Illuminate the subject by hand —
If you know how to shoot in Manual (M) Mode, you can use a flashlight to paint light onto our subjects. Cameras are on tripods for these exposures, which are often 20 seconds long. When done correctly, objects seem to emerge out of darkness, glowing.
Light painting is a terrific way to light a non-moving subject. In the hands of photographers like Harold Ross, it becomes an art form. Harold can take 20 or more images at a session, lighting one small part of the scene with each shot, then bringing all the images into Photoshop and layering them together to get the final image.
I usually do it all in one exposure. I start with my camera on a tripods in Manual (M) Mode with ISO as low as we can go, shutter speed at 20 seconds, and aperture at f/16. Then I release the shutter and begin painting the subject with the flashlight. (In some countries, they call this a “torch”.)
Then I take more photos, looking to improve the image. I adjust my exposure times, re-arrange the objects, and refine my light-painting techniques. It is amazing how different lighting changes how objects look!
Because the shutter speeds are long, it is possible to move something in the background and let it blur, with interesting results. Sometimes this thing is the flashlight itself, brilliant enigmatic swirls behind and above the object.
Even though the camera is on a tripod, I usually delay the shutter release or use a remote shutter release to minimize camera shake. Also, I focus manually since auto-focusing can be funky in a dark room. My camera allows me to lock my focus. Also, I turn off image stabilization (vibration reduction); otherwise I get weird blurs as the camera tries to stabilize a camera that is already stable. When possible, I match my camera’s white balance setting with the color of the flashlight’s light.
Light painting teaches us that the way things look is very dependent on how they are lit. It is especially useful in product photography. It is especially useful if you want to reveal how extraordinary ordinary objects can be.
In summary, here is my recipe for painting with light indoors:
- Camera on a tripod
- Manual (M) Mode with 100 ISO, 20 second shutter speed, and f/16 aperture to start.
- Focus manually with auto-focus off
- Delay the shutter release to reduce tripod vibration
- Turn off image stabilization (vibration reduction)
- Arrange tripod and subject with room lights on, checking focus. (Outdoors, arranging the shot and checking focus is more difficult.)
- Turn the room lights off, release the shutter, and paint the subject with light.
- Use a dim flashlight to illuminate the subject, constantly moving the light.
- Adjust the aperture if the resulting image is too light or too dark. Flashlights can be dimmed with black electrical tape if they are too bright. As a last resort, shorten the exposure time.
- When possible, match White Balance to that of the flashlight.
- Paint the subject with grazing light to bring out texture and color.
- Make many exposures, refining lighting technique each time. Experiment. Go wild! Be very deliberate and careful.
Here are some light-painted photos taken by my students in class, and some photos of them by me as they painted with light, and some of my own light-painted photos. Click on any thumbnail image below to see it larger in a slide show. To return here, click on the “x” in the upper right of the slide show, or press the ESC key of your keyboard.