Skip to main content

photo & video

Light Painting

Lesson 2 of 19

Camera Considerations

Tim Cooper

Light Painting

Tim Cooper

buy this class


Sale Ends Soon!

starting under


Unlock this classplus 2000+ more >

Lesson Info

2. Camera Considerations

Lesson Info

Camera Considerations

So the cool thing about light painting is we really don't need any special gear. We don't need special lenses, we don't need special cameras, or special tripods. What you have is probably just fine, but what's important is that you know what you have and how to use it. So let's take a look at some basic camera considerations that I want y'all to think about before you get started. And we can do this out in the field. You could do it at home. But these are considerations that you should really think about. Now, some of these are going to be things you should be thinking about on a regular basis anyway. This is not, you know, specific, or to the discipline of light painting, like file format for example. Most professionals will shoot in RAW, of course there's exceptions to that. But we wanna shoot in a RAW file format so that we have lots of headroom to edit our images. Picture styles, we're gonna wanna explore that. If you've never heard of that before this will be fairly interesting to...

you. LCD brightness, it's dark at night, and that bright monitor is gonna hurt our eyes. We'll talk about it. Also we're gonna get into the histogram. And have you guys truly understand how this works so you can make proper decisions out in the field. And last we'll end up with a little cheater called overexposure warning. So let's take a peek at file format. This is super important, you guys. When it comes to post-processing, you're gonna end up doing a fair amount with light painting, I mean I guess that's not necessarily, really depends on the person. I end up doing a fair amount of post-processing. I think what that does is it extends my shooting abilities out in the field, so I've got more possibilities of what I can do, so I'm always thinking about how I'm gonna post-process when I'm outside light painting. So for that matter because I'm doing a lot of post-processing, what I wanna set my file format to is the RAW setting. Now most cameras will have many different options. You can see here it's NEF, which is RAW + JPEG Fine, JPEG Normal, all these options are really irrelevant people, all we need to know is RAW. Now if you're on a Canon that's gonna be CR two. Nikon calls it NEF. But what we wanna do is we wanna shoot in RAW. There's really no reason to have, or to be shooting both RAW and JPEG at the same time. If you're working in the LightRoom especially, in the modern version CC, then it's going to read just about every RAW file out there. So my suggestion to you is start off, put your camera in RAW, and you can really leave it there for the rest of your photography. There's really no reason to go back. All right. Picture styles. Now picture styles are really interesting because when we used to photograph with film, what was that last century now, we would choose a film for a certain discipline. So if I was gonna shoot portrait I would choose something like Kodak VPS. If I wanted to go out and shoot landscape I would choose Fuji Velvia. But we chose the specific film for the job at hand. With modern digital cameras we basically just have one sensor. And that sensor captures light and that's it. Of course there's some variation in sensors from manufacturer to manufacturer and how they, well how they'll, you know, display color. But generally it's kind of a raw flat sort of a look. So what picture styles do is they allow you to change the flavor, if you will, of the file. Again this is the back of my Nikon camera. And you can see I've got standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, and landscape. And what I will do before I go out and shoot is I will actually set my picture style, my picture control, to neutral. Now, what this is going to do is it's going to give me a really flat image. And of course when we're photographing at night, we're dealing with a lot of high contrast scenes. We're gonna have super bright highlights and maybe city lights. Really dark shadows. And, putting it on neutral really tells me exactly what the camera is capturing. It gives me the best idea of what my file is really going to look like. So I like to put it on neutral. But let's explore some, let's explore what these things look like. So, here is camera neutral. And you can see the file looks pretty flat. Well, it may not look flat right now. But it will in a moment when I start showing you some of these others. I'm gonna go through these picture styles, or picture controls, in order of getting more and more contrasty. And more and more saturated. So, camera neutral. Pretty flat. Pretty low in saturation. Camera portrait's next. You may have seen a little bit of a change. Camera portrait's really designed for, well portraits, right? So it's gonna make the skin tones look really nice. It's gonna be a little bit lower in contrast again. But not high saturation, right? We don't wanna get that big ruddy look. And have all this color come out. So camera portrait's designed specifically for people. Next up is something called Adobe standard. You will not see this in your camera folks. But this is something that we're gonna run into once we start hitting our post-processing. A little bit later on. So, notice that Adobe standard has a bit of contrast to it. Maybe not quite as much as camera standard. Now we're starting to get a little bit more saturated. A little bit more contrasty. Camera vivid is next. An increase in saturation. Slight increase in contrast. But where we're gonna get the most contrast and the most saturation is something called camera landscape. Now, when we compare them side by side you're really gonna start to see the difference. Camera neutral on the left here, camera landscape on the right. So if you have your camera set, let's say you've never touched your picture control, so you've pulled your camera out of the box and you just start shooting. What it's gonna shoot is called camera standard. It's gonna not be quite as contrasty and saturated as this. But pretty similar. So compare that to the neutral. Now you can see why if you're in a really super contrasty situation, you might wanna see camera neutral. All right, so let's take a step back. And understand how this works. If you're shooting in