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Painting with light

Try this technique. It's fun, easy (sort of) and rewarding.


The model must remain absolutely still during the time exposure unless you wish to have some blur.
The model must remain absolutely still during the time exposure unless you wish to have some blur.

Painting with light occurs when the photographer incrementally lights an otherwise darkened scene using a handheld flashlight or other small light source while the shutter remains open during a time exposure. The light is added to the scene in the manner of an artist using a "paintbrush of light."

The effect can be incredibly beautiful.

The technique is usually quite complimentary to a female model, often producing a soft, pinhole-camera like effect that seems to make the skin glow. But the lighting can also be sporadic, with bright spots and shadow areas where they may be least expected.

The painting with light technique may be the least-scientific method of lighting a subject for photography. Several attempts may be needed before the effect you want is achieved. And sometimes you will achieve a surprisingly-nice effect that is completely unexpected. (We like to think that is a sign of the artist in you.)


LIGHTING CAN BE HIT-OR-MISS AT FIRST

If you neglect to shine the flashlight on your model's face during the exposure, his or her face will be dark. Should you partially light the model's face, then it will be partially bright and part shadow, and may even look like any one of the four pictures on the right. None of them shows a properly-lit face. But, you have to judge whether that is important. The lower-right picture, for example, looks pretty good even though the model's face is partly-dark and partially-bright. The lighting is moody, interesting and complimentary. We like it, and so does the model. Hey, that may be all that is important for this kind of lighting technique.

If you are not using a model, but are instead photographing an inanimate object, the same principle applies—simply stated, what you aim your light at gets lit; what you don't, stays dark .

DON'T FORGET PROPER EXPOSURE

As with all photography, success in painting with light is dependent on proper exposure. But it's not as scientific as metering your subject for proper exposure; it's more like "Let's see if this next attempt will give me an acceptable exposure." If you bring the light source too close to the model, that area will be overexposed. If you hold it too far away, there will be inadequate illumination. Painting with light is a tricky business that benefits from trial-and-error.

You will first need to experiment with getting the right distance from the light source to your subject, and then will have to learn how to maintain that distance as you "paint" the subject using the flashlight. With experience, you will become confident as an illuminator, and will usually be able to gauge whether you have given just the right amounts of light and shadow for perfect painting-with-light photographs.

This is a technique that particularly lends itself to digital photography, or proofing using Polaroid shots, because you will ideally need to see the effect right away in order to change it for the better.

The intensity and focus of the light source are factors that can greatly affect exposure and the overall effect. For example, a super-powered flashlight that is too bright even when your aperture is completely shut down needs to be held so far away from the subject to avoid overexposure that you may lose the "feel" for proper light painting of your subject.

We have found that a small pocket flashlight like a Mini-Maglite with a couple of AA-batteries that is manoeuvered around two to three feet away from the subject gives great results when using a film speed of ISO 100 to 125 and an aperture of ƒ/2.8. You might get different results, and may have to adjust your distance, aperture or technique for the exact effect that you want.

It may take several attempts before you get just the lighting effect you desire. You will need a model with a great deal of patience and the ability to remain motionless for several seconds.
It may take several attempts before you get just the lighting effect you desire. You will need a model with a great deal of patience and the ability to remain motionless for several seconds.

Although it may appear as though the candles provided all the illumination for this picture, the main light source was a small flashlight.
Although it may appear as though the candles provided all the illumination for this picture, the main light source was a small flashlight.

Your camera can be either digital or a film-type, but it must be able to keep its shutter open for a time exposure. And of course, it must also be on a tripod or supported in some other manner that keeps it rock solid during the time that the shutter is open. Otherwise, the scene will be blurred.

Some cameras have a limit to the length of time that the shutter will remain open, often no more than a few seconds, while others have a setting that permits you to keep the shutter open as long as you would like. Three seconds is about the minimum for effective painting with light. If your camera permits only short time-exposures, you will need to be very quick with the flashlight, shining it smoothly and speedily over the entire area to be illuminated.

One advantage to keeping the exposure time short is that your model will probably not move noticeably. As exposure times increase beyond, say, four or five seconds, most people will move slightly or perhaps just blink. Shining the light on the model's face at the beginning will eliminate concerns about blinking, since the exposure of the face will already have been made when the eyes close and open.


CHOOSE A POSE THAT CAN BE MAINTAINED

Posing is a factor to bear in mind when painting with light. The model must be able to maintain the pose without moving during the entire time that the shutter is open and the exposure is being made.

Poses where the model is strained or has to balance on one foot, for example, may cause body movement that the camera will record as a blur. However, a pose that solidly places the model in an easy-to-maintain position, such as the pose shown in the picture at right, helps to ensure that there will be no movement. Note: This picture also shows something you should avoid when painting with light, and that is shining the actual light source towards the camera. The curved streak of light that crosses the model's foot is the flashlight.

Choose a pose that the model can hold for several seconds.
Choose a pose that the model can hold for several seconds.

This picture was deliberately taken to show the dynamics of painting with light. The models are absolutely motionless while the photographer or an assistant paints them with light from a small flashlight.
This picture was deliberately taken to show the dynamics of painting with light. The models are absolutely motionless while the photographer or an assistant paints them with light from a small flashlight.

The picture at left shows a "painting with light" session taking place. The models are stock still in poses they can hold for several seconds while the photographer moves a small flashlight that is aimed at them to "paint" them with light. You can see the flashlight's wriggly trail.

A light screen over a studio window, out of camera range on the right, was partially opened to permit just enough light to shine on the photographer to expose him for this picture. Otherwise, you would not see the photographer, because none of the light would fall on him. (That secondary light source actually creates a pleasant rim-lighting effect on the right-hand model's legs.)

You will note that the sides of the models' bodies facing the camera are largely in shadow. This is because the flashlight shone down on them from directly above, top-lighting them. Compare this picture with the one below.


In the image at right, the models were illuminated by a flashlight washed over them from in front, creating greater overall subject lighting, but a somewhat flat look. This is not surprising. Frontal lighting generally shows less three-dimensionality in subjects, and the resulting pictures are usually less dramatic and less-interesting. We recommend you avoid shining the flashlight at your subject from the camera position unless you deliberately want this look.

At the top of this page, we state that painting with light is "easy (sort of)". What do we mean by "sort of"? Well, painting with light really is easy to do, however getting really great results every time is not. But, as you practice, and carefully note the effects of changes you make and as you make adjustments for them, you will find it does indeed get easier to turn out quality pictures more often using this technique.

Lighting the models from the front and from roughly their height washed them with a fairly even overall light.
Lighting the models from the front and from roughly their height washed them with a fairly even overall light.
Further information...

Light as a background

Riding a broom at night

Write your subject's name in light
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