“Wherever there is light, one can photograph.” – Alfred Steiglitz
You will find many quotes from famous photographers about light. They know it is the very essence of photography. The word is from the Latin roots, “phos” for light, and “graphe” for drawing or painting. So, photography is quite literally, drawing or painting with light. In this article, you’ll learn two techniques for dramatic light-painted photos.
Typically, we open the camera shutter for a slice of time, and whatever light exists in the scene creates an image on the sensor (or perhaps the film if that’s the medium you’re still using). The quality, quantity, and color of the light are recorded. Where there is no light, nothing is captured.
There is a basic difference in light painting photography. Rather than simply capturing the existing light during the exposure, you, as the photographer, will use light to “paint” the scene. Use more on the portions of the scene you want highlighting, less or even none on those places you want subduing.
Think of it as painting on a black canvas. Where you apply paint (light in the case of photography), an image will result — no paint (light), no image. And, of course, there are all kinds of quantities in-between.
There are two basic techniques for dramatic light-painted photos:
1. Single exposure
Here you determine how long you will leave the shutter open. This will often be multiple seconds or even longer. While the shutter is open, you “paint” the subject with your light, emphasizing the portions of the scene you want to bring out, leaving in shadow those you want subdued.
Your working time will be the shutter duration, and you will make your entire image during that single exposure.
2. Multiple exposure
This technique is somewhat like the previous one in that you paint a portion of the subject with light during what will often be a multi-second exposure.
The difference is that you will take multiple shots of the subject, each time painting just a portion of the scene. Then in the edit, you combine these multiple images, much like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, into the final composite image.
Single exposure technique
What you decide to make the subject of your light painted photo is strictly up to you. Favorite subjects of mine are still-life images in the style of the old Dutch Master’s paintings. These use simple, static scenes. There is an emphasis on very directional lighting with portions of the image well-lit while other portions may be in deep shadow.
It is easy to find a few simple items and create a nice still-life scene. Perhaps put up a backdrop to simplify the shot, turn off the lights and let your flashlight be your sole source of light as you make the shot.
When starting to learn this technique, this can be a great place to start.
I also like to make these kinds of light paintings with items in the shot which show a theme or tell a story. I was fortunate to initially learn light painting in a workshop put on by area photographer, Caryn Esplin. Espin not only taught our group the technique but also had various thematic sets we could photograph.
Several of the images in this article, I made during that workshop.
Motion types – light trails
Most of what we cover here will use a light to “paint” the subject.
A different kind of light painting is where the light IS the subject. It too, uses a long exposure, and when the light moves during that exposure, it creates light “trails.”
Sometimes this will be the lights of moving objects, such as the streaks of light created by moving vehicles or other illuminated objects. Other times, the photographer, or perhaps an assistant, will “draw” with a light source, creating the image with the light.
There are many variations of this style of light painting, and the light used may not always be a flashlight. Special light “wands,” some even programmable, can be purchased for all manner of amazing effects. Steel wool spinning where an ignited piece of steel wool is spun, throwing sparks, and creating light trails is another example.
Any moving object which emits light will create light trails during a long exposure. While that is a fun technique and one I’d encourage you to try as well, it’s just not the type which is the subject of this article.
Instead, we concentrate on using a light source, typically a flashlight (aka a “torch”), to paint our subject with light.
Single exposure: step-by-step
Location – Total darkness
You will be using a flashlight to make your image during a long exposure and want to be able to control exactly where that light does and does not fall. Ambient light is not what you want.
Try to work in a location that is quite dark. You can check if it is dark enough by making a shot with the exposure setting you intend to use, but not lighting it. You should get a black frame or at least only see a faint background of objects you might want to include.
Most cameras will work for this if they go into full manual mode. You will need to be able to control the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed manually. Plus, you’ll need to focus and lock the focus manually.
If you will be shooting longer than the camera’s longest shutter speed (often 30-seconds), you will also need to be able to go into Bulb mode. This will allow you to keep the shutter open as long as you like. Usually, 30 seconds or less will be fine, but that depends on the subject, your light source, distance from the camera, and other exposure factors.
If you find your exposure will be longer than 30 seconds, you will also need a shutter release so you can hold the shutter open longer in bulb mode. There are very affordable corded releases.
If you need to be working further from your camera so you can both light the scene and trigger the shutter, a remote cordless shutter release can be a great way to go.
