What is light painting and why you should know is a pretty bold statement, right? Well, if you are looking for a way to better understand how light influences your photographs then this is an article for you.
Although it’s usually a technique for night photography, I believe that experimenting with light painting can help you improve not only your night shot but your daytime photos as well.
Spoiler alert, the improvements come from understanding how the direction of light can change the look of your subject.
In this article, I’ll walk you through a couple of different experiments to demonstrate the basics of light painting and explain some of the science going on behind the scenes. It’s a little long, so I’ll do my best to get the basics out of the way first before diving deeper.
What you’ll learn
Learn the basics of light painting
- What is it?
- How to get started
- How it can help you improve your night photography
- Add some terminology to your photography library (Inverse-square law)
Without further ado, let’s get started.
What is light painting?
The term light painting is really appropriate because you are doing just that – painting with light. Instead of paint you use light and capture it with a camera instead of a canvas. If you haven’t tried light painting before it’s really fun.
What does that mean? Simply put, you use an external light source to creatively illuminate a subject in the dark.
Words are great, but light painting is easier to understand with pictures.
In this pair of night photos below, what differences do you see?
The image above is an exposure using just available light from the moon.
By contrast, the image below was created by using a small light to accentuate the details and textures of the rock. That image is an example of light painting.
What do you think of the result?
This is light painting.
Why do light painting?
If you are already comfortable working with your camera, then light painting is a fun, creative, and challenging way to push yourself and your photography.
Much like taking photographs in black and white is helpful for understanding contrast in a scene, light painting helps you really understand how to use light to showcase your subject. As a landscape photographer, I enjoy using light painting while composing my night photography images.
*** WARNING – ENTERING MANUAL MODE (It’s okay, you’ve got this) ***
Now that you know what light painting is and why you should add it to your list of things to try, let’s dig into the process.
In order to help you better understand the basics of light painting, I’ve conducted a couple of experiments.
While still sheltering in place means limiting how far I can roam from home, it also allows for a good first lesson. You don’t need to go very far to find a place to practice light painting. You just need an area that is not well lit and is mostly dark.
For this article, I walked five minutes to a dog park near my home. There I found a group of three trees that I chose as the subject for these experiments.
The first image above, is straight out of the camera. I’m sharing this because I want you to see that there is still some light entering the scene.
In this case, the light is coming from a series of lights along a nearby sidewalk. Here is an edited version that I brightened up to make it easier for you to see the overall scene.
Important first step – focusing your camera at night
Before jumping into the experiment any further, I wanted to take a moment to share the easiest way to focus at night. Since you already have some form of external light with you, point it at the subject (get someone to hold the light for you if possible).
With the subject illuminated, either focus manually (using Live View press the little zoom or magnify button and go to 5x or 10x view to see better) or automatically and then lock the focus for the rest of that shoot.
You can just switch the lens/camera to manual focus or use back button focus if you know how to do that.
If you move the camera, you will need to focus again.
NOTE: You also need to use a tripod for this kind of photography! You cannot do this handheld.
If you don’t have a helper or anyone with you, put your light source (I was using a Lume Cube) into the scene, then focus on the important part of your subject. Then leave the focus and lens alone. As an added precaution, consider taping the focus ring to prevent it from moving.
The first experiment uses a constant light source pointed in a fixed direction. The second experiment uses a constant light source that is swept in an arc toward the subject from different locations.
Subject: three trees
- Camera gear: Sony a6000, 16-70mm f4.0 lens, tripod, shutter release cable
- Light source: Fenix TK32 flashlight, Lume Cube 2.0, light stand, bonus – LED panel
- Miscellaneous: a tape measure to make sure the lights and camera are roughly equidistant, a notepad to record camera settings, and a pen.
Camera settings (unless noted as otherwise):
- Shooting mode – Manual
- ISO 100
- Exposure time (shutter speed) 30 seconds
Experiment #1: Static light source
In this first test, the light will remain in one spot during the camera exposure.
- Study how light falls on the subject from different directions.
- Observe how the power of the light decreases farther from the source.
For this part of the experiment, I took one photograph from each of the four flashlight locations so you can compare them separately.
Position #1 – Light on the camera
In the image below, the Lume Cube was placed in the camera’s hot shoe. Notice how the subjects lack a sense of depth.
This is the same as when you take a selfie with your phone and the flash fires into your face. The picture is usually not the most flattering version of you. The same is true for the trees.
Take away lesson here: Light direct from the camera angle is flat, and the subject lacks depth and dimension.
Position #2 – Light on camera right
By moving the light from camera position to 90 degrees to the right, creates a different look to the scene.
Notice that the tree which is closest to the light source is a lot brighter than the one on the left. This difference in brightness can be calculated using the inverse-square law.
For a more detailed explanation of this concept watch this video.
