People often think of light painting as light drawing or light graffiti, where the light is the subject. The photographer uses different light sources to draw in the air creating streaks, colors or flashes during a long exposure.
In this article I will introduce you to the basics of a light painting technique used for still life subjects. This practice also uses a light source in a dark environment, but you use the light to paint the subject with light. By doing this you emphasize portions of the scene you want to bring out, leaving in shadow those you want subdued. If you decide to give light painting a try, this article should help reduce the frustration that many experience when starting out.
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What is Light Painting?
Light painting is a photographic technique where you use a simple light source, such as a small flashlight, to illuminate the subject or areas of the subjects. This is all done using a long exposure setting on your camera in a very dark room. This technique is easier to explain than to master, but with a lot of practice and patience you can create something quite magical.
A Streamlined Environment shooting meaningful subjects
Since ambient light might expose your hand or your flashlight, the best environment is a pitch -black room. The darker the room the more control you will have lighting your subject. If you cannot create a dark environment, it is possible to light paint, using an ND filter, even during the day. Check out the video for details.
Setting up a creative still life is often one of the more challenging activities. You can also use light painting with a single subject or for a single close-up image as you can see above.
As the photographer you control where you place the light on your subject. Although it is possible to simulate conventional lighting, you can do so much more with light painting. You achieve this by aiming the small light source to the areas you want more light, leaving other areas in the shadows. By controlling the direction or angle of the light with deliberate hand movements, you can enhance the shape and texture of an objects. You control the exposure to specific areas of you subject by increasing or decreasing the time and distance from the subject.
Enhanced Color Saturation. Increased Texture. Softened Shadows.
You will get enhanced saturation and increased texture without the hard shadows you can get with stationary lights. The angle of the light will also affect texture and dimension. Moving a smaller light source around your subject gives you a soft transition between the highlights and shadows. You can also add more texture to your images by using a hand movement called ‘raking.’ Harold Ross coined this phrase and demonstrated it in his online video using a light wand he developed. Experiment with various movements to create different effects. Move your hand in small circles or move the light closer and further from the subject. Try lighting from the side or raking the light across the subject.
Tools of the Trade
Light painting does not require a fancy camera or expensive equipment and accessories. All you need is a good camera with manual mode, time delay setting or remote release, a decent lens, a tripod, a flashlight with easy-to-find (or make) diffusers and snoots.
Flashlights, Diffusers and Snoots
Flashlights with adjustable brightness levels are especially useful and perform well. Since a flashlight can give you very harsh light, a diffuser is essential. They are easy to find online, and even easier to make yourself. If your flashlight does not have a narrow beam, you can make a small snoot out of paper and Gaffer tape that fits over your flashlight. This will help control the direction and radius of the light beam and reduce light spill. Cover the end with a paper towel or light fabric to diffuse a strong beam of light.
My favorite diffuser is a rubber cane tip with a hole drilled in it that works as a snoot to help direct the light. This slides over the end of my Zanflare adjustable flashlight. I wrap the end with a few layers of lightweight packing film, tissue or a used dryer sheet secured with a rubber band. I can add and remove layers depending on the amount of diffusion required. Experiment with flashlights, diffusers and snoots until you find a solution that works for you.
Camera Setup & General Technique
1. Set your ISO to as low or to your cameras native ISO.
2. Set mode to Manual. Start with 20-30 seconds and adjust as needed.
3. Set your aperture to f/9-f/16. You can adjust this as necessary to increase or decrease exposure.
4. Set Image Stabilization OFF.
One of the first tutorials I studied was by Caryn Esplin. She documents the steps that I used for my first light painting’s shoot. Her 10-step plan simplifies a process that in the beginning I thought was intimidating. But, as she says, “It is not easy, but very satisfying.” I could not agree more. Your subject can be as simple or as complex as you like, but I would suggest starting with one or two objects until you get the hang of it.
Below are 10-Steps without the details. It is worth linking to her article online where she explains all the key details.
1. Find a dark area
2. Arrange your tabletop scene
3. Place the camera on a tripod
4. Set your camera to manual mode - Start with ISO 200 – f/11 – 30 seconds.
5. Lock the focus
6. Activate the self-timer
7. Paint light from off-camera
8. Adjust the lighting
9. Leave dark areas
In the beginning trial and error will be necessary for you to determine the exposure time, ISO and light source required. With practice and persistence, you will achieve the highlights and shadows that you envision.
Click on an images to enlarge and scroll.
Light Painting is challenging and takes a bit of practice. But it is extremely rewarding and can produce some impressive results. I hope this article has inspired you to try it and that you can develop a unique style that you can call your own. This is a wonderful time of year for some in-studio photography.
There are many articles & tutorials if you want to learn more. I’ve listed a few below.
Tabletop Light Painting in 10 Easy Steps | Caryn Esplin
Learn these Two Techniques for Dramatic Light-Painted Photos
l first learned about light painting in our local camera club. Rick Ohnsman put on a great workshop introducing the club to this technique. See his great article on Digital Photography School. I referenced this article many times as I got started.
Harold Ross – Introducing Light Wand ~ Raking
How to Light Paint During the Day
Painting with Light in Daylight using an ND filter