Lens selection will depend on your proximity to the subject. For tabletop still life shots where you’ll usually be just a couple of feet from your subject, a 50mm prime can be just right. The “nifty-fifty” (Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens) on my Canon camera is sharp and a perfect lens for this kind of work.
Pick your sharpest lens and an appropriate focal length to fill the frame with your subject.
A tripod is practically a must for this kind of long-exposure photography.
The camera must not move during the exposure. Whatever way you have of doing that will work, but I personally believe any photographer worth their salt owns a good, stable tripod. Have a good tripod and use it.
Here is the U.S., we call it a flashlight. In other places, it’s called a torch. What we’re talking about is a battery-powered portable light source that you can direct onto your subject.
Some will have focusable beams, which can be a nice feature. Some might have multiple intensity settings, which is also useful. If you can find one that has a neutral-white (about 4500-5000K) output, that’s even better.
Standard incandescent bulb flashlights will tend to have a warmer, yellowish color light while most LED bulbs are blueish in color.
A nice light for table-top light painting is the Zanflare F2 which can be had with a 4500-5000K bulb. It has two power output settings and can usually be purchased for under $10.00 US.
Another very affordable light I recently purchased for longer range outdoor light painting is the Energizer ENPMHH62. It’s under $15.00 US. You can pay a lot for fancy “tactical” flashlights, but I’m not sure they will improve your light painting photography unless perhaps you need to light something very far away.
If you’re working inside where you can turn the room light off and on, set up your shot with the lights on. Focus on the subject, then turn off the autofocus, so the focus stays locked at that spot. Failure to do this will have your camera hunting for focus in the dark, and that will certainly ruin your shot.
If you’re outside and it’s already dark, use your flashlight to help set up the shot and get good focus. Turn off autofocus and lock it in once you have it.
Put your camera in full manual mode. Set the ISO as low as you can for the lighting conditions, remembering that a lower ISO setting will help reduce noise in your shot. Because you can make the shutter speed as long as you need to, you can often get away with ISO 100. Try that and adjust it later if you need to.
See if you can work with the “sweet spot” – the sharpest aperture for your given lens – usually about f/8 to f/11. This should also help give you an adequate depth of field. Stop down to f/16 or even f/22 if you really need the depth of field. However, realize smaller apertures significantly increase the amount of light, and the time of the exposure you’ll need to make a proper exposure.
As for the shutter speed, that depends on how much light you’re working with, the proximity of your light to your subject, the brightness of the subject itself, and how long you need to properly paint your subject for the look you desire. There is no “right” answer to this.
Start with good average settings – something like ISO 100, f/8 for 20 seconds. Once you make a shot and evaluate it, you can make adjustments for subsequent shots.
Ready, set, paint!
With everything ready to go, set the 2-second timer to trip the shutter (or use the remote), trip the shutter and start painting your subject with the light. Here are some things to keep in mind when doing so:
- You will probably want to direct your light from the side, above, or maybe behind the subject. Lighting from the front, the same position as the camera view, will result in an image that looks flat and uninteresting.
- Shadows are every bit as important as the light. You are not going for an image that is evenly lit, looks like it was taken in ambient light or was done with a flash. Deep shadows, light on parts of the subject you want to draw attention to and shadows elsewhere will add to the drama you’re seeking. Again, look at the still life Dutch Master’s painting style for clues on how to light your subject. Less can really be more here. Caryn Esplin, the photographer I mentioned earlier, uses the expression “Reveal and Conceal.”
- Use your light like a paintbrush, moving it in circular motions.
- Do not allow the beam of light to point at the camera or you will create light trails on the image.
- To be able to pinpoint smaller areas of your subject, consider “snooting” the flashlight, that is, putting a piece of tape, a cone, or something else on it to reduce the size of the beam.
- Brighter objects in the scene will need less light, darker objects more. You will also want to leave some portions of the scene dark to better emulate the painters’ style and add drama.
- Shoot, chimp, evaluate and adjust, and shoot again. Adjust your camera settings as necessary for the best exposure. Look at your image and think about what you might do differently. You might get lucky and nail the shot on your first try. However, it’s more typical to make lots of images, trying different things and later choosing the best. Digital film is cheap. Don’t be afraid to make LOTS of shots.
This is the second of the techniques for dramatic light-painted photos. While in the previous technique, the photo is made and the subject painted all in one long exposure, this technique involves making multiple exposures. Then you combine them like the pieces of a puzzle into the final image.
