Behind the Camera: Painting With Light

· Reading Time: 16 minutes

Welcome back for another installment of my monthly Behind the Camera Feature.  In this feature, I will typically take a question that has come up during the previous month that I feel needs a little more explanation than a simple email or comment.  It is a good way for me to really get in depth on topics that are fun for me to talk about.  This month, we are going to look at Light Painting.  I have been doing a great deal of light painting recently, which comes after a very long time away from it.  Most of those who follow my work are probably not aware that I have been doing this technique for several years now.  In fact, I have images where I used light painting as far back as 2006.  I figured that this would be a great opportunity to really talk about what it is, and how I do it.

The concept came about after reading one of the many books that helped me get started in photography.  There was a chapter on lighting, and it talked about things such as: on camera flash, studio lights, and natural lighting.  It also mentioned that you could use a specific light source over the course of a long exposure to highlight areas that you wanted while leaving the other areas in the dark.  This interested me because I had just discovered long exposures in 2006 when I started to shoot waterfalls.

Stone Steps“, Sony DSC-F828, No Filters

Here is an example of one of my earliest attempts at light painting.  I went down to a property that I was familiar with from work one night and tried it out.   I was still shooting with a Sony “prosumer” camera which was essentially a point and shoot.  The idea behind light painting was to set a slow shutter speed to keep the shutter open for a long time while I painted areas of the frame with light.  This particular camera would go as long as 30 seconds, so that was all the time that I had to work with.  In that timeframe I put light on the steps, the gazebo, and the tree over to the left to complete the composition.  It was the coolest thing that I had ever experienced with a camera since there was no way to tell what the exposure would look like prior to making the image.

When you look through the viewfinder, you mainly see just a dark scene in front of you.  You will probably have to hit elements with a light source to get the composition and the focus just right, but you don’t know for sure how it will turn out until the end of the exposure when the cumulative effect of light on the elements can be seen.

Interesting Pair“, Canon 40D, 24-70mm f/2.8L, No Filters

This technique has a lot of different applications and is not limited to outside work.  In fact, when I was learning about it originally, it was talked about on a small scale such as a studio setting with still life images.  This is an example from 2008, when I was getting used to my first DSLR camera.  There have been times that I will go into the studio to work on different images when I get burned out doing landscapes which is what I did with this.  It was also handy for days when the weather was really bad, and I wanted to shoot something.  It was much easier for me to light a subject in a 30 second period of time when it was no larger than my hand.  It gave me plenty of time to take a narrow-beamed flashlight and paint something very specifically.  Of course, I would never know if I had the image right until I saw the review image after the capture.

When you are doing this technique, you really must be prepared to do it multiple times in order to get the lighting the way you are thinking it should work.  This isn’t a studio lighting setup where you place different light sources around and test how they look.  Studio lighting is repeatable, but also much harder to control in the very detailed applications.  Light painting is not repeatable, so you will be faced with as many different “looks” as you had exposures during the session.  That is part of the fun of this because when you get the images into post production you will find that each one is individual and has very unique qualities.

Facing Off“, Canon 5D Mk2, 24-70mm f/2.8L, No filters

Here is another example of how you can really be specific with the placement of light in a scene.  This is a rather large chess set which was hand made.  I love the faces and the detail in the figures and thought that it would make a good studio piece.  I wanted to keep the dark figures in the shadows to exaggerate the mystery with them facing forward.  The tan pieces I wanted lit.  I did that from the top to avoid the dark pieces, and to bring out the shadows on the tan figures.  It created a very dramatic look and the expression on the King is the visual anchor of the whole image.  I don’t remember how many times I tried to do this composition, but I imagine it was at least a half dozen before I was able to get this specific effect.

So far, we have seen flashlights being used for the painting effect in these images.  In the first image, it was a standard issue Maglite that provided the bursts of light.  When I was working in the studio, I would use a little pen light or small light with a very low powered beam so that I didn’t blow out any of the highlights.  However, flashlights aren’t the only thing that you can use.  You can use off camera strobes in various places, you can use LED light panels as you move around as well.  But don’t limit yourself to artificial lights.  You can also use something like a candle as well.  It is soft light, and very warm light as well.

