The Magic of Light Painting
What is Light Painting?
The word photography means to draw or paint with light. When I first began studying photography, I was told that along with composition, the study of light would be a lifelong endeavor. Over the years, I’ve found this to be an absolute truth. I have also found that light painting is one of the more creative and magical ways to illuminate a scene.
In short, light painting is using a flashlight to illuminate your subject. Rather than depending on a typical light source for lighting, you use a flashlight to “paint” your subject. Standard photography involves the use of ambient light, meaning natural light provided by the sun, overcast days, the sky, indoor lighting, street lamps, etc. “Ambient” means “relating to the immediate surroundings,” so ambient light is that which surrounds us. The light that’s available.
Commonly, light painting takes place outside after dark, inside dark rooms, or in any other dimly lit situations. This is not to say that complete darkness is necessary for light painting. It is possible and indeed fun to mix light painting and ambient light together. One of my favorite times to paint with light is when the moon is full. The trick is to put yourself in situations where your shutter speed can be long enough to allow you time to paint your subject. If you are shooting a well-lit street scene, your shutter speed may be as fast as 4 or 8 seconds—just not enough time to effectively paint your subject. A dark alley, however, may produce an exposure of 30 seconds or a minute or two.
These exposures are more conducive to creatively illuminating your subject with a flashlight. The real beauty of light painting is in the crafting of the light. You are the artist. The conductor. Few forms of photography allow this level of creativity in shaping your subject. The flashlight becomes your brush and the scene your canvas. Imagination and experimentation become your workflow, resourcefulness and ingenuity your tools.
In the images below made in the solitary confinement cell in the Mansfield Reformatory, I needed to add light to bring out the detail in the cell. In Figure 1.1 we first see how dark the cell was, with the ambient light reaching only so far down the hallway. Then we see how the cell looked after I stood inside the cell and painted outward with my flashlight to create the shadows of the bars on the floor.
Figure 1.1: Before and after light painting
While creating masterpieces takes some practice, the basic concept of light painting is little more than illuminating your subject with the flashlight while your camera’s shutter is open, a process that resulted in this ghost town image (Figure 1.2).
Figure 1.2: Restrooms, car, Gold King Mine Ghost Town
One of the coolest things about this type of photography is that you need very little special gear. No special lenses, tripods, or tripod heads. You will, however, need a some form of tripod and a camera that can be set to “Bulb.” This setting allows the shutter to stay open for as long as you depress the shutter button. The easiest way to do this is to use a remote release to lock your shutter open in bulb mode. You can purchase a cable release produced by your camera manufacturer, or check out less expensive options from after-market sources. I use the Vello brand remote from B&H (Figure 1.3), which costs considerably less than the Nikon models.
Just about any type of flashlight will provide enough illumination to see in the dark, but I like to use tactical flashlights for my light painting. They provide a nice mix of durability, intensity and a smooth beam of light. The intensity of a flashlight is measured in lumens. The higher the lumen value, the more powerful the flashlight.
Top: Surefire 100 Lumen LED
Bottom: 65-Lumen Xenon
While the more powerful 65-lumen and 100-lumen lights work well for light painting, you may find them too bright for the extra illumination you’ll need while adjusting your camera or finding gear in your backpack. I use a Coleman LED Multi-Color (Figure 1.5), one of many brands, allows switching from a brighter white light to a dimmer red light. I consider this type of light an essential part of my light-painting tool kit.
The best part about light painting is having the ability to shape your subject with illumination. This can generally be accomplished by changing your position and the angle of the flashlight. Moving closer to your subject increases the intensity of the flashlight; stepping back decreases its power. Placing the light at an angle to the subject increases the feeling of texture in the surface. Illuminating it from behind can provide rim light and separate your subject from the background.
There are limits, however to the capabilities of the basic flashlight. It’s not uncommon to want to narrow the beam of light, decrease its intensity, or even change its color. Fortunately, the photography world is filled with light-shaping and modifying tools that allow us to overcome these problems.
A snoot can help narrow down the beam of light from a flood to a spot. This is a great help when you want to paint a smaller area without spilling over on the surroundings. You can see how in this image of a powder magazine at Fort Point, I was able to paint the front of the barrels with a narrow beam to keep the spillover to a minimum (Figure 1.6).
Figure 1.6: Barrels painted with a snoot
There are many types of snoots available to the photographer, but most are made for speedlights or studio strobes. Several manufacturers make snoots that can be used with a flashlight as well. Here you see a Vello 5-inch Snoot/Reflector attached to a speedlight (Figure 1.8). This can easily be repurposed to wrap around the front of a flashlight.
Another way to narrow down your beam is to use a honeycomb grid. This type of modifier will shrink the size of the beam while decreasing the intensity. Pictured here is a ExpoImaging Rogue 3-in-1 Grid (Figure 1.8). This system includes three depths of grids that fit inside of the snoot. The deeper the grid, the more narrow the beam (Figure 1.9).
Figure 1.8: Rogue 3-in-1 Grid Kit
The grid is manufactured to work with a speedlight. It is, however, an easy matter to remove the grid from the snoot and hold it in front of your flashlight.
Getting Your Ambient Exposure
For most light-painting compositions, you’ll want an exposure between 30 seconds and 3 minutes to allow time to illuminate your subject. The first step is to establish your ambient exposure and compostion using a higher ISO. Once your test shot for the ambient exposure is complete you can then calculate your actual exposure:
ISO 3200 for 2” equals
ISO 1600 for 4”,
ISO 800 for 8”,
ISO 400 for 16”,
ISO 200 for 30”,
ISO 100 for 1 minute
The one minute exposure at ISO 100 now gives you time to illuminate your subject with your flashlight. Here is an example of how I used a higher ISO to begin my light painting process.
