In my 42 years as a professional photographer, nothing has excited me more about image making than the technique of painting with light. Though it originated with film, digital light painting provides a level of control over the image not possible with any other method, taking a number of long exposures of a subject in a darkened area using continuous light and then blending those exposures in Photoshop.
Light painting requires pre-visualization. Because the final image is composed of many separately exposed portions of the scene, it’s not possible to review the entire photograph on the camera monitor. Therefore, it is important to have a precise idea of what the finished photograph will look like before the photo shoot begins.
It’s also important to find the exact view and angle of the shot before the light painting commences. Once the camera is set, it can’t be moved, so take the time before the session to try different viewpoints, focal lengths, camera heights, and subject positions. Review these options in camera or on a monitor to get the best possible image.
Light painting also requires a knowledge of light and light direction. When you shoot a normal scene with a soft box, the main light comes from a single direction. Additional lights can be added to provide kickers, fill, and scrim illumination. Much the same with light painting, it’s important to maintain a general direction of light.
I’m often asked if it’s possible to light paint people or animals. Sort of. Moving objects must be photographed with flash and then extracted and placed into the light-painted image. If you photograph them in the exact position they’ll be inserted, you’ll get a realistic result. But don’t bother trying to use continuous light on a person—no matter how still they are, there will still be motion blur.
The toolset necessary for painting with light is relatively simple. Depending on the subject, you can use anything ranging from tiny flashlights to 1,000-watt panels and even handheld spotlights. I use LEDs because of their brightness and efficiency, but any continuous light will do.
Because the light is moved during the exposure, the look of a very large light source can be achieved from a very small light. When moved along the length of an automobile, a handheld LED light wand, for example, can create the same lighting effect as a 22-foot soft box.
I’ve recently started using an LED light mounted to my DJI Phantom 4 UAV (drone) for lighting large or distant objects. Prior to that, I used a handheld spotlight, but since the light direction came from the ground, the results could be unnatural. This works well for lighting roofs, tree lines, large vehicles, and landscapes. Be sure to follow all local and FAA rules and exercise common sense when flying a UAV.
If different light sources are used, each must be white balanced to maintain accurate color throughout the exposure process. Shooting to a computer or tablet assures accurate exposure of each element; reviewing the camera monitor does not.
It is imperative that the camera not be touched or moved once the photo shoot begins. Even the slightest movement will cause successive exposures to be out of register and ruin the image. Exposures are done wirelessly using a radio-frequency remote release, a Wi-Fi trigger from a smart phone or tablet app, or through a wireless device such as a CamRanger.
After much trial and error I’ve standardized my camera settings on ISO 100 and f/22 to provide low noise, high depth of field, and enough time to make the 15- to 30-second exposures necessary to move the light for the desired effect. I typically use a Hasselblad H5D-50c with a 28mm, 50mm, or 120mm lens. I control and trigger the camera from the Hasselblad Phocus Mobile app via Wi-Fi on an iPad, adjusting shutter speed, ISO, and f/stop while shooting.
Once the files are processed, I loosely select the lighted area of each photograph with the Lasso tool, copy, and paste it into a new layer above the main image layer. I apply a layer mask filled with black and then use a soft white brush at low opacity to bring the lighted area into the image. As the layers are built up, the image begins to take shape. When all files have been added, individual layers can be adjusted brighter or darker using a black or white brush on the layer mask to fine-tune the finished photograph.
Once I had practiced enough on my own and felt I had the process down, I shared my work and began to receive invitations to light paint a variety of subjects. When my first automobile was posted on social media, other car owners started calling. After photographing my first airplane, aircraft owners called. I light painted a friend’s antique tractor, which ended up being on the cover of a John Deere collector’s magazine. More calls led to more assignments, which led to more exposure, which led to even more assignments.
Social media can be a good place to showcase your work and create buzz, but real business actually comes through personal relationships and networking. For example, you could present at the monthly meeting of a local motorcycle club showing what you can do. If you can gain access to other groups—antique auto clubs, pilots and plane owners, any club of collectors or enthusiasts—you can present your work to them as well.
Interestingly, the vast majority of my light painting assignments are commissioned by men. This presents a wholly different selling dynamic than with the women who are typically portrait buyers. While most men would rather eat dirt than have a portrait made, they get giddy at the prospect of hanging a beautiful image of their cherished acquisition—Corvette, Harley, Les Paul, Beechcraft, John Deere, Model A, Chris Craft—in their garage or man cave. And if the light-painted subject is a part of their business, past or present, the checkbook opens up wide.
Painting with light provides new artistic and business opportunities for the photographer who wants to separate his or her work and develop a profitable and unique product line.
John Hartman owns Contemporary Photography Inc. in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.