What does music look like? Inside a Waterloo photographer's 'motion exposure' images

When Stephen Orlando's "motion exposure" photos went viral, he connected with a Kitchener-Waterloo viola player. The result is his latest series of light painting photos. The experience gave the engineer-turned-photographer a new understanding of how music is made.

Artist uses LEDs to capture a real-life electric light orchestra

Name: Stephen Orlando

Handle: @motionexposure

Sometimes, one art form teaches you something about another. And for Stephen Orlando, photography gave him a lesson in music.

Orlando is an engineer from Waterloo, Ontario, and late last year his "light painting" photos gained international attention. "Motion Exposure" is how he describes his work, which captures human movement, transforming it into a pattern of neon colour. Think of a Spirograph, or a laser light show — or the intro to the Edison Twins — cutting through the Canadian wilderness.

"I guess the way I see the photos is half art and half data visualization," he explains, and when a series of his images went viral — pictures of outdoor kayakers and skiers and cyclists — a local musician saw them and got an idea. As luck would have it, Orlando was thinking the same thing too.

Alex Clark, a viola player, e-mailed Orlando about collaborating. "Music just seemed like an activity that would lend itself well to this technique," Orlando says, "there's a lot of interesting movements that aren't entirely visible all at once." And in all his years studying light painting, a famous example – featuring a violinist – kept recurring in his research. The photo was taken by Gjon Mili, a Life magazine photographer in the '50s. "I was inspired by that, and wanted to kind of retry what he did with some modern lighting equipment."

Orlando captures movement by attaching LED lights to his subject. He doesn't use Photoshop. He doesn't take multiple exposures. Photographing musicians in a darkened Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony rehearsal space, he says he had to adapt his techniques. (A custom LED-light rig might not affect a kayaker's movement, but its weight is too much for a violinist's bow.) His biggest lesson, though, was about music itself.

"I had to re-learn some things about music I learned in elementary school," says Orlando of the project, "the structure of the music, the sheet music." Working with Clark and the other musician friends recruited for the project – violinist Kat Mrmak and cellist Jessica Reid – Orlando learned the basics of how a stringed instrument can be played. One note can be bowed in various ways. That fact led to his favourite photo of the series. This is it:

Stephen Orlando. (Bach Cello Suite No. 1, 2015) (Courtesy of Stephen Orlando)

If you look at the sheet music included in the image, Clark is repeatedly playing the same 10-second selection from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1. Variations using various bowing techniques, producing strikingly different ribbons of light.

Orlando is planning to work with more musicians. He's done tests with conductors, trying to capture the movement of their batons. He's working on piano photos, too. "It's just a lot more complicated to attach lights to the fingers of a pianist."

"I'm really hoping to work with either the K-W Symphony or the Toronto Symphony in the next little bit," he says. "I want to work with artists and collaborate with people as much as possible."

Follow @motionexposure on Instagram and visit to find his latest work.

Social media can be so much more than selfies and viral videos — it's increasingly becoming a scratch pad for emerging artists and other creative minds to show off their latest work. Artstagram curates the best visual talent on Instagram, helping bring a little more art into your daily feed.​


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?