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Light Painting

Light painting is one of the most expressive and creative ways to capture the night. When you paint with light, you add a new source of brightness to the picture. You can use it to simply open up uninteresting shadows, or you can add splashes of color to change how the viewer sees the image. Given the long exposures of night photography, you can paint or draw almost anything in your imagination. The instant feedback of digital, combined with the availability of so many light sources, makes this a very exciting time to experiment with painting with light.

Light Painting from Start to Finish

Light painting is all about balancing the ambient light with the light that you’re painting. Think of it as combining two different layers in the picture. One layer is the ambient, or base, layer; the other layer is the light you add to the darker areas of the image.

The first step is to assess the situation. Before I even set up my composition, I walk around the scene to see how the light and shadows are falling. Then I go back to the camera and figure out my composition and base exposure with several test shots. When you’re light painting, it’s a good idea to underexpose your base exposure by a half or full stop, especially when the sky is the main source of ambient light. This gives the image a nocturnal feel and enhances the contrast of the light painting. Figure 4.8 is a high-ISO test shot. The brightest ambient light is the sky, and the foreground is dark and prime for painting. I liked the direction of the light falling on the statue and wanted to highlight it.

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.8 This high-ISO test shot helped me read the ambient light in the scene and assess where light painting would be needed.

ISO 6400 • 6 sec. • f/4 • 50mm lens

Now that you’ve established a base exposure, you need to figure out how much light painting to add. You can control the brightness of the ambient light by increasing or decreasing your shutter speed. The brightness of light painting is controlled in the camera by the aperture. ISO affects both ambient and additional light the same way; it cannot change the ratio between them. So although a high-ISO test shot is great for figuring out composition and ambient exposure, it does not help you gauge how much light painting to add. If you raise your ISO for a test shot, you will need to lower it accordingly before assessing the light painting. Otherwise, your light painting will be overexposed (Figure 4.9). The better light painting test shot is shown in Figure 4.10. Remember that this is the second layer; I’m not including the ambient light in my light painting test shots. This cuts down the time needed to take three or four test shots to figure out the power, distance, and angle of the light that I want to add.

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9 Because I didn’t change my exposure from the high-ISO test shot, the light painting just adds more light onto the scene and overexposes the statue.

ISO 6400 • 6 sec. • f/4 • 50mm lens

Figure 4.10

Figure 4.10 I like the placement of the light in this test shot, but it’s a little bright, so I dialed the flash down half a stop.

ISO 200 • 3 sec. • f/4 • 50mm lens

The tight beam of light in Figure 4.11 was from a snooted flash raised high on a painter’s pole. It took me a couple of tries to get the power and placement of the flash right; you can see one of my first attempts in Figure 4.11.

Figure 4.11

Figure 4.11 You’ll need to practice to get the time, angle, and distance correct.

ISO 200 • 9 sec. • f/4 • 50mm lens

Now it’s time to add the ambient light and the light painting together in a single exposure. Figure 4.12 shows the 2-minute base exposure with the pop of the flash that lit the statue. I used a 40-lumen flashlight low to the ground to subtly open up the grass, which took some practice. Do three or four takes of your final shot—there will be subtle variations each time you paint.

Figure 4.12

Figure 4.12 I cooled down the color temperature of the flash in post to give this photo a moonlight feel.

ISO 200 • 2 min. • f/4 • 50mm lens

Flash vs. Flashlight

The two most common sources of light to paint with are the flash and the flashlight. Always have at least one of each in your bag. Flashes add a big burst of light that can illuminate a dark room or freeze action. They can also be measured with a meter, which makes it easy to figure out the proper amount of power to set. You will be operating the flash in manual mode, so be familiar with how to set all of your flash’s settings, from full power all the way down to the lowest. The cool thing about flashes is that there are lots of modifiers that sculpt the light and make it bigger (softer) or smaller (harsher). I often put a colorful gel on my flash to add a complementary or contrasting color to the scene (Figure 4.13). But the darker the gel, the less light comes through it—you’ll need to either increase the power of the flash or do multiple pops. Some gels have markings that show how many stops of light you are losing so you can compensate properly.

Figure 4.13

Figure 4.13 It took four pops of the red-gelled flash at full power to light up this beehive rock.

ISO 800 • 15 min. • f/5.6 • 18mm lens

Flashlights are a night photographer’s paintbrush. You can gently finesse the light from a flashlight. And because you have to keep the flashlight moving (so you don’t get a hot spot in your image), it creates a softer and more diffused light than a flash. A flashlight is perfect for opening up the shadow area in an image (Figure 4.14). Keep your lighting as even as possible. It’s hard to repeat the same strokes, so sometimes it’s better to back up and get a bigger spread of light rather than constantly stroke the flashlight back and forth. Keep track of the amount of time you are painting or the number of passes you make with the flashlight. There is a learning curve to using a flashlight, but once you get it, you’ll find it an indispensable tool.