Also notice that the tree appears to have more texture than when the light was in position one, camera angle. There is also a feeling of more depth in the scene here.
Take away lessons here: The farther you move the light source from the subject, the less contrast there is on the subject. In addition, side lighting brings out more texture in the subject.
Position #3 – Light behind the subject, pointed back at the camera
Tip – Make sure to block the light source from directly hitting the camera. Otherwise, you won’t see much of the scene or you’ll get lens flare.
There are plenty of creative photos where the light was pointed directly at the camera, but that’s not the point of this exercise. With this setup, most of the details in the trees are lost to shadow. It’s not the best direction from which to position your only source of light.
Think of this as taking a photo of a loved one standing in front of a window during the day. They are likely to just be a silhouette (dark figure against the bright windows).
The same is true here.
Take away lessons here: Backlight will silhouette your subject.
Position #4 – Light on camera left
Completing our trip around the trees, you should notice similar behavior and results to that of the light coming from the right. This time the tree on the left is slightly brighter than the one on the right.
This completes the first experiment. I hope you were able to see the effect of the light fall-off and how changing the direction of your light source can impact the look of the subject and your image.
Take away lessons here: light from either side of the subject creates the same effect. Try both and see which is best for your subject.
One of the best things to remember about light painting is that you don’t need to get everything right in one take. By combining each of the individual shots from each lighting direction, you are in charge of your own masterpiece.
See the following image for my quick composite of the first experiment.
To see how to do that in Photoshop check out this article and video: Video: How to combine multiple light painted images in Photoshop
Experiment #2 – The sweep
- Reenforce the concept of the inverse square law
- See how you can shape the light differently by hand as opposed to using a fixed light position
The sweep refers to moving the light source in a sweeping motion across part of the scene. In this case, I’m using my flashlight to more evenly light portions of the foreground.
Like the previous experiment, I present a series of photographs taken while lighting the scene from different locations. See the following figure for an overview.
Like the previous experiment, starting with the light source at the camera position, I worked my way around the circle.
While the lighting may not be exactly consistent from location to location, that’s okay. Light painting in this way is going to yield slightly different results each time because each pass is going to be different.
Position #1 – sweep from the camera position
Shining the light from near ground level directly below the camera. The purpose of this is to add some contrast and texture to the foreground.
Position #2 – sweep from 45 degrees on the right of the camera
In the photo below, you can see how the light sweeps across the foreground of the scene. Notice that I didn’t get the light beam evenly spread throughout the motion. This left the darker section in the lower right corner of the image.
Position #3 – sweep from 45 degrees behind the subject on the right
The purpose of lighting this area and the next one is to provide some depth to the scene. You’ll notice that you can see the green grass in the background and the slope of the landscape leading to the tree trunks.
Position #4 – sweep from 45 degrees behind the subject on the left
As with the previous light location, I wanted to add some depth to the scene. Additionally, part of this light sweep highlighted small sections of the tree trunks. This helps them stand out from the surrounding darkness.
Position #5 – sweep from 45 degrees on the left of the camera
Finally, by moving to the light to the left of the camera I was able to fill in the remaining section of the foreground.
Creating the final composite image
As in the first experiment, I combined the different lighting angles to create a composite image in Photoshop.
There is another addition to this image, however. I pointed my flashlight at each individual tree to help them stand out from the background. You can see this additional step after the composite image.
What did you notice about the results of these two experiments?
Did you see how changing the position of the light source also changed the direction of the shadows? How did the depth of the scene change from having the light coming from the camera position versus coming from off-camera?
Do you have a better understanding of the inverse-square law now? What would you do if you wanted to combine some of the results together?
There’s a lot to think about in regards to light painting. But the great thing is there is no pressure to do it all at once. If you liked running through these experiments I would encourage you to try some light painting out for yourself.
Reading about light painting (or any topic for that matter) is great, but you’ll learn so much more by actually doing it yourself.
In closing, I wanted to share a few fun images that were not part of the main experiment.
First is an image of just light painting on the trees. I used my flashlight while standing behind the camera, and swept the beam up and down each trunk in order to make them brighter. This is the image I used in the final composite above.
In the next series, I held the flashlight to my chest while walking away from the camera. You’ll notice my feet appear everywhere in the shot. There are better ways to achieve this look, but I wanted to goof around.
There are a few instances where I was turned toward the camera as I wove through the trees. So the important thing to learn here is that if you want to create this type of pattern, you need to avoid aiming the light source back at the camera. If the camera can see the light then it is captured.
One last tip: If you want to do light painting and not be seen in the image, wear dark clothes (grey/black).
I hope you enjoyed this article. I had a lot of fun putting together these experiments for you.
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what light painting is, and how easy it is to get started. The next step for you is to go have some fun light painting.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comment area below. Also, if you don’t mind sharing, I’d love to see what you create. Show me your light painting images too!
Until next time. See you on the trail.