Anyone who has seen light painted images is keen to try it themselves. I know the first time we saw images that used flashlights at dusk to sweep warm light over the subject we were intrigued. How is that done? In this article we’ll tell you how we do it.
First a confession; we’re lazy! If we can get away with not bringing arithmetic into our photography—or our lives—we do. (Maybe that explains the puzzlement in our household when it is budgeting time!) Back in the good ‘ole film days, getting around the reciprocity problem (the degradation of the film’s sensitivity in dim light during exposure) required more advanced knowledge of exposure calculation to make light painted images that worked. With today’s digital cameras, you can guesstimate your exposure and adjust as needed without having to expertly calculate exposure. Although knowing more about exposure will always make you a better photographer, here is your cheat sheet for light painting at dusk.
We aren’t going to spend much time on what makes the best subject to light paint here. If you are interested in learning more about composing a subject to light paint, check out our Fire and Ice In the Canadian Rockies Workshop where we will add some ‘fire’ to our scenes with some man-made light (in case the sun does not cooperate!) One quick tip is, if you are a beginner, it is often best to select a single, prominent subject with a clean background that is the size of a car or smaller. The point is to emphasize the lit subject, not an entire landscape! Old vehicles in a grassy field, a lone, skeletal tree, or a small barn work well for light painting. But be creative.
Another preliminary consideration is the kind of flashlight you want to use. You will need at least one, and often two is better. For landscape work, we prefer to shoot with warm toned tungsten based lights with one million candle power or more (cheap ones can be had at Canadian Tire). But tungsten lights are rare and now most flashlights are halogen bulbs. Take a piece of yellow or orange plastic and tape it to your halogen flashlight to make the colour of the light warm to contrast with the cobalt dusk sky. Or use any colour of gel you want to add numerous colours to the scene. The more powerful the flashlight the bigger the subject you can handle. Ensure they are fully charged! We have seen many a photographer happily painting their masterpiece only to witness their light fade to a dismal glow. That has never happened to us, of course.
Head out to your subject before it becomes dusk. You want plenty of light so that you can walk around your subject and determine the most interesting composition. Also you want to start early because it is very difficult to focus as it gets darker! Your first job is to get your composition and focus in place. Once your camera is set up (on a tripod with a cable or remote release) you are likely going to leave it in place as you light paint. So this means generally you only get one composition per session, so make it a good one! Once precise focus is achieved, switch to manual focus so your camera will not hunt or change focus as you take pictures in darker and darker conditions. Your camera must be on a tripod for such long exposures, and using a cable release will help prevent any camera movement. If you want to blend parts of several exposures of the light painted image into a final image in Photoshop, then do not move the camera or tripod during the session. And remember if you do move the camera you will need to re-focus which can be hard in the dark even if you use the aid of a powerful flashlight.
How do you know when to start taking pictures? You’ll need a long enough exposure to skim light across your subject using a flashlight. For small subjects like a boulder or a small tree you may need 15 seconds or longer to light paint (depending on the size and power of your flashlight). A quick method we use to know when to start light painting is to set our camera to aperture priority and pick an aperture of f8. Once we get a meter reading of 15 seconds at f8 we’ll try our first light painting.
For our first attempt we’ll skim the flashlight over our subject in several strokes making sure we try to get the whole subject covered. We often like to paint the subject from the side (side-lighting) to give some texture to the object. Once the shutter has closed, go over and look at your LCD. If the light-painted subject is too dark, then you need to spend more time painting the subject with the flashlight. If you were unable to pass the light of the flashlight over the subject for the full 15 seconds, then try again. If you are finding you are still short of time, then you are going to have to wait until the exposure on your camera indicates a longer exposure time like 30 seconds at f8.
If on the other hand your subject is lit like a nuclear explosion, then you need to spend less time light-painting your subject. Maybe you only need one or two strokes of light across the subject to illuminate it. For example, maybe you only need 4 or 5 seconds of flashlight exposure to light your subject but the background needs a full 15 seconds to properly illuminate. The key here is that you control the brightness of your subject based on how long you light it with the flashlight. The brightness of the background is controlled by the overall camera exposure. If your background is too bright, try setting your exposure compensation to -1 EV. If your background is too dark try changing your exposure compensation to +1 EV.
It won’t take long in the dimming dusk until your camera’s exposure is at 30 seconds and soon thereafter your camera will flash a warning about underexposure. What if you want to keep shooting? Simply set your camera to Bulb mode (refer to your camera manual if you are unsure how to do this), set your aperture at f8 and then use your cable release to lock open the shutter for a one minute while you continue light-painting. Some camera releases can be programmed to give precisely timed long exposure but you can get by with the old fashioned method of mentally counting out the seconds while you light paint. As it gets darker and darker you will need to double your exposure time to properly expose the background (e.g 2 minutes, 4 minutes, 8 minutes etc.). But the exposure time for your flash lit subject will remain constant because the brightness of your flashlight is constant.
Take advantage of the flexibility of digital cameras and experiment until you get the perfect balance. Delete the ones that don’t work and keep the magical images. This cheat sheet is just the beginning to the fun you can have with light painting, and there are many more things to consider in light painting like varying the aperture for depth-of-field effects, checking your histogram for optimal exposure, and finessing your light-painting technique to create an ethereal look. To learn more about these advanced techniques come out to our Fire and Ice Workshop in November.