RAW, what you're getting on the back of your LCD, when you're reviewing your image is actually a JPEG. It's a processed JPEG. Now, of course your RAW is not being processed. But the JPEG is. So if I shoot, and I'm set in camera RAW now, and I take a picture and I'm on camera standard, I'm gonna get an LCD preview that may be showing more contrast or more saturation than is actually in the RAW file. If I put it on camera neutral, what I'll see on the back of the LCD is again more flat, less saturated, less contrasty. So, this LCD preview out in the field now at this moment is really influencing the decisions I'm gonna make. How much light should I paint on the scene? What's my ambient exposure? Perhaps even your white balance setting? So, that's why I think this is really important. Now, the issue is, is once we bring our images into LightRoom, LightRoom drops these picture styles and it goes back to what we call Adobe standard, which is Adobe's interpretation of that RAW file. And we'll flesh this out a little bit more when we get into post-processing. So, what I want you guys to take away from this is that even though you're setting a picture style in your camera when your shooting RAW images it's actually now gonna translate all the way through to the post-processing. So we're merely setting this up for, for our edification out in the field so that we can really make the good decisions that we need to. Okay. So next up, LCD brightness. It's no mystery, it's dark at night. Right you guys? So, what happens? When it gets dark at night, and we're outside for a long extended period of time, we begin to get what's called night adjusted vision. Means our pupils are getting really wide. To gather all that light in. And, it can actually be painful to have these really wide open pupils and suddenly your LCD pops on in the back and the light is really super bright. It kind of hurts your eyes. So, what we're gonna do is we're gonna lower our LCD brightness so that it's much more dim than we would ever use it in the daytime. Now remember that LCD, almost all of them, at least on all the cameras I know of, they adjust their brightness. So if it's too bright, if it's really bright outside, the monitor will get bright. If it's darker, it closes down and darkens down a little bit. But, by manually adjusting our LCD brightness what we're able to do is push this to its lowest setting possible, which the camera really rarely gets to. Now, once our LCD is much more dim, we're able to get a much better feeling for what our images look like. Now, we are not going to depend on the LCD for our exposure. We're gonna talk about histogram and over-exposure warning. But, it's inevitable that we will be influenced by that first thing that pops up. All right, now where to go to set your LCD brightness. You know, it's different on every camera. So, you know, just grab out your camera manual. Look at, look up LCD in the back, and you'll find where to go. And you're gonna change that. So, we'll also do a little look at this when we get out into the field as well. I'll show you guys on my camera how we're working with that. All right, so, the importance of the histogram. We've talked about now having the LCD be a little bit darker. So that's gonna help our decision making process for exposure. But this is where the action is you guys. We've got to fully understand how the histogram works if we're gonna come up with good exposures. And, you know, what's the saying in real estate, location, location, location. Well, with digital photography it's exposure, exposure, exposure. We want to get a good exposure. The better we do out in the field, the more information we can gather on our sensor, the more we're gonna be able to do back in post-processing, right? So, the histogram is definitely the best way to check that you've got what you need out in the field. It's so important you guys, we need to see it right away. I know it's exciting you know. You've just spent a minute or two, walking around, taking a picture, and you're like, oh gosh, I wanna look at the photograph. You know, and that LCD is so seductive. You know, you just see your photograph and you get all happy. But the truth of the matter is, is that's really not the first thing we wanna see when our image pops up. So, my recommendation is to understand on your particular camera how you get that L, or how you get that histogram popping up immediately. I know on my Nikon what we're gonna be doing is we're gonna be looking at this little thumb wheel on the back here. And as you are displaying your image, so the image has just popped up, I've just made a shot. You toggle that thumb wheel and you're gonna go through the different displays that that camera will have. And here you see I end up on my final with my histogram so I'm seeing both the image and the histogram itself. All right, now, there is one little trick on the Nikon though. And let's just go through this really quick. If you wanna see a full array of different views or different screens during your playback mode, what you're gonna want to do is you're gonna wanna take a visit to this playback menu right here, and check out playback display options. All right, once we get in there, we're gonna see a screen that looks like this. And you can see we've got highlights and RGB histogram. I say check them both. Check that RGB histogram. That will give us our histogram popping up on our LCD. And then check your highlights. That's also called overexposure warning, otherwise known as the blinkies. And so we're gonna address that in a little bit here. All right, so, once we get our histogram popping up, after we've taken every shot, the big question is, is how do we read it? All right, well, you guys, this is the thing. The height of the spike of the histogram is really pretty irrelevant. What that is just telling us is that there's a lot of information in that particular tone. So let's say you're photographing a solid white snowfield. You would end up with a really big spike on the right hand side of the histogram. All right, you could tell that also just by looking around your camera and going, yep, there's a whole lot of white out there. So, the height of the spike simply says how much information is out there. And that's not really all that important to us. But, what is really important to us is the side to side reading of this histogram. That's what we wanna pay attention to. So now remember, the histogram