Figure 4.14

Figure 4.14 This firetruck was completely in shadow. I moved so that the headlamp blocked the moon, and then I used a low-power red flashlight at a 90-degree angle to paint the light.

ISO 320 • 7 min. • f/8 • 14mm lens

A flash’s color temperature is 5500K; a flashlight’s color temperature varies depending on what type it is (incandescent, LED, xenon, and so on). I prefer warmer flashlights, which add contrast to the cooler night light I like to work under. I always carry several CTO (color temperature orange) filters, which help convert cooler light sources (like a flash) to a warmer light. CTO gels come in a variety of “cuts,” or densities: full CTO converts 5500K to 2900K; 3/4 CTO converts 5500K to 3200K; 1/2 CTO converts 5500K to 3800K; 1/4 CTO converts 5500K to 4500K; 1/8 CTO converts 5500K to 4900K.

You can purchase a sheet of these inexpensive gels and use them over flashlights or flashes. They are also available in convenient kits. To figure out what gel to use with a scene, take a test shot to gauge your ambient light and see what in-camera WB setting looks best. Since I typically shoot between 3800K and 2900K, depending on the light source, I always bring three CTO gels: 1/2 cut, 3/4 cut, and full cut.

Figure 4.15 is a shot that I worked on with a student, Albert Bronson, during a workshop that Tim Cooper and I teach. It definitely needed two people to assess and paint the scene. First we worked our composition so that the dark bus was in front of the lighter rock. We knew we wanted to light up the interior of the bus, so we chose a blue light that would contrast with the yellow exterior. I used a blue-gelled flash—three pops at full power—and was careful not to create any hotspots on the reflective interior. Albert used a high-power incandescent flashlight at a 90-degree angle from the left side, out of frame. He also came in at a 45-degree angle to paint some light on the black tires. It took us several attempts before we were happy with the result, and the cool and warm colors really complement each other in this scene.

Figure 4.15

Figure 4.15 I often use a combination of flash and flashlight to light a night scene. Using gels will help you play warmer and cooler colors off each other.

ISO 400 • 2 min. • f/8 • 21mm lens

The Power of Light

There are two important factors to consider when figuring out how much light to add to a scene: the power of the light source and the reflectivity of the subject matter.

Every light source can be rated for power. Flashlights are rated in lumens; flashes can be set from full power to 1/128 power. The intensity of a light can be controlled in several ways: dialing the power of the unit up or down, adjusting your aperture, or moving the light source closer to or farther from the subject. We all understand that the closer the light source, the brighter it will be, but there can be a significant decrease in brightness by moving it just a few steps farther away.

Now let’s look at the reflectivity of the subject. Is it light or dark? Is it textured or glossy? Lighter colors reflect light better than darker colors. Metallic and glossy surfaces can be highly reflective and create specular highlights. The more light reflects off the subject, the less light you will need to paint.

Figure 4.16 is my light painting collaboration with Troy Paiva. The truck was white, highly reflective, and in the shadow of the moon. There was a lot to light, so we divided the duties. I handled the candy striping of the truck, and Troy worked on pulling out detail in the tires and shadows. I had to stand about 30 feet away in order to make the beam of light the correct size to fill in the lines of the truck. Because the subject was so reflective and my flash was 80 lumens, one pass of light was sufficient. The trick I learned here was to turn my flashlight on out-of-frame and point it to the sky; turning it on where it should be on the truck created a hot spot of light. It was easy to match up the beam of light above the truck and then with one quick motion fill in the reds and then the greens. Meanwhile, Troy worked the lower, darker foreground, which was a black hole of shadow. He made several passes with his flashlight low to the ground. He was careful not to fully open up the shadow, and the low angle created the perfect amount of contrast and texture. He then spent the rest of the time opening up the tires (black tires are notorious for absorbing lots of light). It took a few test shots to figure out all the painting details. Troy is a master light painter—check out his work for inspiration!

Figure 4.16

Figure 4.16 This scene had a variety of surfaces to deal with and required many angles and distances to get the most from our flashlights.

ISO 200 • 2 min. • f/8 • 22mm lens

Direction and Bounce

Want to add dimension to your subject? Then don’t light it while you are standing next to the camera—that’s where the flattest and least interesting light comes from. The perfect way to see this is to shine a flashlight directly at a white wall (Figure 4.17). Now hold the flashlight parallel against the wall and shine the light (Figure 4.18). Look at all the detail and texture that you can pull out of a boring white wall.

Figure 4.17

Figure 4.17 (left) Frontal lighting from beside the camera does not show the subject’s depth or texture.

Figure 4.18

Figure 4.18 (right) Side lighting can pull texture out of places you wouldn’t expect.

If your subject is textured, light it from the side to call attention to it (Figure 4.19). Painting with light is not about obliterating the shadows and revealing all the information—it’s about creating interesting light that accentuates the subject matter.

Figure 4.19

Figure 4.19 If the subject has an interesting texture, emphasize it by lighting it from the side.

