his front.

 

Again, placing the projector very close to surfaces will create a cleaner projection.

Again, placing the projector as close as possible to surfaces will create the cleanest projection. This photo was taken with a shutter speed shorter than 1/80th, and thus the white grid looks red and green due to the rainbow effect.

Half-tone patterns work particularly well. This is a hand placed just above a table, with two projectors aimed at it, slightly above it.

Projecting half-tone patterns works particularly well, as half-tone patterns use geometric patterns to transition from light to dark.

 

Another half-tone pattern.

Another half-tone pattern.

 

square smoke fog projection

This is an image of a projector pointing directly at the camera. A hollow white square was being projected through fog created by a fog machine. ISO 3200 / F2.8 / 1/60sec / 24mm. Here is what a circle looks like, not pointing at the camera.

 

Same thing as above, except the projector is behind me pointing at the camera, projecting a space pattern through fog.

Same thing as above, except the projector is behind me pointing at the camera, projecting a star field space photo through fog. On-camera flash was used for fill light.

 

A spiral was being projected onto a wall/background creating a silhouette.

A spiral was projected onto a wall/background, creating a silhouette of the model, who was standing in front of the projector. You can see pixelation in this image due to the low resolution image that was used - remember that pixelation can be reduced by defocusing the focus ring on the projector, and can come out quite well with bold, simple patterns such as hypnosis spirals.

 

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You can turn on Live View mode when using a DSLR or video camera and then plug it into an input port on the projector to project out what the DSLR sees... this basically means that you can project an image of what is already there onto what is already there, and then take a picture of it. You may need to use two DSLRs to do this though, as the DSLR you plug into the projector may not be able to take pictures and be in Live View at the same time.

projection mirror vortex

Automatic keystoning is a feature the projector has where it will automatically shift the perspective of the projection so it appears correct from the projector's point of view. In this picture, the flower of life symbol was projected onto cement and I traced it with chalk. After that, I put my camera right where the projector was and took a picture. The second image shows the same thing except it was taken at a different angle, and thus looks distorted from that point of view.

Keystoning is a feature the projector has where it can shift the perspective of the projection so it appears correct from the projector's point of view (vertical correction only). This picture was created by placing the projector onto a tripod, aiming it downward roughly 35 degrees or so, projecting out a symbol onto cement and tracing it with chalk at dusk. Then when in daylight, I put my camera where the projector was and took a picture. As you can see, it appears to be a perfect circle even though it is on a surface that is stretching out towards the vanishing point. The second image you see on the right is the same thing, just shot at a different angle, and thus looks distorted from that point of view. This technique can be taken much further to create realistic optical illusions - painting the cement to make it look like the asphalt has collapsed and there is a hole in the ground, for example.

 

Gradient tiles being projected onto a garden.

Gradient tiles being projected onto a garden. Note that this is not the same thing as going into Adobe Photoshop and placing the same gradient over an image - when a projector is used, real photons are hitting the physical 3D surface of the object you are photographing and taking its shape/form. The projection will cast shadows as well (depending on what you are photographing and what angle the projector is at), whereas Photoshop will not do that. Different material absorbs/reflects different wavelengths of light at different rates as well, which is another thing that is impossible for Photoshop to emulate.

 

This image was projected onto the floor to give it a retro-wave vibe.

This image, taken from my projector images pack (which I'll talk about later), was projected onto the floor to give it a retrowave vibe.

 

You can hook the projector up to a laptop (or tablet/phone) and use Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator (or whatever else), live, in real-time, to draw light onto surfaces with maximum precision. You can do the same thing using animations as well. Just hit the F key twice to enter Full Screen Mode when you are in Adobe programs.

 

You can project a pattern onto a model, and have the model move around to create an interesting long exposure light painting abstract. You can also project a video of a moving pattern onto a model or anything else, and have them move around (or not) to create another type of long exposure light painting. Here is a long exposure of white dots/stars spiraling inward, with a model on the right.

