Friday, March 1, 2013

Painting with Light by Tim Cooper

Light painting photography by Tim Cooper © (click image to enlarge)
A light painting tutorial by Tim Cooper (reprinted by permission):

I first learned about painting with light over 20 years ago in one of my early photo classes.  Surprisingly, not much has changed since this time. A fascinating mix of painting and photography, illuminating your subject with a flashlight is an extraordinary amount of fun. 

The glowing results of Light Painting might suggest a complicated and time consuming process, but with a few hints and little practice, you will be making masterpieces in no time!  Due to modern digital cameras, this type of photography is easier than ever.  

By definition, Light Painting is the process of photographing at night while illuminating your subject with a handheld device such as a flashlight or camera flash.  The use of a moving hand held light creates a look that is nearly impossible to replicate during daylight hours. 

You can also mix in the ambient light of the scene for a more layered affect.  Your scenes can be partially lit by moonlight, street lights, house lights or entirely lit by your own flashlight!  You can use different flashlights for a slight change in color or place colored gels over them for striking changes.  Rotating the front bezel of your flashlight spreads or focuses the beam light creating a variety looks to your image.  The possibilities are endless! 

Unlike many forms of photography, there are very few hard and fast rules that apply to this discipline.  Proper exposure is largely based on a trial and error approach.  Subject reflectivity, ambient light, flashlight power and  distance from flashlight to the subject all influence the resulting exposure. 

Begin by taking some test exposures.  In many cases, the longest shutter of 30 seconds on your camera will not provide enough time to paint.  This means you will need a camera that goes to a shutter speed of “B”, which stands for bulb.  To use the B setting you must have a cable release with a lock.  Plug in your cable release, set your camera to B and press and lock the cable release.  The shutter will now stay open until you unlock the cable release.  Exposures can range from 1 second to hours.  Typically most cameras will start to exhibit too much noise after the 3 minute mark, however. 

I usually start with my aperture at about f8.  This is typically the sharpest part of any lens and also allows more time to paint.  Keep your ISO at a lower setting such as 100, 200 or 400. 

If the scene is completely dark with no ambient light, then only your flash light will illuminate the scene.  In cases like this, you can leave your shutter open for a very long time.  1 minute, two minutes or even three minutes.

If you are mixing ambient light, such as the full moon or street lights, you shutter time may anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes.  My recommendation here is to take some test shots with out painting. Get your ambient light to a brightness that doesn’t overwhelm your scene.  Perhaps something a little darker than you might normally use.  Set your shutter speed for this exposure and then begin to experiment with different amounts of light painting.

10 Helpful Hints:
  1. Wear dark clothes so as you walk through the scene you will appear invisible to the camera
  2. Keep your body in between the flashlight and camera to alleviate recording the flashlight in the scene.
  3. Don’t keep your body in between what you are painting and the camera.  This will negate the painting.
  4. Paint your subjects from the side rather than from the camera.  Painting directly from the camera will flatten out the scene while painting from the side adds texture.
  5. Spend more time painting the areas you want to highlight. 
  6. Use a broad beam for illuminating a general area, a focused beam to highlight.
  7. Use the cardboard core of a paper towel roll over the front of your flashlight to achieve a very narrow beam.
  8. Move the position of the flashlight to create a softer light.  Try to refrain from painting from one position.  
  9. Before going out to make masterpieces, test your camera at home.  Set up your camera in your home at night and make a series of exposures at 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes and 4 minutes.  Check your images out on your computer and see where the noise starts to become a problem.  Most cameras will look OK up to the 2 or 3 minute mark.
  10. The hotter it is, the more noise you will see over long exposures.  Below 60 degrees is optimal!
  11. Practice, experiment and have fun!
About Tim Cooper: For more tutorials, workshops, and learning go to Tim Cooper's website. I also suggest you join Tim's Photo Circle for future updates on equipment reviews, tips, and training videos.

Editor's Note: Items #4, 7, and 8 are important "advanced" techniques that can really separate your work from the crowd. Similar techniques are used in the light painted foregrounds of my NightScapes. When working with starscapes, that require the stars to remain as points of light, your period of light painting time will be limited to 30 seconds or less. (This time can be extended by taking two exposures, a shorter one for the sky, and a longer one for the light painted foreground, then combining the two in post production.)

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  1. Thanks for posting these great hints. I will have to try them out.
    Is there much difference in using a film camera instead of digital? My digital camera has only got an 8 second shutter so it looks like it's back to good old 35mm :)


    1. Not much difference except for the expense of film and processing. Check your digital camera to see if it has a "Bulb" (B) setting. Your shutter speed on bulb is as long as you want it to be as long as you hold down the release button.

  2. Thanks for the good post! Photography Flash Light. Photography Flash Light