Light Painting: Learnings


One of the most powerful ways to take control of a picture: its composition; the message to be conveyed, is to control the lighting. Lighting allows one to highlight the subject, lay out the shadows, create the drama. With this level of control one can define the composition rather than be subject to the conditions offered.

Yet controlling the lighting and using the tools to do so can be intimidating. The attraction, in my case, to light painting is the conceptual simplicity and the tools are readily at hand.

Wikipedia defines light painting as [1]:

Light painting, also known as light drawing is a photographic technique in which exposures are made usually at night or in a darkened room by moving a hand-held light source or by moving the camera. In many cases the light source itself does not have to appear in the image. The term light painting also encompasses images lit from outside the frame with hand-held light sources.

The focus of my exploration has been painting still life subjects in a darkened room with a flashlight. There are some basic techniques and equipment requirements, which are covered elsewhere [2, 3]. My purpose here is to checkpoint my observations and learnings to this early point.

First, there are several variants of light painting including: (1) painting with a flashlight (2) painting with a camera flash (3) painting exterior subjects with high power lights, including car head lights (4) making light trails [4, 5]. I don’t think one is better than the other, just different tools that offer some different effects and outcomes.

Light paining is an alternative technique to lighting your subject. Most are familiar with the use of a flash (strobe), but to achieve the desired dramatic effects requires a fair amount of expertise and equipment. For the amateur (and may be just speaking for myself) this can be a daunting task.

The basic differences I have noted so far between flash techniques and light painting are:

  • In the flash technique, the subject is lighted for an instance and the exposure is usually sub-second; in light painting the subject is “painted” with light over an extended (many seconds) period of time.
  • With the flash approach, multiple units are usually required to fill in the subject; in the painting approach [usually] one light is used and moved around during the exposure period.
  • More accuracy and consistency can be got with the flash approach as units can be set up on stands, timers can be set, and this can be done repeatedly and tuned. In light painting the flash light is hand held, the light exposure is manually set and thus each outcome is unique.
  • Flash is most often used within a close area, generally contained within the few meters that the flash is effective. Light painting, on the other hand, can be done with very powerful lights thus extending the dimensions of the areas of coverage. This can and does include landscapes.
  • Flash can be used to freeze subjects in motion as well as still life; light painting is generally used for subjects that remain stationary (although light trails can add some nice effects).
  • Light painting can offer dramatic lighting effects, and help highlight the subject of the photograph and de-emphasize other elements. To accomplish the same effect with flash equipment would likely require a relatively complex system of units, including timers.

I’ve now experimented with a number of subjects and this is what I have learnt:

  • Use a simple, incandescent flashlight that is not too powerful
    It’s hard enough to control the exposure; using a lower powered light seems to offer a little more tolerance.
  • Bare careful about mixing materials with different reflective properties
    It makes it hard to avoid over exposing some areas, while under exposing others
  • You can take your time
    It can take time to move the flashlight from point to point so this needs to be taken into consideration when setting the overall exposure period
  • Light areas around the subject as well, albeit at a lower intensity, to avoid the subject appearing to be floating is free space (unless that is the desired effect).
  • Look to the masters (Rembrandt, etc.) for examples of composition and lighting.

The approach is particularly well-suited to ad hoc creations. Conversely, it is difficult to incrementally improve on a starting scheme and build towards a desired effect. Where a complex lighting effect needs to be built towards the use of strobes and timers is likely the better route. Yet the ability to drive the composition of a picture can be achieved by both routes. So in effect, light painting has exposed a simple route to grasping lighting concepts that can be carried over to the other approaches. Through this realization I may become motivated to look more closely at the more traditional lighting tools and systems.

The Flickr group The Still Life in Light Painting offers many fine examples.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *