Under Black Light

October 1, 2011

By RF Staff

If there is any embodiment of John Poppleton’s business slogan, “Cherish Something Different,” it would be his provocative and intriguing images created with black light.

“From my very first roll of black-and-white film in Beginning Photography class, I’ve tried to find ways to be original and do things differently than everyone else,” Poppleton  says. “The black light art has been the first thing to come along in a while to hold my attention for any length of time. It started out very small and built on little ideas and ‘what if’ questions, plus a few accidents. The hardest part has been getting someone in the studio when inspiration strikes, which is usually in the middle of the night.”

In his setup, Poppleton hangs a wedding dress skirt from a light stand on one side of the subject, and white fabric over a 3 x 6-foot photo panel on the other side. “If you want a color other than blue you can use fluorescent poster board to obtain a green or reddish orange. I use cheap washable fluorescent poster paint from the craft store. It is made for little kids so I don’t worry about putting it on the model’s skin.” He purchases yards of 0.7mm plastic drop cloth material from painting departments to protect the floor of his studio. At first, he tried to keep everything clean while painting his models, but then noticed while shooting that he liked the look of the paint specks on the drop cloth, which looked like stars. He now uses the plastic drop cloths for backgrounds, to wrap around the models or to tone down the glowing fabrics placed under the models.

Poppleton fashions his images using lighting equipment that can be found at any Walmart or Home Depot. He uses 4-foot tubes for a soft, broad light source and fluorescent bulbs in a clamp light for a more focused spot. He bought a UV LED flashlight to test products in stores before purchasing them to make sure they glow under black lights.

Black lights will light almost anything with a long enough exposure, but the idea is to use materials that react to UV light. When exposing for the reactive material, such as fluorescent paint, the skin will record as black. To create rim lighting, Poppleton uses large pieces of white fabric that react to the UV light and glow blue. The fabric used in most photographic light modifiers will not react, but the materials used to make wedding gowns and veils as well as white sheets and cotton T-shirts typically do react. He uses the fluorescent bulb in the clamp light to look through his storage to see what will react and what doesn’t.

His inspiration, he says, comes simply out of boredom. “I push myself to come up with new ideas because I am bored with the old ones. I have also, at times, not wanted to pursue photography because I am bored with it as well. I will get excited about a new idea and can’t fall asleep and then I am so tired that I never even try the idea that got me so excited.”

Poppleton attributes this frantic creative energy to Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD). He grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento, CA, the youngest of seven. His childhood home was nestled in the middle of an undeveloped area with a creek, palm trees, a bamboo forest and fruit tree orchards. He spent most of his time exploring his surroundings, building forts and tree houses and catching frogs. Back in the 70s and 80s, when he was growing up, not much was known about PDD and his teachers thought he was lazy because he scored in the gifted level on IQ tests but was doing poorly in his classes. PDD is now known as a mild form of autism.

Poppleton dropped out of high school a month into his junior year and went to live with a brother in San Diego. But before the second semester began, his school counselor came up with a plan to get him back in school. He thought if Poppleton  could take a class he really liked, he would be willing to stay in his other classes. Photography proved to be the class that got him involved in high school again. Poppleton says, “Back in school I found it to be the most exciting class I had ever taken and the teacher was equally awesome. By the end of the school year I had been accepted by the yearbook staff as photographer for my senior year.”

After graduating from high school, Poppleton moved to his father’s hometown of Wellsville, UT, 75 miles north of Salt Lake City. In 1993, he reluctantly agreed to photograph a friend’s wedding. “After surviving that ordeal I was soon asked by two other friends to shoot their weddings. I decided to get a business license and make it official because the local lab gave real photo businesses a discount,” Poppleton says. He started out using his parents’ garage as his studio and later moved to a commercial storefront in the center of town. His location is unique in that it has residential living in the back, under the same roof as his studio, and is one of only two buildings in the county with this kind of zoning.

The advances in digital photography have produced endless possibilities for John. He says, “The new digital camera technology, especially in low light capabilities, is what makes the black light photography more practical. I usually shoot about ISO 1250 to 1600, but with today’s cameras I know I can go higher if I need to. The live view mode is also very beneficial for focusing in the dark as well as for pre-visualizing the exposure and white balance.”

While in live view mode, Poppleton varies his white balance in the K mode. He usually stays around 4800K but always looks at everything when he is trying something new. “The white balance will actually affect the exposure. The lower the Kelvin temperature, the bluer and brighter the image will be, with the highlights turning pink before they start to clip. The other end of the spectrum will start to give you more realistic colors and require increased exposures.”

While shooting black light images, his first step is to find the exposure and white balance that work best for the scene. Then he composes the image with his camera on a tripod, using live view 5X and 10X focus assist to magnify the chosen focus area. He focuses manually and tracks the subjects’ movements as they do their best to remain still. He does this right up to pressing the shutter release, using a cable without returning to full-frame view. “I used to scroll back to full-frame view before taking the picture but found that in the one second it took to do so the subject would have moved slightly. Working with live subjects under low light means even breathing can change focus, not to mention a high-powered fan blowing in their face.”

Poppleton shoots all his images in both RAW and JPEG. He feels the JPEGs will match what he sees on the camera LCD screen and most of the time he uses those files. The RAW files give him an entire range of other possibilities if he decides to use them. He takes his RAW files into Lightroom and uses presets and other powerful tools to come up with completely new looks. He says, “Just don’t expect the RAW files to look like what you saw on the camera without some tweaking under the ‘camera calibration’ tab. If you want the RAW files to match what you saw on the camera without all the camera calibration tweaking, you can use the RAW software that came with your camera.”

Poppleton has used a variety of cameras over the years, from 35mm to 4 x 5 view cameras. He is currently using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EOS 7D and a Sony DSC-F828, which is converted for shooting mainly infrared. His lenses of choice are Canon’s 15mm fisheye, 24–70mm f/2.8 L, 70–200mm f/2.8 L IS and the 85mm f/1.2 L. He goes back and forth on which camera he prefers for black light photography. He says, “I think the 5D is better in low light but the smaller sensor of the 7D gives me more depth of field at the same f-stops. It just depends on how I feel that day.” One piece of advice: if you are using a Canon 5D Mark II in live-view mode, Poppleton says, make sure the menu is set to ‘stills only’ or you won’t be able to shoot at shutter speeds below 1/30 of a second.

He is very excited about the direction that camera technology is moving in—most notably video-enabled HDSLRs. “It was always a daydream of mine to work in motion pictures. In the early 90s, I tried to become a filmmaker using video technology and I couldn’t figure out why my footage looked more like a soap opera and less like a Hollywood film. Now it seems silly because we all know why motion picture and video look different, right?

“With HDSLRs taking the film industry by storm and legendary DPs calling the footage from the Canon 5D Mark II the closest thing to ‘digital film’, I’m once again pursuing a career in motion pictures. When the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is released, I plan to have my 5D Mark II converted to full spectrum, so I can shoot music videos in infrared and capture higher resolution stills for my scenic infrared work. I am hoping it will help on the UV end as well.”
To see samples of Poppleton’s fine art imagery go to

Caresse Muir specializes in family, high school senior and children’s portraits. She has owned her own photo business for 14 years in San Diego, CA and has  been a contributing writer for Rangefinder for over 6 years.