Tips for Light Painting and Some Common Pitfalls to Avoid

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In this article, I will focus on light painting objects in night scenes during a single long exposure (rather than multiple exposures combined in Photoshop) and some of the pitfalls I have experienced. I hope you will gain an understanding of how different light sources, intensity, and warmth can illuminate your foreground elements in a balanced way to provide a creative twist to your shot.

A beautiful night sky filled with stars is often laced with compelling foreground elements that can provide context and intrigue to your shots. You have likely seen many examples of these things in other people’s work such as a saguaro cactus under The Milky Way in the middle of the desert, a homestead cabin in the middle of an old pasture, or a boat floating on a still lake.

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This single exposure captures The Milky Way over a field of yellow wildflowers in central Minnesota. I used light painting to emphasize the flowers which were an important part of the scene.

I am positive you can think of foreground elements in your personal environment. Although silhouettes of those foreground elements can provide you with stunning imagery, you may consider using light painting techniques to emphasize the foreground elements of your shot.

What is light painting?

Light painting is a night photography technique where you use a light source to illuminate an object (in other words you “paint it”). The digital camera era has made light painting much more common as it is easier to check and compensate for your exposure of the shot. Because light painting provides so many creative options there are many forms it can take.

In order to do light painting, you will need to carry a little bit of extra equipment and have some basic knowledge about your camera’s manual settings. A grasp of these basic camera settings will increase the enjoyment of your night out by helping you make beautiful imagery.

Camera Settings

Manual Mode will be necessary to shoot your long exposures. You should be aware of how to switch to Manual Mode and then adjust your aperture and shutter speed. For night photography, you will want to use a large aperture (e.g., f/2.8) and slow shutter speeds of often 5 seconds or more.

ISO changes will be necessary in order for your camera to pick up the most amount of light possible. I recommend beginning at ISO 800 and then adjusting accordingly as you learn about your particular scene and shooting conditions. It is important to remember that a really high ISO will require you to post-process out digital “noise” and each camera model has a range of ISO values it can shoot at before it will become very grainy.

White Balance adjustment is critical to shooting at night and for light painting. Look in your camera’s manual or play with your camera settings to ensure you can access manual White Balance and you can create lower or higher White Balance values. White Balance is measured in Kelvin and most cameras will represent it with “K” after the White Balance value (e.g. 4500K).

I bounced the light off the snow to light this shot because direct light caused the totem to become too bright and out of balance.

Equipment

An appropriate light source is necessary to do light painting. You should consider bringing multiple light sources that have both wide and narrow beams as well as multiple color temperatures. You may consider things such as a headlamp, cell phone, flashlight, or professional lighting as these have different beam widths and intensities.

To determine the warmth of your light source, check the box as it may tell you the temperature rating. For instance, many lightbulbs from the store will say 4500K on the side of them. Some professional lighting sources will allow you to adjust both the temperature and intensity of the light, so you may consider those as you progress and become more proficient at light painting.

Beyond the camera and a light source, a tripod is the next most important thing you can bring when shooting long exposures. Ensure your tripod can remain stable for long (up to several minutes occasionally) exposures.

A friend is a great addition to a night of light painting! Your friend can help sidelight objects while you take the photos, provide for creative solutions to problems, and keep you safe as you move around in the dark.

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I use this LED light panel which allows me to control the light intensity and color.

Basic Light Painting Techniques

Each night has unique conditions that need to be accounted for, but I like to begin each night with a familiar set of steps. Set your camera up on a tripod and take a few test shots. I usually start at f/2.0, ISO 800, 10-15 seconds, and 4500K.

From those base settings, you can experiment with ISO, shutter speed, and set a White Balance that looks good to you. Once you have the settings for the scene right, set up a composition you like and which ties together the necessary foreground elements. Begin your exposure then use a light source to paint the foreground in front of you.

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This image of the Aurora Borealis captures the beauty of the boreal forest and the subtle aurora behind it. I used standard settings (ISO 2000, f/2.2, 20 seconds) and a light panel to make this image.

Selecting a light source is important. Its qualities will determine how it can be used. There are three considerations you should think about:

  1. What is the intensity of the light?
  2. How wide is the beam?
  3. What is the color temperature of the light?

Keeping these things in mind will help you immensely when you go out to shoot. A wide beam can help you light close objects while a more focused beam can light a more distant one. I often use a professional light panel because it gives me control over the beam intensity, width, and warmth.

