Four Approaches to Light Painting
by Theano Nikitas
Dave Black/Dave Black Photography
April 01, 2012 —
Light painting is not a new concept, although its popularity has grown in recent months. As photographers, we paint with light all the time, carefully crafting artificial light or moving our subjects to take advantage of beautiful, natural light. Beyond the metaphor, however, light painting is both a technique and an art form.
Picasso’s series of self portraits—the ones where he created a painting with a flashlight in front of a camera’s open shutter—are probably the best-known examples of light painting or, as it’s sometimes called, light graffiti or light writing. For some, the light painting alone is the art form. For others, light painting is both a practical and artistic component of their creative process. Here, four photographers discuss their own light painting styles and techniques.
Dave Black Colorado Springs, CO
At its core, light painting is pretty basic. Simply put, it’s “painting” a subject or space with a handheld light source (or sources), much as you would paint a canvas with a brush. One of the first professional photographers to use light painting was Man Ray, in his 1935 series, “Space Writing.” These days, increasingly more photographers are experimenting with their own approaches. To start, find a dark place, mount the camera on a tripod, set a slow shutter speed, trigger the shutter (using an electronic or manual shutter release device or the camera’s self-timer), turn on a flashlight and point or move the beam to the area you want to illuminate.
That’s pretty loose, though, so like anything else, it takes practice and experimentation to get it right. To start, you need to establish a base exposure from which to work. Dave Black, of Dave Black Photography (who also teaches light painting) suggests a starting point for relatively dark indoor shots of 30 seconds, f/8 at ISO 400. Black, who has been shooting professionally for 30 years (you’ve probably seen his sports images in publications like Sports Illustrated and Newsweek), says light has always played a large part in his photography. “You have to have a formula,” says Black, who always shoots in manual mode. “Get yourself started and you’ll find that it’s not so difficult.”
Soon after, as Black suggests, you’ll be able to make an educated guess in terms of exposure and timing. But it’s also important to make good technical and aesthetic decisions about when and where light painting will enhance your photography and not look like just another gimmick. There are plenty of tacky light painting applications out there, and while different styles will appeal to different clients, indiscriminate use of light painting can do more harm than good to your portfolio (and your professional reputation).
Black’s philosophy is pretty straightforward: “The way I approach light painting is very artistic, much the way you would apply paint to a canvas.” In addition to teaching light painting workshops, developing a light painting training video with Kelby Media, and sharing much of his light painting expertise on his Web site
(www.daveblackphotography.com), Black uses his lighting skills to “paint” illumination on a variety of subjects, including ballerinas and landscapes. His lighting tools, which consist mostly of flashlights, can be found easily and inexpensively, but Black doesn’t depend totally on light painting to create all of his images.
Beautiful in their simplicity, his shots of ballerinas are long exposures during which he changes the focus. In the image shown above (far left), “La Reve,” the model held very still during the first seconds of the shot. While the image was in focus, Black light painted her face, hands and shoulders. During the same exposure, he softened the focus before painting the rest of her body to “make it look like flowing water.” The same technique was used on his ballerina shots as well.
For his most recent shoot, “Body Shop” (previous spread), there were “about a dozen pieces to the lighting puzzle,” including a fog machine, requiring an especially long (1 minute) exposure. Fortunately, the model was able to stay still for that long as Black worked his lighting magic.
Perhaps one of his most magical images is “Stardust Barn” (shown above, before and after light painting was applied).While many light painted images are shot at a low ISO, Black bumped the light sensitivity to ISO 2400 and kept the exposure to about 20 to 30 seconds to capture the Milky Way (and not star trails), while painting the barn with light. Amazingly, this shot was captured with simply a camera, tripod and flashlight—but it was Black’s vision and experience that truly made it illuminating.
Brian Marcus New York, NY
Light painting is second nature to Brian Marcus of Fred Marcus Photography, who has been using the technique for about a decade. “In the event and wedding photography business, there are a lot of different uses for this type of light painting—to paint in shadows, to enhance detail in images that wouldn’t otherwise have detail,” Marcus explains. And, he points out, light painting is particularly useful for décor shots in large rooms: “The difference between a shot with light painting versus one without is amazing. When you use flash, you can lose the ambient light,” eliminating the beautiful atmosphere and detail that the bride and groom planned and paid for.
When faced with a large reception area, Marcus used to have his assistant illuminate each table with a flash during a long exposure to bring out centerpiece and place setting details while maintaining the soft, beautiful ambient light of the room. Then he traded the flash for a video light, although his assistant had to hide it while running from table to table. If the assistant is visible in the shot, Marcus would retouch him out and if the room is especially large, making it impossible for the assistant to cover the entire space in one exposure, he might capture two shots and stitch them together in post.
