Painting With Light

Light painting is a fun technique where you use a handheld light source in a pitch black room to paint light on a subject that you are photographing. You can also go outside late at night into the garden. It has an unpredictable outcome and you have to be creative in your choice of subject and how you move the light over it. No two light paintings will ever come out identical even if the camera stays in the same position. The shot becomes less about the camera and more about the mechanical manipulation of the shot. See how…Painting with light is a technique that anybody can do, but trust me, it is not as easy as it sounds or looks. Finding the right exposure is a trial and error pot luck, and I went through many tries before I got the images here. None are earth shattering, and many photos were shot to get the right balance of light to shutter speed. To reduce the number of photos shot, I noticed that the image on the camera screen was always much brighter and more detailed than what actually appeared on my monitor. So if you think you have a perfect shot, chances are you need a longer time for the shutter to remain open, that or more intense light.

Part of the problem starts with selecting the right subject. My guess was a lot of texture or a lot of color. I found that bright color is a key. Shiny too seems to help.

First, you position your still life, or if you are very proficient and daring, a live, but nonmoving subject. It is best to start small, then graduate larger as you get better. I worked backwards, so you can see my single delphinim flower came out best by being the tiniest subject.

I started with the small arrangement below, but it was a lot of surface and texture to light for a beginner. But I refused to be defeated and kept trying this subject. On the cockatoo feathers, I used the macro lens, 60mm 1:2.8. I found it hard to focus and get good detail. The ISO was 320 and still grainy.  I needed a stronger light for this one like I used on the Delphinium.

I used a flashlight for all but the Delphinium. There I used a light I use when hand drafting. It is much stronger and has light simulating sunlight..

I set up the shot then set my camera on a tripod. You will be taking a long exposure, so it is mandatory to have a tripod. I set the camera to 15 seconds and f8 to start. I found I had to increase the f-stop to 22. The ISO was set to 400. I got a lot of grain at 400 so I reduced it, I set it at 200 for the Delphinium. I also metered for ambient light on this one. I changed location for the Delphinium to one that was not pitch black.

Next time, I will use noise reduction on my Nikon. My arrangement ended up on the flat side a bit. It really is difficult to get the right balance of lights and darks. But, make sure to light the portion you want highlighted for the longest time. It helps make contrast and avoids some of the tendency to flatten the image.

Another tip that I SHOULD have tried and will again is using a tube over the end of the flashlight to make the light more directional. This is called a snoot.  My special drafting light has this already mounted and I never knew what it was called. The only problem with the drafting light is the light is way too intense. You don’t get that soft edge look that is desirable in Light Painting. So it sort of defeated what I was trying to accomplish.

Lighting predominantly from one side is the best way to go, but I added light from the top and front for a few seconds in large sweeping motions. I also found using sweeping painting motions to be the best. You can tell I liked this informal arrangement for this technique, but could not really master it. I am guessing this technique will be used for a GGW contest. It would make a good one. I received an email from Nikon having this Lighting technique illustrated. I was intrigued and will someday get better at it when I find the right lighting source.

Here is the website which I was directed. It has all the information you need to start Painting With Light. And the photographer has some gorgeous ‘paintings’. Only if I can get that good….

Give it a try, and have fun, I did. From my ‘failed’ attempts and reasoning for the outcomes, you can begin ahead of where I started for a better finished image.


14 thoughts on “Painting With Light

  1. Failed attempts? To me these are some earth shattering shots. The first one really caught my attention. Thank you for sharing the tips…

  2. Donna, all the photos are dazzling. Thanks for sharing this technique. I only have a point and shoot camera, but maybe I’ll try some of the manual settings on it.

  3. First, I second Greggo! You are amazingly energetic but I’ve told you that before! 😉

    Second, thanks for sharing this link…I don’t know when but I’d like to try this. It looks like a great technique to explore. Your second shot is my favorite; the painterly quality is so captivating and I love the rich colors. Great job!

    Third, my friend and I were looking at some old photos from a San Fransisco trip we took a few years ago. We were in Muir Woods and the light was dim so her ISO was set pretty high. She took a couple of shots that were really cool because the grain added some nice texture and depth. I might try this technique with the ISO bumped up just to see how they turn out. Thanks again for the link Donna!

  4. Love this idea..I have long wanted to play with taking pics in the dark..alas my point and shoot is difficult to manage for anything taken in the dark and most everything comes out blurry…I may still play with it though

  5. Donna – I’m not into photographic techniques and arty stuff, but I still enjoy looking at your pictures, however they are derived. I feel like I’m watching the development of a professional photographer.

  6. These are some of the most amazing pictures I have ever seen! I definitely hope to try this technique sometime! Your examples are absolutely amazing. I would never have guessed how you got those images.

  7. wonderful “paintings!” they’re very enjoyable to look at especially knowing the story behind them. thanks for sharing your “paintings with us.” have a nice day!

  8. These are wonderful, Donna! The top one especially–I love that combination of clarity with the softer “after-images.” Thanks for sharing this technique and your process of trial-and-error. I want to use a snoot just so I can say the word.

  9. Interesting. I have to think about the technical details a bit more… That first image was really really good. I was wondering though whether you could create a dark background in a studio (black paper or cloth maybe) and just shoot during the day which would probably give you more light and so increase the detailing on the images….

  10. these are amazing photos Donna, I like grainy photos, I used to buy fast speed film for grainy photos, I’ve never gone for the polished photo, I’ll have to wait until we get ‘dark’ again and I’d like to try it with my new camera which has more options and I need to get used to it, at this time of year it doesn’t go properly dark ever, we are on about the same latitude as Churchill Canada, Frances

  11. Hi Donna,night shots is something i still am trying hard to do. It really pains me adjusting the right combinations of my A and my S. At daytime i normally use Aperture Priority, and M is still synonymous to difficult. But of course M and night shots is my goal. Thanks for the instructions and inspirations. BTW, i laughed with Greggo’s comment, which I 2nd! When are we going to make a technical post again, just like that of the oak whose leaves don’t fall in autumn?

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