A detailed tutorial on how to paint with light
Light painting is one of the less known techniques in photography and is usually only carried out by enthusiasts and professional photographers. It’s a technique that is primarily used at night outdoors to make scenes look more dramatic than they would under normal conditions. Light painting is not a new thing either, it’s a technique that has been used for over 100 years.
As you’ll see here in this article on Wikipedia, one of the techniques involves moving a light around in the frame during a long exposure. This is one type of light painting, the other type the Wikipedia article doesn’t cover is light painting with a flash or other diffused light source. Instead of creating light trails you light an object or area in the frame with the flash or diffused light source. Some times colored gels / filters are put over the light source to further increase the dynamic feel of the image.
In this article I’m going to show you how to create an image with light painting. Light painting does take a while to grasp as there are many places you can make minor mistakes which consequently ruin the shot. I will be covering both types of light painting.
A major part of light painting involves composition, the technical aspect of proper exposure is also important. But this article isn’t about how to take a long exposure photograph and I have already covered this in another article, if you haven’t read this article yet then you will to be able to continue.
So, you’ve read my long exposure article and you have your shot set up, now we must decide what we want to create, the following two sections will help you decide which way you want to go.
This aspect of light painting is personally my favourite, there are so many things you can do with a flash gun. So, the idea is to create a dramatic scene be having a select area in the frame highlighted by a light source carefully exposed around the subject. The real pitfall with any type of light painting is getting the exposure corrent, it takes a lot of practice to get it right and you will end up with some really stunning results once you get the hang of it. A few examples of what I have done using this technique:
So the basic principle is to start your long exposure, you then move around your subject and sequentially fire the flash gun around it evenly making sure all the areas have been evenly lit. Of course you don’t have to use a flash gun, as I suggested earlier, as long as the light source you are using is diffused then you will be able to ahcieve some very nice results. It is key that you never allow the front of the light source to be in line of sight to the camera or you will get ghostly dots of light all over your pictures. I’ve had many pictures ruined this way.
As an alternative to a flash gun you can use a torch with an opaque object attached to the front of it which will create a nice flat fill, if you mixed this with a colored filter you can get some very surreal effects. Though I still recommend a flash gun as the best way of lighting your shots.
As soon as you are happy you have lit the subject correctly, wait for the scene around your subject to be exposed correctly (using my ISO 1600 AV trick explained in this article).
The rest is down to creativity, and as I’ve said before. No article can teach that!
This is the more fun side of light painting. Light trails, possibly one of the best ways to animate your frame. The thing I like about light trails is you can combine them with the technique I have just showed you. This part of the tutorial will show you how to create images like this:
Light trails are so much easier to do than lighting your scene with a flash gun. But getting the exposure of the area around you can be difficult. This is why I thought up the ISO 1600 trick, but I’m not going to talk about that here. Click here to learn how to expose properly at night.
I am going to simply run you through how to execute this technique without underexposing the scene. So, firstly decide what you want to write in the air (You don’t have to write anything you can just move your light around). Make sure you have properly composed the frame, this is important. Now, start the exposure.
DO NOT enter the frame yet, wait for it to run for a while. Towards the end of the exposure briskly walk into the frame (as fast as possible to prevent any ghosting) and then start light painting.
The idea is to get in and out quickly, this prevents any ghosting from you standing still for too long inside the frame, usually it spoils the picture when you get a ghostly figure standing in an odd position. Though sometimes it can add the to image, but that’s to do with creativity. Go wild and experiment.