Making each of the individual exposures is essentially identical to techniques used in the prior method, but instead of having to light paint the entire scene in one shot, smaller pieces of the scene are done individually.
For example, say you wanted to make a light-painted photo of an old truck at night with the Milky Way overhead in the sky. You could make the background shot of the stars first, then using your flashlight, make a shot lighting just the front tire. Then light the grill, hood, or perhaps the interior. Add some light from the side, back, and on the grass in the foreground. Each of the individually lit shots would be a piece of your puzzle.
That’s exactly the technique used by Richard Tatti, the guy whose online Youtube tutorials taught me this method. The only difference is that he, being an Australian photographer, calls what I would describe as a pickup truck a “ute.” (Editor note: As an Aussie, we also call them “you-beaut utes!” Total slang, of course.)
Richard does a nice job describing the light painting and photographing of a scene, as well as how to edit and combine the individual images into one in this tutorial. So I will suggest you view that for the step-by-step how-to.
I will simply list the steps you’ll be taking.
After making the individual shots, Lightroom is a good tool for preparing, sorting, and perhaps doing some minor editing to them. Be sure to sync them, so they are all the same size before the next step. The next step is where you select the individual images you will use and then use the “Open as Layers in Photoshop” command to export them into Photoshop. To do this, go to Photo->Edit In->Open as Layers in Photoshop.
This might take some time, especially if you have lots of layers, but when done, you will see the individual photos all lined up in a Photoshop layers stack.
Find what you would consider your “base” or bottom layer in Photoshop, and if it is not already in the bottom position, click, hold and drag it to that spot in the stack.
If you shot on a tripod and the camera didn’t move during the series of exposures (which is what you need to do), this step might not be necessary. However, if the camera moved even a tiny bit, you will want to align the images. It’s not a bad idea to do anyway; it just takes a little more time.
Click the top layer, hold down Shift, and click the bottom layer, so all are selected. Then click the Edit->Auto Align Layers->Auto->OK. Let it work; it’ll take a bit.
Once done, if you see any white edges, crop the image to eliminate those.
Lighten Blending Mode
At first, you will see just the top layer in the stack. Let’s turn the lights on.
Click the top layer in the stack to select it. Then hold down Shift and click the next to last layer, so all but the bottom layer is selected. Then click the Lighten blending mode.
Presto! The lighted portions of your image will all appear, much as if you’ve turned on all those individually lit portions of the image. Cool huh?
Use the Eyeball
The little icon to the left of each layer is an eyeball. If you click it on any individual layer, you can toggle that layer, making it visible or invisible. In this case, if you click it to make it invisible, the “lights” on that layer will be turned off.
Think of the eyeballs as light switches. Click them on and off on each layer, and it’s like individually switching the lights on each portion of the shot. It’s a great way to see the effect of that layer on the entire shot.
Sometimes after viewing what a given layer is doing, you may not choose to use that layer at all. If not, leave the eyeball off for that layer.
Fine-tuning with masks
If you’ve not worked with layers and masks in Photoshop before, this part can seem intimidating. It need not be. You will simply use a layer mask and the paintbrush tool set to black to, as Richard calls it, “rub out” any parts of the lighting layers you don’t want to appear. You can also adjust the opacity of a brush or of the layer itself to control how much impact that layer has on the overall image.
For more on using layer masks, read this article.
Go let your light shine!
Light painting is a lot of fun and a great way to produce some nice images. Because of the nature of how you move the light over a subject, no two images will be the same, and what you create will be uniquely yours.
The single exposure method is a great place to start, and if you are a beginner photographer, using the manual settings of your camera will be a good lesson. You will quickly learn the relationships of light and the camera controls; ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, for adjusting your exposure.
The multiple exposure method is a great way to work in larger settings. You can light a tree here and another way across the field if you want as you’re not restricted to making the image all in one click of the shutter. Blending the individual images in Photoshop will also teach you a lot about layers and masks, something that can sometimes be a challenge to learn.
If you make some nice images, post them in the comments so we can see what you’ve created. Also, if you have problems or questions, post something in the comments, and I’ll see if I can help you.
Now, grab your camera, tripod, flashlight/torch, and try these techniques for dramatic light-painted photos. And go let your light shine!
Author’s Note – Just as this article was being submitted, I held a light-painting workshop for my fellow members of the Boise (Idaho) Camera Club. Have a look at their work here.