A good light source will help you get over the pitfalls identified below.

Pitfall #1: Not matching the color balance

When I first began doing light painting, I had a really hard time matching the color of my light and the context of my scene. Your camera will key in on bright objects in the shot such as the moon, a street lamp, or the Aurora Borealis which will become the dominant temperature in the shot.

Keep this in mind as you take your test shots because you will need to adjust your White Balance according to those light sources. If the White Balance of your light source is adjustable set it to the same as the camera. If you cannot control the temperature of your light source (e.g., a cell phone) then consider adjusting the White Balance of your camera to match the light source. You will know the light source and camera are calibrated together properly when the color of your foreground elements look natural (neutral) to your eye.

I’ve provided some examples of images below which came out well and some that did not (according to my eye) due to incorrect White Balance calibration. You should be able to spot images demonstrating the matching warmth pitfall that we just reviewed. I’ve left some thoughts in the captions of the images to reflect on each further.

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It is not too hard to diagnose what’s wrong with this image – I did not properly calibrate the temperature of my camera and light source. The light source is too cold compared to my camera’s settings.

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The calibration of camera and light source were close on this one, but the temperature was a bit too cold on the light source as evidenced by the bluish tinge to the tree on the left.

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A good match! I was able to use the white of the American Flag to calibrate the light source and camera to get good colors from both the flag and the aurora.

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This is a good match on the color balance. There were a moon and aurora on this night, so I only used a headlamp to softly light this sled dog that appears to be watching the aurora.

Pitfall #2: Not balancing the light in your scene

Choosing the right beam width and intensity will help you balance the lighting of the foreground elements to the rest of the scene. A digital camera set at ISO 800 or above is incredibly sensitive to light and it is very easy to “blow out” a shot by overexposing the foreground elements. Here are a few tips to help balance the light in your scene.

  • A broad beam will help evenly light an entire scene and a narrow beam can light specific aspects of the scene. I have provided thoughts and examples below about when my light source width was appropriate and when it was incorrect.
  • If you have close foreground elements consider bouncing your light source. I often use reflective surfaces like snow to indirectly light the foreground through bouncing. If you cannot bounce the light, try side lighting or lighting the object from behind.
  • You can decrease the exposure by closing down the aperture. I have found increasing the aperture (say from f/2.0 to f/4.0) and increasing the exposure time make it dramatically easier to create a balance of light in the scene.
  • It stands to reason that if you paint an object for a long time with the light it will show up brighter. You will find that duration is critical when light painting and often less is more. Try light painting the object in a short burst of one half, to one second of light and see if it adequately lights the object.
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Blowout! I was light painting these autumn aspens to capture the fall colors with the Aurora Borealis. However, my beam was too narrow for the work I wanted to do.

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A small beam allowed me to light up this “old man’s beard” hanging from spruce trees in Southeast Alaska. A wide beam would not have worked here as it would have lit the entire scene.

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Here I wanted to capture the glacier face and the aurora together so I placed my light panel behind a block of ice. This masked it from direct view and allowed me to bounce the light off the snow.

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A passing car provided the lighting for this shot, and I liked the warmth of the light a lot! The broad beam was most appropriate here.

Food for Thought and Wrapping Up

I hope this article can help you get over a couple of the steep learning curves of light painting. Remember, any light source at your disposal can be used to light your scene and each may have its own unique benefits. Experiment with headlamps, cell phones, car headlights, and professional lighting sources to see what each can provide to the shot.

I hope you enjoy your night out! As I always like to say, “Pixels are cheap”, so make lots of them as you learn light painting.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Ian Johnson is a photographer, scientist, writer, wildlife biologist, musician, and woodworker located in Hoonah, Alaska. Described as a Renaissance Man, he lives and breathes the challenges and opportunities that life in rural Alaska can present. You can find him subsisting-in and photographing Alaska simultaneously. Ian writes a personal blog and sells print products on his website here.

  • Martin Gutierrez

    cant take photos im blind lol

  • Tom Cooper

    Another way to “soften” light while light painting is to move the source. I sometimes will walk with the light while playing it across the subject in a long exposure. It ends up working like a very long, very thin strip box.

    Obviously this doesn’t work well with strobes.

  • Ian Johnson

    Hi Tom, excellent point. Any time you can softly light multiple angles is a good thing!

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