You can take a long exposure image of a person walking in front of the projector a few meters away, walking from the left side of the projection to the right side of the projection while projecting a video where a white scan-line starts at the top row of pixels, slowly slides downward, and ends up at the bottom row of pixels. This is known as slit-scan photography. More information about this specific technique will be in the image pack.

You can use the projector as a light painting device for long exposures, being able to project any shape or color of light onto any surface, and be able to change the color of the light as it is moving at any speed.

 

 

Alternative Projectors

There are projectors out there that are brighter and higher res than the M4, however they are larger, heavier, more expensive, and do not come with an on-board battery. Here is a comparison of the most relevant projectors that are 'better' than the M5 that I could find during my research.  As far as I know right now, LCoS/SXRD technology (as opposed to DLP or LCD) reduces screen-door effect and eliminates rainbow effect, and using lasers instead of LEDs as the light source also reduces screen-door effect and requires no focus ring; comment below if you have anything to add regarding this.

The instruction manual for the VPL-HW65ES states that it you should avoid aiming the projector up/down more than 15 degrees, for some reason, so that is a bit of an issue.

There are cheaper and smaller projectors available as well but they are not as bright.

Other than that, I have not looked into other projectors that could be used. If you have any specific recommendations for something you feel is better than the M5, feel free to leave the name of the projector down below in the comments and a reason or two of why it is good/better.

 

If you don't have $500....

A gobo is a physical stencil or template slotted inside, or placed in front of, a lighting source, used to control the shape of emitted light.  You can make the shadows of the projection sharper by making the lightsource smaller in relation to the gobo stencil, use non-diffused light sources, and/or increase the distance of the gobo from the light source. Miniature krypton light bulbs that are used in Maglites can produce extremely sharp shadows because the light source is so small. Non-diffused tungsten light bulbs can also be used and create decently sharp shadows.

The Light Blaster is a type of gobo/light combo system that converts your portable speedlight flash into a slide projector.  I prefer the Aaxa M4 because of the unlimited amount of patterns and sizes of projections that can be projected, however a speedlight would be better if you wanted to capture highspeed images of say fog or rain, where you could see each individual particle very clearly with no motion blur.

 

Theoretical Features the Ideal Projector Would Have....

  1. have an on-board battery
  2. have the ability to quickly manually adjust the lumens output by rotating a physical knob on the projector
  3. have no screen-door effect
  4. have a greater contrast ratio so that blacks render with no noticeable illumination
  5. have at least 1080p native resolution
  6. have no rainbow-effect
  7. have no chromatic aberration ie. uses a lens that has no chromatic aberration. A projector that could accept DSLR lenses would be very, very cool. I would want to try mounting a circular fisheye to the projector and get a full 180 degree spread projection, or a macro lens to project to project the finest details onto a very small object!
  8. be small enough to put in a camera bag (not as important, but still... 8x6x3 would fit in most bags)
  9. have 1,000+ lumens
  10. Be able to project infrared and ultraviolet light (just kidding... sort of)

 

Image Pack

I've created an image pack which contains hundreds of images/videos that can be used with the Aaxa M4 projector (or any projector, really). The image pack contains a variety of shapes, colors, patterns, half-tone patterns, slit-scans, and videos, all organized in their appropriate folders with the filenames titled for ease-of-use.

After downloading the image pack, simply extract the folder onto a micro SD card or USB stick, put that in your projector, and you now have hundreds of images to work with! Boom done!

The Projector Photography Image Pack should be able to be purchased here within the next few months.

To get notified when the image pack is released, enter your name and email here.

Related Content

Projector Buying Guide: Broad over-view of projector types. Reviews all of the vocabulary involved in the second half of the article.

Dani Oliver is a projection photographer who has explored in-depth photographing nude women, and has a very good book available that showcases many many photographs.

And that is that! The bottom line is, you can use this projector for all kinds of stuff! It has many applications for photography and something that could be a great addition to your kit! Hopefully the technology will improve with time as well, and some of the features I listed out will be a reality someday.

   
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