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Painting with Light

The previous sections discussed the importance of moving the viewer’s eyes through the scene as you intended. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to place light throughout the image with exact precision? Fortunately, there is a lighting technique that allows you to do just that. Painting with light or light painting allows you to place light exactly where you desire. As the name implies, you actually paint light onto specific areas of the photo while avoiding other areas.

Different Ways to Light Paint

The term light painting is used to refer to two distinct techniques of lighting. In one, the light source itself is directed throughout the scene, creating lines and swirls that move through the image. Think of when you have taken a sparkler or a stick with a red-hot ember and twirled it around in the dark, creating interesting patterns. Leaving the shutter open for a set amount of time allows the light to produce an exposure as it moves through the scene.

In the image below (FIGURE 3.10), a stick with a red-hot end was moved to create the two hearts. If you look closely you can see the face and hands of the person creating the hearts as well as the stick that serves as the light source. Anything that creates light can be used to produce these kinds of images. Adding colored gels over the light source can create different colored swirls in endless combinations. This can be fun, but it’s not the technique we will be concentrating on.

Figure 3.10

Figure 3.10. A light source moved through the scene in this image creates two hearts.

The other way to light paint is to turn the light source onto the scene itself. Instead of pointing the light into the camera as seen in Figure 3.10, you make sure that the light itself isn’t seen; rather, what you record is the light reflecting off the subjects in the image. The reflected light strikes the film or sensor, thereby recording an image.

This technique has been around for decades. It was used by architectural photographers who needed to light huge spaces but didn’t have enough lighting to illuminate such large interiors. With the shutter open, they could use a single light and move it across the interior space, leaving the light longer in some areas than in others so that some elements would be brighter. In this way they were able to direct the viewer’s eye to the parts of the room that were most important. We’ve had students who have used this technique to light up things as large as waterfalls, parts of forests, and huge arches in places like Moab and Arches National Monument (FIGURE 3.11).

Figure 3.11

Figure 3.11. A light-painting image taken by Casey Bieker of an arch at Arches National Monument.

ISO 100, 30 sec., f/11, 100mm lens

The image Casey took is beautiful and dramatic and helps to illustrate the diversity and potential that painting with light has. Since this is a book about studio lighting, though, we will concentrate on how this technique can be used in a studio environment.

Light Painting in the Studio

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, a photographer named Aaron Jones helped to popularize light painting by inventing a piece of equipment called the Hosemaster. It used fiber optics and various attachments to produce different qualities of light. It also included a device that could be placed in front of the lens to employ different diffusion filters during exposure, so that parts of the image would be rendered sharp while other parts would be diffused.

His images were stunningly beautiful and had a mysterious painterly quality to them. For a long time no one knew how he created them, but eventually as word got out he started marketing the Hosemaster and graciously taught other photographers how to use it. The Hosemaster was relatively expensive, so many photographers used flashlights to try to achieve similar results. You couldn’t get some of the nuanced quality of lighting with the flashlight, but the results could still be interesting and effective.

What is so exciting about this technique is that it really allows you to make lighting a central part of the composition. We’ll review the basic technique, which allows you to be extremely precise with where you choose to put your light (FIGURE 3.12).

Figure 3.12

Figure 3.12. A fairly complicated composition simplified by painting highlights onto specific areas of the image (opposite).

ISO 100, 30 sec., f/11, 210mm lens

The Process

Light painting begins much the way any other lighting technique does. First, you set up your shot while deciding what’s going to be most important in the image and what you’re trying to say about it. Although there are many ways to go about light painting, the following is a good general way to start.

If you’re going for a dramatic image with significant contrast between highlights and shadows, you want to set up your overall fill light along the camera axis so that all the shadows will receive some amount of fill. Meter that light, and then, depending on how dark you want your shadows to go, underexpose the light by between one and three stops (FIGURES 3.13A–D). This is just your base exposure; you’ll be adding highlights to the image by painting them on using a flashlight.

Figure 3.13

Figure 3.13. a) Image exposed per meter reading at f/8; b) one stop underexposed at f/11; c) two stops underexposed at f/16; d) three stops underexposed at f/22.

ISO 50, 1/125 sec., f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, 150mm lens

Now comes the fun part! You get to choose what you want to highlight within the image, both literally and figuratively. The hammer is the main subject, so most of the highlights will be concentrated on it. Texture will be added to the background, and other highlights will be added to some of the secondary props. The lighting used will make it clear what is most important and where we want the viewers to look.

In the last chapter we talked about lighting being a building process, and that’s especially true when you light paint. Start by adding light to the hero, analyze the results, and then make the necessary adjustments. Once you’re satisfied, you can move on to lighting other parts of the image (FIGURES 3.14A–C).

The final image (FIGURE 3.15) was created by underexposing a strobe softbox by two stops. The shutter can be set on T or B to keep it open during the entire exposure. Once the shutter was open, we popped the strobe to give the base fill exposure. Then we used the flashlight to add the necessary highlights. The flashlight was at a fairly low angle, to bring out as much texture in the objects as possible. With the shutter open, the flashlight was in constant motion, literally painting highlights onto those areas of the shot that we were trying to call attention to. It’s important to not leave the flashlight stationary for too long, as this will create obvious hotspots.

Figure 3.15

Figure 3.15. This image has the right amount of light on the hammer, and light has been added to the background and props for additional interest.

ISO 50, 30 sec., f/11, 150mm lens

We used a cone made of matte black Cinefoil to limit the size of the light and to help ensure that it didn’t shine directly into the lens (FIGURE 3.16).

Figure 3.16

Figure 3.16. This is the flashlight and cone setup used to create Figure 3.15.

High-Key Shots

The majority of the examples shown have involved pretty dramatic contrast between highlights and shadows. This technique can also be used in high-key shots, where the overall shot is bright but you still want to add some additional highlights to certain areas of the image. It can also be used to add fill to limited areas of an image when using any other kind of fill may be inappropriate because it fills all of the shadows (FIGURE 3.17).

Figure 3.17

Figure 3.17. A flashlight was used to fill the inside of the cherry and add some specular highlights. The flashlight had a blue gel over it to make it daylight balanced. The red in the shadow was created by using a red fill card to bounce light back into the shadows.

ISO 50, 15 sec., f/5.6, 210mm lens


It’s impossible to tell you how long each exposure will be. The length of exposure is determined by many factors, including the power of the flashlight, the distance the light is from the subject matter, the amount of area you want to paint with light, and the f-stop you’re using. Clearly, the more you stop down the lens, the longer the exposure will be.

Depending on the camera you’re using, you may need to be concerned about digital noise appearing, especially in the shadow areas of your image, if you’re using long exposures.

This may not be your number one way of lighting, but it’s a great way to become more aware of subject hierarchy and ways you can use light to direct the viewer’s eye throughout an entire image. All of this will require a certain amount of trial and error and experimentation. Play around with it—the practice will make you better.

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