More recently however, Marcus has been using the Gunlight, an interesting lighting solution that he and his partner John Solano developed and is now being produced by Lowel. This handheld light was presented as the GL-1 and demonstrated at the Tiffen booth at WPPI 2012. The GL-1 offers a number of benefits, including giving Marcus’ assistant a little rest. Marcus says the focusable beam of light can reach distances of about 30 feet so his assistant can stand next to or near the camera and point a spot-focused beam at each table—at full power; Marcus estimates the light illuminates each table for about 1 ½ seconds.
At a recent, beach wedding shoot in Mexico, Marcus photographed the couple at night, in front of the chuppah (see before and after images below). Marcus had five minutes to create the shot but nailed it right away (he only took two shots) with a 30 second exposure at f/6.3 at ISO 125. His assistant walked along the pathway with the Gunlight/GL-1, creating a design on the walkway and illuminating the bridal couple and the chuppah individually for about 8 to 10 seconds each. Marcus knew what he wanted to do even before his plane left New York, and even for a seasoned pro, it’s a great feeling to bring an idea to life.
Timothy Hogan Los Angeles, CA
Still-life and beauty shooter Timothy Hogan’s creativity is not limited to photography. He’s a master at designing and crafting custom light modifiers and sets, and experimenting with different lighting sources (he’ll sometimes use a grinding machine to “light” his images with the sparks from various metals).
Hogan also uses a hard, ungelled light source to illuminate his subject from the side, and get a streak when the subject moves. “If it was a soft light source, the image would be mushy,” Hogan says. A flash is popped during the exposure as well. Hogan explains that by using front or rear curtain sync, the streak will be at the beginning or end of the image. If the flash fires midway through the exposure, the image will be somewhere in the middle.
Hogan’s beverage images utilize a technique similar to his beauty shots, leaving streaks of color as the bottle (sitting on a moveable platform) moves through the shots. Exposures for his beverage and beauty shots are shorter than most, hovering around 1 second, but Hogan—who uses a Hasselblad 582c digital back—will drop the ISO to 50 and, at least for beverage images, get great depth of field at f/16. Hogan’s style doesn’t necessarily fit the typical light painting criteria, but his techniques and images are as unique as they are stunning.
Elias Wessel New York, NY
Elias Wessel elected to use light painting when approached by chamber orchestra Manhattan Camerata for headshots to use in the group’s brochure. In order to make the portraits more interesting, Wessel and the orchestra’s founder agreed on the concept of translating the music visually. To achieve this visual translation using long exposures, Wessel attached tiny colored LED lights to the musicians’ hands and/or instruments, using other LEDs on stands in the background and having an assistant manually paint color adjustments with additional LEDs. Wessel thought through the concept carefully and matched the colors to the personality of each instrument. “You can really tell the character of every instrument,” Wessel explains.
“The harp is really pure and calm, almost heavenly. The accordion is more energetic.” For the harp, he used white LEDs because he didn’t have yellow lights. Ever creative, Wessel put a bottle of Corona beer in front of some of the background LEDs to get yellow light and added candles for a warm glow. He also lit the background and subject with more LEDs, and used a flash/softbox combination to ensure the face was in focus. Exposures varied, but took up to about 30 seconds to 1 minute in some cases, shooting at ISO 100 at f/5. The only major post-processing was cropping the images square for the booklet to ensure that the focus was on the movement and the light (and because it fit with the orchestra’s booklet design).
While light painting may not apply to all situations (it’s not advisable—or safe—to bring a sheet of titanium and a grinder to a wedding, for example, but it’s great for product photography), the techniques of these photographers are meant to spark your imagination and provide a few suggestions of how light painting can enhance an image.
To see more of each photographer’s work, visit:
Brinkmann Max Million II spotlight
Inova Bolt 2L LED Flashlight
Mini LEDs and batteries
Lowel GL-1 Gunlight
Training and Tutorials:
Light painting tutorials and tips—
Light painting training video—
Theano Nikitas, a full-time freelance writer and photographer, has been writing about photography for the past 18 years. Her digital imaging reviews, features, “how to” articles and images have appeared in a wide variety of publications and Web sites including American Photo, CNET.com, DigitalCameraReview.com, DPReview.com, Imaging-Resource.com, Macworld, PC World, PDN and Popular Photography/PopPhoto.com. Although she loves digital, Theano still has a darkroom and a fridge filled with film thanks to her long-time passion for alternative processes and toy cameras.
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