ISO 200 • 40 sec. • f/11 • 18mm lens

A light source doesn’t have to be direct. You can bounce or diffuse it to create a soft light that still shows texture. This is an excellent technique to use when you don’t want to create more contrast in a scene. The light will be a soft, subtle light that, if done correctly, will look like there was no light painting added. I lit the Texaco sign in Figure 4.20 with a quick hit of my 40-lumen flashlight. The sign was highly reflective (metal and white), which made it difficult to evenly light it with direct light, no matter what angle I used. So I pulled out my trusty 8x10 white card. I pointed the flashlight toward the white card and directed the diffused light toward the sign (Figure 4.21). Diffused light requires more time to paint than direct light. The timing depends on distance and reflectivity, but for this sign I bounced the light for more than half the exposure; for the direct shot in Figure 4.20, it was just a flick of the switch.

Figure 4.20

Figure 4.20 (left) I like the vibrancy of the sign’s colors, but its reflective surface made it tricky to light evenly with direct light.

ISO 400 • 2 min. • f/4 • 35mm lens

Figure 4.21

Figure 4.21 (right) With bounced light, it doesn’t even look like there was any painting added. Note the illumination where the light bulb is, as well as the texture of the rusty bullet holes.

ISO 400 • 2 min. • f/4 • 35mm lens

If you forget your white card, you can bounce light off the ground. This works best when the subject is close to the ground. (A white card is better when the subject is farther away.) Figure 4.22 is a high-ISO test shot from Zion National Park. I was drawn to how the moon’s side-lighting revealed the crags and crevices of the mountain. I added even more texture by including the foreground shrubbery, which had been hidden in the shadows (Figure 4.23). For two minutes, I pointed an 80-lumen flashlight toward the ground about 5 feet from where the shrubs enter the frame. At that distance, an evenly diffused light reflected off the plants.

Figure 4.22

Figure 4.22 (left) The test shot for the ambient exposure confirmed the large shadow area, which I would need to either crop or subtly light.

ISO 6400 • 15 sec. • f/5.6 • 21mm lens

Figure 4.23

Figure 4.23 (right) The reflected light of a flashlight adds the perfect amount of luminosity to the foreground, leading the eye up to the mountain.

ISO 400 • 4 min. • f/5.6 • 21mm lens

Do you really need to hold the light in your hand and shine it from just off-camera? What if you were to put it in your scene? In Figure 4.24, I placed a low-power red flashlight in a defunct furnace; the interior was dark but not very reflective, so I could leave the 10-lumen flashlight on for the entire exposure. The dramatic light effect in Figure 4.25 was a collaboration with Matt Hill. I placed a large sparkler behind the statue to create a beautiful golden light that separated it from the wall. Matt used a flashlight from the left side to create a nice accent, and then swept the light across the foreground to make sure that the shadows weren’t too dark. Look for unusual places to put your light. If you have flashes that can be triggered remotely, think about where you could place them to create cool lighting effects.

Figure 4.24

Figure 4.24 (left) As soon as I saw this furnace I knew I wanted to breathe life into it. I just needed to make sure that the camera saw the red light reflecting off the interior.

ISO 200 • 8 min. • f/8 • 21mm lens

Figure 4.25

Figure 4.25 (right) I taped a sparkler to the back of my model, and it created a dramatic separation between her and the wall.

ISO 200 • 6 min. • f/8 • 18mm lens

Don’t Over-paint

Light painting can be a lot of fun, and in the beginning you’ll probably want to paint everything in sight! And you probably should, because by making mistakes you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. But not every shadow needs to be revealed. I love the strong lines cutting across the lower part of the frame in Figure 4.26. The moon was lighting one side of the structure with a direct and flat light. I went to the “dark side” and composed my shot so that I could highlight the ripples of the corrugated metal. I liked the dramatic shadow on the bottom of the structure but wondered if it was too heavy for the scene. So I took another picture, this time painting underneath (Figure 4.27). It revealed the framework underneath, which isn’t as interesting and competes with the other lines in the image. Experiment by taking multiple shots of your light painting. That way, you can figure out which one best represents the scene.

Figure 4.26

Figure 4.26 (left) Not every shadow needs to be revealed. This one emphasizes the structure cutting across the frame and gives it more weight and presence.

ISO 400 • 4 min. • f/5.6 • 21mm lens

Figure 4.27

Figure 4.27 (right) This version opens up the shadow underneath, but it just creates competing highlights and lines that I find distracting.

ISO 400 • 4 min. • f/5.6 • 21mm lens

When you bring a new source of light into an image, you are putting your stamp on it, no matter how subtle or sophisticated it might be. I’ve given you guidelines, but there is no exact science to most of it. Experience is the key. The more you repeat the techniques, and the more environments you put yourself in, the more comfortable you will become. My best photographic work came when I was just starting to explore a new style or when I became so comfortable with it that I could easily apply my vision to it.

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