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People gravitate to photography for a wide range of reasons—for some it’s primarily a vehicle for artistic expression, while others are drawn to photography as a science and are engrossed by its technical aspects. One increasingly popular photographic discipline that requires a careful mix of both artistic inspiration and scientific precision is night and low-light photography. While this was once a tenuous undertaking with little guarantee of predictable results, the powerful sensors, advanced low-light capabilities and immediate feedback of current generation DSLRs has made this area of practice more fun and gratifying than ever before. One particular technique in this realm that holds a cult-like status among initiates is Light Painting.
Photo above © Matt Hill
As a general practice, light painting (or light drawing) can be defined as a long exposure technique whereby an image is captured while adding detail or interest to a scene using a handheld light source, either to illuminate an object or a part of the image from outside the frame, or to move a light around in front of the camera. Light painting can also describe the process where the camera itself (or the lens), rather than lights, is moved during exposure.
Rhyolite © Lance Keimig
Two notable pioneers of light painting were French scientist, photographer, and cinematographer Étienne-Jules Marey and American efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth, both of whom attached small lights to human subjects to record otherwise hard-to-perceive movements over time. As these experiments prove, light painting is by no means limited to a nocturnal setting; however, it’s generally most successful when practiced in an environment with limited light and lots of shadow area. Similar to the Sgraffito drawings of childhood, which reveal colorful lines and shapes when scratching through a black surface, at its most basic, light painting can be described as involving relationships between light and dark; figure and ground.
To test the waters of light painting, find a setting with enough room and sufficient variety to inspire you to play around with the various accessories in your tool kit (more on that below). You’ll need a camera capable of making long exposures, ideally something with manual shutter/aperture controls and a bulb setting. A sturdy tripod and remote shutter release are the other prerequisites for getting the most from a light-painting session.
Created with the Pixelstick
If you’ve come to a location with other photographers, allow sufficient space and direct your work so that your lights don’t bleed into other people’s pictures, or vice versa. Another option in a group setting is to join forces and make your light painting experiments a combined effort. Spend a few minutes in discussion and come up with a collaborative plan to light and photograph a central object from multiple vantage points.
Tools for contemporary light painting range from the most basic, easily accessible lighting accessories to the latest in high tech. To break things down, it can be helpful to categorize the tools by the effects they produce.
Pixelstick LED Lightpainting Tool
While many people consider light to be the absence of color, those with a solid photography background understand that any given light source has an inherent color temperature, measured in degrees Kelvin. It’s therefore very helpful to know the color temperature of the lighting devices you work with, as well as the ambient light sources in the image or on the periphery, so that you can anticipate the potential for color casts in your pictures in advance. While nailing the color temperature with a color meter is both highly impractical and cost prohibitive for most people, it’s helpful to know that color casts range from warm red/orange to cool blues as you go up the Kelvin scale from 1500K (candlelight) to 3200K (interior lighting) to 5500K (daylight) to 10000 + (a clear blue sky or shade).
Dogwood and Color Spiral, Marblehead, MA © Jill Waterman, 2015
Your camera should have preset white balances for these settings, as well as a number of other options, such as Auto White Balance, which is what you can use to keep things simple and to minimize color casts from the ambient light in the scene. The other camera settings that will allow you to best record the effects of your light painting include setting your ISO to a lower value to reduce noise and keeping the aperture of your lens fairly open (f/5.6 or wider). Experienced light painters often keep one exposure variable, such as aperture, as a constant in order to establish a firm baseline. Once you start shooting, jotting down your exposure, as well as procedural notes about each capture, can go a long way in helping you to understand the finer points of the process and analyze your results after the fact.
Now comes the fun part. After identifying a good location, gathering your gear, and adjusting camera settings, you’re ready to get creative!
If you’re new to this process, start simple and concentrate on exploring the effects of a single light source on a solid object at a medium distance from the camera, and then systematically change your camera settings and light-painting tools to gauge the results.
Broken Trail © Gabriel Biderman
One important tenet of light painting is to move away from your camera when adding light. Shining a light straight into a scene from directly beside or behind your camera will result in a flat, harsh lighting effect (think deer in the headlights). For optimal lighting, aim your light at 90-degree angles to the camera lens, from a safe distance outside the frame (similar to a standard studio lighting setup). If you want to emphasize a more sculptural effect, consider using a high or low vantage point with your lights, which will cast subtle shadows behind surfaces such as leaves or blades of grass.
Keep in mind that the closer your lights are to the foreground in an image, the quicker they will render brightness in the picture. Inversely, you’ll need to spend much more time adding light to objects that are at a distance from the camera for a lighting effect to show up.
Another factor to consider is that light painting will have a more pronounced effect when applied to shadow areas and darker surfaces than to objects that are lighter in tonality or image highlights. As an example, picture a scene with a window on the side of a house. Applying light to a darkened window will bring out sculptural detail in the mullions and reflections in the window glass, whereas, if the window is lit from inside and already a highlight in the scene, light painting this area will have little visible effect (although it could cause the area to become overexposed if lit for an extended period).
Sand Dunes, Mendocino, CA © Steve Harper
With reflective surfaces, you may want to add light from directly behind or beside your camera, for maximum effect. While this can apply to all reflective surfaces—from glass to bodies of water—it can be especially rewarding when including objects in a scene such as reflective signage, road surface markings, or other objects with a reflective finish.
So far, this discussion has been focused on adding light to a scene from outside the image. If you plan to paint with light from within the frame, there are a few additional points to consider. First, it’s advisable to dress in black or dark clothing and to keep moving within the frame to limit the chances of you showing up in the image—unless you’re seeking this effect, which is known as “ghosting.” Once you open the camera’s shutter, it’s equally important to keep your light source moving to avoid uneven lighting, creating a hot spot or burning out a section of the image.
Ink Mist Vortex © Troy Paiva
As mentioned earlier, if you’re painting with light when facing the camera, you’ll need to be aware that written text or numbers will appear backwards in the resulting photograph. While one easy solution to this would be to flip the image file in post, photography purists may prefer to master the art of writing backwards in the image itself. In this case, it can be helpful to write your message out on a piece of paper in advance for use as a visual guide on site.
Some of the most exciting visual effects of light painting can be created by light emanating from behind an object in the frame, such as the silhouetting of a darkened figure or light rays radiating from a mysterious source. The easiest way to create a silhouette is to stand behind a stationary figure (or object) and run a small pen light or light stick (white, colored or even both) along its edge, steadily tracing a line of light.
Radiating light rays are best created by aiming a strobe from behind an object at an oblique angle towards the camera and giving it a few pops. Another option would be to stand out of view of the camera and bounce the flash off another object in the scene. Or, use your body as a flag to hide the source of the light, while emphasizing the magic of its effects. These suggestions can be particularly effective when the atmosphere is heavy with humidity, mist, or fog.
With these guidelines in mind, you can set out with a basic roadmap for directed exploration of this complex and visually rich technique. In the process, keep in mind that all rules and every suggestion can be easily broken with creative intent.
To view more work from the photographers who contributed to this article, click on any name.