Wing and a Prayer“, Canon 40D, 24-70mm f/2.8L, No Filters

Here you can see that I set the little cherub up with a candle lighting it.  I didn’t move the light source, but I did position it just so.  This might not be technically light painting, but it does show another way of getting a light source that I think is very viable.  You are only limited by your own creativity.  Something worth mentioning here is that you need to be careful with your light source as each has its own color temperature.  I tend to like old school incandescent lights because of their warm qualities.  LED lights are very cool in temperature and for me have a very limited application in light painting.

As I mentioned, it has been a while since I have really spent much time with light painting.  It was something that fascinated me when I started it, and I still find it very interesting and entertaining to create images in this fashion.  My focus has been steadily moving toward more naturally lit subjects in both the decay and landscape arenas.  It was the decay subject that brought me back around to the idea of painting with light ironically enough.  In fact, it was during a workshop in the Summer when we were talking about dealing with difficult lighting of subjects that I happened to throw out light painting with a list of possible solutions.  Then it hit me, these would be excellent subjects for this technique and I was out there again the very next night to try it out.

Twilight Response“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 328 seconds

It worked amazingly well and I had forgotten how much fun this technique can actually be.  Of course, I have been able to improve on the execution of things as my skillset and understanding of photography has increased over the years.  The equipment that I am shooting on is also much better than the original Sony F828 point and shoot as well.  Lets talk a little about how my light painting works these days.


The Process…

Lonely is the Night“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 114 seconds

From the video you can see basically how this is done and what is needed, but I want to get into it a little more in detail here for those who might want to try this technique.  For basic equipment, you will need the following:

  • Camera (with ability to take long exposure shots of at least 30 seconds, but preferably more)
  • Lens (a standard or wide angle lens will be best. F/2.8 will help you compose but isn’t a requirement for the exposure)
  • Tripod (You have to have a steady platform for the camera so that you can leave it alone while painting)
  • Remote shutter release for bulb mode, or an exposure timer built into the camera
  • A light source (usually a flashlight)

These are the things that you must have in order to do this type of photography.  There are some things that you can add in as you see a need in your creative process.  Those things are as follows, but they are not necessary to get started.

  • Remote speedlights for adding pops of light in planned places throughout the image
  • Colored gels to change the color temperature and color of light
  • Software for post processing (note that this is optional)
  • A helper for larger subjects

I would like to reiterate here that doing light painting does not require any post processing.  You can do this technique shooting in .jpg format easy enough.  However, as with all other photography, you will get more out of the image if you shoot in RAW and post process the image.  The first image that I posted here was a straight .jpg image out of the camera as I had no idea how to post process back then.

OK, so how does this process go in the field.  Well, the best idea is to scope out the scene prior to shooting it.  You can do this just before the sun goes down, or days in advance.  You just want to know what compositions you will be shooting and if there are any hazards in the area that might trip you up (literally).  On my most recent light painting outing, I actually shot the compositions for reference in the camera when it came time do to this in the dark.  This helped me figure out what worked and what didn’t while I could see the entire scene.

Stumped“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer
Midnight Patina“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters, 108 seconds

These images are very much the same in composition, but you can see just how much the light painting simplifies the scene.  By removing background clutter, you ensure that the eyes are glued to the main subject and they spend their time looking over that specifically instead of looking all around the image.  It is just another approach for directing where the viewer looks.

Once you get the composition established, you need to get the camera in place, on a sturdy tripod, and get it set up.  You won’t need any filters for this as most filters will reduce the light that comes into the lens.  This is not a good thing when doing light painting as you want to be able to move quickly with the light source and have it light the subject effectively.  If you are setting up after dark, you will need to refer to your test shots and use a flashlight to find the different areas of your elements to make sure that everything is in the same place.  More than likely, you will not be able to see the composition in the dark if you are composing after the sun goes down.

Don’t use auto focus during this technique.  Use the flashlight to light the area that you want to focus on and set it manually.  By doing this, the focus won’t change when you start the exposure.  You will also want to be in manual mode, or bulb mode for older cameras like mine.  This will allow you to have the shutter open for as long as you need it to be.  If you are limited to 30 seconds, set it to 30 seconds and forget the shutter speed.

Now we start getting into the other settings on your camera.  For the way I do this, I would recommend setting your ISO value at the lowest setting, normally 100.  This seems counter productive since we are wanting the camera to capture a small light source.  The reason I suggest that is that you want to have a very clean capture with minimal noise to start with.  If you start boosting the ISO, you will introduce noise, and you will make it easier to blow out highlights as you are painting your subject.