Figure 1.10: I began by putting my camera into Manual Exposure Mode with Matrix metering. I set my ISO to 6400 and my aperture to f/11. I pointed my camera into the sky and adjusted my shutter speed so that the indicated meter read -1. This setting makes the sky appear darker than at Midday but not black.
Figure 1.11: The resulting image shows how the sky has a night feel and the foreground is completely black. This exposure was 4 seconds at f/11 with an ISO of 6400. The -1 setting on the sky is typical, but not mandatory. You can experiment with different brightness levels to suit your taste.
Figure 1.12: Next, I used the Six-Stop Rule to calculate my final exposure. The Six-Stop Rule states that 1 second at ISO 6400 equals 1 minute at ISO 100. My test exposure was 4 seconds so my final exposure will be 4 minutes. At this point it’s not necessary for me to run the full exposure while I test for light painting. I know the sky will be right at the 4–minute mark so now I am just testing the light painting. This image shows the amount of painting was insufficient.
Figure 1.13: For this next test shot I painted the front headstones for longer (about a total of 2 seconds each stone). The total exposure for this shot was only 46 seconds but I’m not concerned about the sky at this point. I am simply trying to get my painting right for the main subject.
Figure 1.14: After a couple more light-painting test shots I came up with this final image. This was taken using the full exposure of 4 minutes. I increased the time I spent painting the front headstones to about 3 seconds each. I then placed my flashlight at a low angle and painted the grass around the stones. The full exposure also gave me time to walk back into the scene and paint a few more monuments. Using Photoshop, I cloned out some of the brighter city lights at the rear of the cemetery for a less distracting background.
Starting the Process
When getting started with light painting you may feel a bit like a fish out of water. Where to begin? What to do first? It all begins with visualizing your composition. As you look at the scene imagine what it can be rather than what it is.
- Decide what lens to use. This will determine much of what comes next.
- Think about depth of field. Do you want your whole scene sharp (F/8–f/22) or do you want only the main subject sharp (F/1.4–f/4)? I tend to like maximum sharpness, so my default apertures are f/8 or f/11. Consider using only one or two apertures when your first start out. This consistency will help you learn how much painting is necessary for a good exposure.
- Set your ISO to 6400. If you don’t have 6400, use 3200. Running test shots at high ISOs saves time and helps with fine-tuning your composition.
- Set your camera to its multi-segment meter. The multi-segment meters (Evaluative for Canon, Matrix for Nikon) deliver decent initial exposures in scenes that have a mix of lights and darks. Some adjustments may be necessary after you review your test shots.
- You can obtain good exposures under moonlit conditions by pointing your camera into the sky and putting the indicated meter at -1. This will leave your foreground black but your sky will have that nighttime feel.
- For scenes without much ambient light, I typically shoot for 2 or 3 minutes at f/8 or f/11. I find these two apertures allow enough time to paint without being overly restrictive. F/16 and f/22 allow much less light to pass, increasing the time you need to paint.
- Once your ambient exposure is established, begin to practice your painting. Remember, it’s not necessary to expose each of these test shots for the full time. At this point you are just analyzing your painting techniques. The overall length of exposure will have very little influence here.
- If you are working in a bright area, there is a chance that some light can enter through the eyepiece in the back of the camera causing an odd glow or streaks across your image. Closing the viewfinder eyepiece shutter (Figure 2.23) during long exposures will eliminate these anomalies.
Once the initial ambient exposure is established, the real fun begins. It’s time to put the brush to the canvas. At this point you are truly making photographs instead of taking them. You are creating the light. You are designing the overall look and feel of the image.
Should your subject be brighter? Get closer or spend more time painting. Too bright? Spend less time painting or back up. Want to change the color of the main subject? Put a filter over your flashlight. Want the ambient light to be more blue? Change the white balance. The possibilities are endless.
The ambient exposure is controlled by the f/stop and shutter speed. The light painting exposure, though is controlled by the aperture, length of time spent painting, distance from the flashlight to the subject, and subject reflectivity.
- Wider apertures, shorter painting times. Smaller apertures, longer painting times. I typically use f/8 and f/11 @ 100 or 200 ISO.
- For shorter painting times, get closer to your subject.
- Subject reflectivity is also an exposure factor. Darker or rougher subjects will take more time to bring up to the desired brightness. Subjects that are smoother or lighter will require less time.
- Because of all these variables, it is nearly impossible to give an average painting time for any given aperture. Experimentation is key. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Simply open your shutter and start painting
Angle of light
1. Painting at the same angle as the camera will produce the least-interesting version of your scene. (Fig. 1.15)
2. Painting the subject from the side will result in the most texture and dimension. (Fig. 1.16)
Light Painting Considerations
- Be prepared. Carry extra batteries for all of your gear.
- Don’t wear bright clothing.
- Use your red flashlight to avoid the painful white light. Set your LCD to a lower power setting.
- Use your high-power flashlight to help you compose and focus.
- Establish your ambient exposure first.
- Use low ISOs of 100, 200, and 400.
- F/8 and f/11 provide good sharpness while allowing enough time to paint your subjects.
- Common shutter speeds range from 30 seconds to 3 or 4 minutes.
- Use your white balance to establish the color temperature of the overall scene.
- Filter your flashlight to alter the color of the subjects you paint.
- Don’t be afraid to walk through the scene, but be sure the camera can’t see the front of the flashlight.
- Paint from different angles to create the feeling of multiple light sources.
- Paint some objects brighter than others. Scenes become flat and boring when all of the subjects are the same brightness.
- All light painting is an experiment in creating light. Have fun. Don’t be afraid to try new techniques.
This is an excerpt from Tim Cooper’s book The Magic of Light Painting from Peachpit Press. The Magic of Light Painting is an eBook that can be purchased for $10.39 by clicking here.
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