The trick not to illuminate the whole scene

Light painting can be looked upon as a kind of night photography, but in fact it is a whole lot more than that. Light painting is not only used to picture night scene landscapes. The technique can be used in a wide range of photography. From still life over commercial, real estate and car photography to wide landscapes and even portraits. What it all has in common is the use of a long exposure and a hand hold light source.

light painting series, urbex, landscape and still life lightpaintings

In photography we capture the light illuminating a scene. The more beautiful the light, the more interesting and appealing the image will be. The direction, size, strength and softness of the light have an immense influence on the appearance of a scene, it helps reveal certain aspects or create a particular mood. An evenly lit scene tends to be boring, even if it has a nice structural composition. It is the light composition that creates the spirit of a picture (if you wan to learn more about lighting then check out this book). For me the light composition is the most important feature of an image, often even more important than the structural composition.

The play of light and dark and the trick not to illuminate the whole scene helps to lead the eye towards the accents the photographer wants to lay. For me learning photography is learning to see and read the light. I like to have control over the light, that’s why light painting is so appealing to me. With it you are able to control the light to a degree that’s just impossible with any other lighting technique, you can create a very complex light composition with a single flashlight. At the same time, there’s an inherent degree of uncertainty, it’s always experimental and unpredictable. With light painting it’s impossible to recreate the exact same light composition over and over again, every attempt will be different and unique.

Painting with a flashlight

Ligth painting is a photographic technique whereby the scene or object is illuminated by a hand held light source, mostly a flashlight. It is performed in a dark environment the camera mounted on a tripod and a long shutter speed. While the shutter is open you are able to Paint in the light with a flashlight. There is a lot of trial and error involved. Creating a lightpainting is a time consuming process, it often takes more than half an hour or even more to create a single image. But the more you practice the fewer attempts are needed to get a satisfying end result.

Blast furnace piping detail, industrial heritage at Landschaftspark, Duisburg. Urban exploration of industry in decay. Light painting

The number of light paintings you can create in a certain time span are quite low. For me 2 to 4 images on a single night is the limit. This also means that I put a lot of efford in the composition before I start to shoot. I don’t want to waste my time on a bad composed image, everything has to be perfect before I start the actual light painting. In other types of photography, especially in this digital age, you can shoot hundreds of images in a single day. Not in light painting, here the number of images lays a lot lower but most of these will look amazing. In this way it is a very satisfying photographic technique.

Single or multiple exposure approach

Light painting can be broken down in two basic categories: the single exposure approach and the multiple exposure approach. In the single image approach you illuminate the whole scene in one single shot. In this approach the first attempt will be the start of a series of attempts. After every attempt you will have to evaluate the image (on the back of your camera). Based on this evaluation you can then adapt your lighting approach to get a better result. It can take tens of attempts before you reach a satisfying end result. This approach is only possible when the light composition isn’t to complex or the scene small enough to illuminate in a single take. Shutterspeeds for this approach tend to be relatively long, going from about 10 seconds for a small simple scene to several minutes for a more complex scene.

In the multiple-exposure approach you only paint light onto a small portion of the whole scene. Shutter speeds are relatively low, mostly ranging from 10 to 30 seconds. By creating multiple exposures illuminating different parts of the scene, you get a series of images that combined illuninate the whole scene. Now by taking this series into photoshop you are able to combine all or some of these exposures to a single image. This can result in an amazing image with a very complex, detailed and appealing light composition. Depending on the size and complexity of the image I use both approaches. I’m planning to create a series of tutorials focusing on all aspects of light painting.

I created a small demonstration movie light painting a bench in the dark forest. Here you can see from the camera point how I illuminate parts of the scene leading to a multi exposure light painting. You see me lighting parts of the scene from different angles, creating a complex light composition.

Create some magic

With these techniques it’s possible to transform a boring or mundane scene into something magical, a real peace of art. The quality of the lighting defines the character and mood of the scene. By painting with light you really are able to create magical images. Some of these seem to come straight out of a fairy tale world. With this technique you will be able to create images that otherwise only exist in your imagination. You dont just take a picture, you create a whole new world.

The basics of lightpainting aren’t really difficult and everybody with a decent camera will be able to create this kind of magic. To start, the only things you need is a camera that enables long exposures, a tripod and a flashlight, that’s all. Just pick an interesting scene, find a good composition and start light painting. Just start experimenting. It’s a very satisfying kind of photography because you can create something special, something magical. In the beginning the trick is to keep it simple! Start with a small scene and from here build up your skills and knowledge. I wish you a lot of fun! More of my light painting images can be found here!

Pitch dark chemical cellar illuminated with a single flashlight