Aperture values are another area where you might need to fudge just a little bit.  You want to have enough depth of field to cover your subject, but you don’t want the lens stopped down too much as that will reduce the effectiveness of the light source.  I’ve found that for the most part f/8 works amazingly well at keeping things in focus and accepting the light source.  This can be varied, and the whole thing is really a season to taste kind of experience.  I’m just sharing what is working with my current techniques.

With the composition set, the focus set, and the exposure dialed in with an open end on the shutter speed, it is time to plan your path around the subject.  One thing that you want to avoid is lighting directly from the angle of the camera as that will give you very flat lighting on your subject.  Go with the sides and even the rear as that can give a cool glow.  Keep in mind that with the exposure that has been set, you can move freely across the path of the camera without exposing yourself in the image.  The higher ISO you set, the more likely you will blur across the image.  Just be careful not to have the light source visible to the camera as that will most definitely show up in the final exposure.  It is a good idea to know the angle of view to make sure that you stay on the outside of that frame, so you don’t get these squiggly flashlight movements in the frame all around your subject.

Now that you have planned out your path, you are ready to start the exposure.  Ideally, you will want to leave the shutter open for the entire time that you are working around the subject.  In the case of these automotive subjects, you will be going around three minutes or so.  I’ve found it very easy to set the camera to bulb mode and lock the remote shutter release keeping the shutter open until I make my way back to the camera to stop the exposure.  With the main exposure values being ISO100 and f/8, you really won’t have to worry about blowing out the sky, or overexposing parts of the image that you don’t want to.  This becomes all about the light that you are putting on the scene.  You will get an idea of how fast or slow you need to move around in order to get the lighting that you are after.

As you are moving around, you want to watch out for reflective parts as they will require little to no direct lighting in order to show up well.  Use a diffused beam so that you get even lighting on surfaces.  Go from different angles around curves so that there are minimal shadows over the details.  You will have enough shadows in place by avoiding lighting it from the same angle that the camera is at.  Go over important areas multiple times from different areas to highlight them.  Remember, you control the location and intensity of the light throughout the image.  This is your art, and you have that control!

A Different Slant“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, no filters, 201 seconds

You might have background elements that you want to include as well.  This is where an assistant, or a second light source will come in good.  You can use that additional light to stay on the background element while you concentrate on the primary subject.  If your helper is lighting a background, make sure that they are out of the frame or hidden from view by the main subject as they will likely be mostly still.  That is when you have to worry about them being in the exposure.  By hiding them, you negate that problem.  If you are just using a static light source like I did for this shot, be sure that the light is hidden from the view of the camera so that it doesn’t show up as a hot spot in the exposure.

When you are done lighting the subject, you will close the shutter.  It is as easy as that.  Then you just wait to see what the image looks like on the image review.  It will look bright since you are in a dark environment so be sure to consider the histogram when evaluating the success or failure of the image.  You don’t want any of the highlights blown out, but it is fine to have a lot of pixels in the black area since most of the background will be in the dark.  Understanding your histogram is very important for this type of photography because it will look unlike any other histogram you have worked with.

Ready to Cruise“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 167 seconds

You can also use existing lighting in your photos as well such as in this one.  The trick here is to be very careful about overexposing the constant light source.  You will burn it in but watch how much of the surrounding area is burned in as well.  The best way to deal with this is to make the camera less sensitive to light.  This is where you will stop down the lens to a tighter aperture to control the fixed light source.  You will then need to move a bit quicker around the vehicle to light it to reduce the exposure time.  Since you are moving quicker, it is a good idea to use a narrower light beam which will throw more light out quicker.  You will need to pay more attention to where the light is going and for how long.  This is a little more stressful because you want to minimize the time that the shutter is open while still effectively lighting the subject.  It is a balancing act, and the only way to determine what works is to experiment with the aperture, time, and light source.


I hope that this has cleared up how light painting works, and possibly has inspired you to go out and give it a try.  There is nothing particularly special about this technique and anyone can do it as long as they can set the exposure time long enough.  It is a pure art form in that you will never replicate the effect the same way, nor will anyone else get the same image as you.  This is one of the few times in photography that your main subject is just a supporting element to the image.  What makes these photographs so special is how the light is painted on them.

Thank you for joining me for this installment of Behind the Camera.  I usually try to shy away from “how to” entries, but since I have had a lot of interest in my light painting, I figured this would be a good way to clear up all the questions.  I also wanted to share a little bit of the history behind my development in light painting.

See you again next month!
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