Friday, May 2, 2014

Stationary Light Painting

Milky Way over granite pinnacles in the Alabama Hills - Tuttle Creek Canyon area ~ © Royce Bair
There are five battery-powered LED (with color filters) lights hidden among the rocks, and
another battery-powered main (or "key") light 300 feet to the right of this scene.
Canon 5D Mark III • Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens @ f/2.0 • 13" • ISO 5000
Stationary Light "Painting" sounds like an oxymoron. The very definition of light painting refers to hand held, moving lights. However, the problem with moving lights is inconsistency —it's virtually impossible to get the same results for each exposure.

Traditional light painting allows one to cover a large area with a small light, by moving the light back and forth (painting) during a long exposure. Good results are somewhat by chance and hard to repeat. However, it's this experimental randomness that can produce quirky and happy "mistakes" —considered "artistic" by some.

Lighting for Panoramas, Time Lapse and Group Photography: With all the challenges of astro-landscape photography, that are plenty of variables to manipulate and prove one's artistic abilities without having to deal with foreground lighting inconsistencies, especially if you are doing panoramas or time lapse photography. In panoramas, the foreground in each exposure must be lighted the same or the objects will not blend properly when stitched together. In time lapse sequences, the foreground lighting in each frame or exposure must be exactly the same the video will flicker. (In these time lapse scenes by Mike Darter, the only flicker comes from errant red headlamps being turned on, and me setting up the lights in the beginning exposures.)

When I light paint a landscape foreground for a workshop group, stationary or "sculptured" lighting, as I like to call it, allows the participates to move around and concentrate more on composition. They are not hampered by having to be in sync with the timing of the painting, only to discover later that their best compositions were paired with a bad painting sequence.

Despite the obvious advantages of sculptured lighting, I do both stationary (here's a step-by-step example) and traditional light painting (example), depending on the need and look I'm trying to create.

This is one of several "key" or main light set-ups I use in my stationary or "sculptured" lighting.
Everything but the sandbag (5.) is available through Paul C. Buff, Inc. (1.) 11-inch Long Throw (28º)
Silver Reflector. (2.) AlienBees B1600 Flash Unit. (3.) Vagabond Mini Lithium (true sine wave
portable power source for 120 volt AC). (4.) Light stand. (5.) Sandbag. (6.) Bag for B1600. (7.) Bag for
Vagabond. (8.) Closeup of Vagabond. (9) Closeup of B1600 Flash Unit back — flash and model light
power are variable from full to 1/32 power. Modeling light is the light source for most of my NightScapes.
Quartz Halogen Lights and Lithium Powered Inverters, such as the highly efficient and light weight Vagabond Mini (through Paul C. Buff, Inc.) are a great way to provide about two hours of constant main or "key" lighting. The new Vagabond Lithium Extreme can easily provide about three hours of constant light. Although these units are made for powering studio size flash units like the 640 Ws B1600 (providing up to 500 full-power flashes), it is the use of the quartz halogen modeling light (without the flash) that I am employing here.

The flash unit will accept quartz halogen bulbs up to 150-watts, but 100-watt and even 60-watt bulbs are often more practical. In the top photo of the Alabama Hills, I used a 150-watt bulb reduced to 1/8 power (even at a distance of about 300 feet from the pinnacles). When you are shooting star-scapes at ISO's of 3200 to 6400, it is surprising how little light is needed in the foreground to balance with the sky exposure!

Quartz Halogen for the main light is preferred over LED's for two reasons: 1. Since many nightscape shooters photograph the starry night sky with a White Balance of 3000º Kelvin to 3500º Kelvin, the halogen lights are already at a similar color balance, and the more you dim these lights, the warmer they go —adding a pleasant contrast to the cool night sky. 2. Halogens can more easily be focused and controlled than LED's. Using the 11-inch Long Throw Silver Reflector allows me to set my main light at greater distances (with less light loss), thus reducing the light fall-off from one side of the picture frame to the other.

Large and Super-size Landscapes: The above unit can easily light most large landscape foregrounds with just the use of the modeling light. For super-size landscapes, the powerful studio flash can be employed; albeit, with the strobe, one no longer has the advantage of a constant light source.

Accent and Fill Lighting: To soften (fill) shadows cast by the main light, I often place omni-directional LED lights, such as lanterns, near the camera position, or opposite the main light. Miniature LED lanterns can also be used as accent lights, such as those hidden among the rocks in the top photo. In most cases, the LED lanterns must be gelled or filtered with yellow, orange or red filters in order to reduce their 8000º - 10000º Kelvin "bluish" output to a much warmer offering. The big advantage of LED technology is their low power consumption. Most will operate at full power for six or more hours on alkaline batteries.

The GE Chromalit 3D Super Bright White LED Technology lanterns have a low, medium and high
setting (260 lumens), with a built-in yellow filter, so it's warmer (about 4000º K) than most LEDs.
Even so, I often need to gel it with warming filters. Four alkaline D batteries will power
this lantern up to 50 hours! Available at Costco, Amazon and eBay for $20 to $30.
These mini LED lanterns by Life Gear are an in house brand of Walmart, and usually cost only $5.00
each. They produce 25 lumens of bluish-white light that typically must be gelled for best white balance.
However, their most common use for me is in their red LED mode, as an accent light (no need to filter).
In many cases I need even less red light, so I set them to flashing mode, where their rapid intermittent
red glow yields about 50% less light during a time exposure. Powered by 3 AAA alkaline batteries.
Warming Gels / Filters for LED Lights: The filters I use over the GE Chromalit lantern are cut from a single, 20" x 24" sheet of Rosco Roscolux #13 Straw Tint. You can buy the Rosco (or Lee brand) sheets through most local theatrical supply stores. A deeper orange color is needed to warm the cooler mini lanterns from Lite Gear, or you can just add another layer of the Straw Tint. A Roscolux Swatchbook can help you choose the colors you want to use for your next lighting project.

Super Portable Key Light: In a future post, I'll show you an LED panel light (for under $100) that can be used as a main light for many medium-sized landscape foregrounds.

Royce's 2014 
Workshop, Lecture & Video Conference Schedule:


  1. Great shot and article. I'll check back later for the update. Many of the light painters I have shot with do their work by hand. I haven't had the opportunity to see a stationary set up in action. I purchased a Protomachine last week and it arrived a few days ago. I haven't been able to take it out on a shoot yet but I've got big plans for it.

    1. Thanks, Tim. The Protomachines should be perfect for your style of light painting! It will make life much easier for you. Imagine, getting any color you want at the flick of a switch, instead of taping on those gels!