itself is just a, it's a graphic representation of how the tones lay out in your photograph. And the way the tones lay out from right to left is the blacks and dark grays are on the left hand side of the histogram. And that's always. Every camera. And the right hand side are the light grays and whites. And this is important for us you guys, this is what we need to really pay attention to because we do not want to grossly overexpose our highlight values. It's inevitable we will end up with some shadow clipping. And that's okay. But, this particular histogram is of a very flat scene. This is a very low contrast scene. As a matter of fact, you can see we don't have any highlights. No bright whites in this scene at all. And we also don't have any deep blacks in this scene. So this is a very low contrast scene. Now, if I made a different exposure of this particular scene and my histogram ended up there, what would happen is that tail end of the histogram is going outside of the box, and when it does, that's telling us it's going to be underexposed. We also call that, your shadows are clipped. You're clipping your shadows. Likewise, if the histogram was pushed all the way in the other direction, we'd be clipping our highlights. If that information goes outside the box, they're gone. And the thing about it is, is once our highlights are gone they're either, nearly impossible to get back. So, we never want to see this in our histograms. All right, so, let's back off a little bit from, from nighttime photography for a second, and let's just talk about photography in general. All right. This histogram is, what I would consider a fine histogram, of a very average scene. So you can see the spike is right here in the center. And that's representing a whole bunch of mid-tones. And, well, this photograph is just a bunch of mid-tones. There's not any really super bright highlights. There's not any super dark shadows. And this is what our histogram looks like. That being said, we also have to realize that we don't want to become a slave to this idea that the histogram should always be a perfect, you know, spike in the middle and come right down to the edges. Because again, the histogram simply represents what you are shooting. So if you're photographing something like a snow scene that has no shadow detail in it, there is not reason that the histogram should be shoved all the way to the left. And as a matter of fact, there's no reason the histogram should be in the center at all. Because we want that information of the spike to be over the tone that it represents. And you'll remember, from that earlier slide, the right hand side represents the bright areas. So, this histogram perfectly represents this snow scene. Now, if I was shooting something that was very dark, like this vignette of a black train here, the histogram should be all the way to the left hand side. Now all that information is over the darker values. This is what we want. So, let's get away from the idea that there is any such thing as a perfect histogram. And simply realize that the histogram represents what we're shooting. Now, that being said, we need to put the histogram in the right spot. And we do that of course through exposure. So, if I was to step up and take a picture of this white tree in this snow scene, we see a histogram that's kind of in the center. Well, this big lump of information being kind of in the center means, you're going to have a bunch of middle tones. And so you see this slide is actually rendered as gray because that's where the histogram is. So, I would, I'd look at this and say, okay, the photograph is too dark. This is white snow. It should be brighter. So we need to move our histogram to the right. And we're gonna do that through exposure. The way our histogram gets moved is either opening up or closing down. Adding more light or taking light away from the scene. So when I add more light to the scene, the histogram moves to the right, the image gets brighter, and this is more representative of what the photograph should look like. Okay, so, these were some weird histograms, or I shouldn't say weird, but a little bit odd in that we're photographing just something that's overall dark or just something that's overall bright. General photography histograms are gonna look more like this. We're spread all the way out. So here this photograph does have some deep blacks. This photograph does have some, some bright whites in the water. And again this is going to be more typical of what we see. Same thing here. Photographing at dusk you can see that the histogram comes right down to the right hand corner which means we're not clipping, we're not overexposing our highlights. This is what we want. This is the proper exposure for this scene. But we are clipping our shadows. And this just happens sometimes folks. We're not always able to capture all of the detail in a given scene. If it's high contrast, this is what we get. And if it is high contrast, this is the way we hedge our bets. We want this coming right down into the corner. So we're not over exposing our highlight detail. If the shadows black up, block up a little bit, that does mean we're getting a silhouette. And silhouettes are fine. Yeah. There's nothing wrong with having silhouettes in your photography. All right? When we start looking at nighttime exposures and nighttime histograms, they're probably going to change a little bit. So, again, here the histogram is pushed all the way to the left. And you say, well why is that? Shouldn't the histogram be right in the center? Right? Our perfect little histogram. Well, not really. If it was in the center it would look like daytime. And, that would look strange 'cause we're out photographing at night. Now, there's something to be said for allowing a little bit more light in. If this histogram was pushed over to the right what I would do is I would, in post-processing, I would darken it down to make it look like this. And that adds some advantages. But in general, this is a good one shot histogram of a night scene. So of course our night scenes are going to be rife with dark areas everywhere. The sky is dark. You know, we've got dark pavement here. And again, all our information is lumped up on the left hand side. So, histograms like these are just fine for nighttime photography. Now, while I very much depend on my histogram all the time, there is something called a little cheater. And that's called your overexposure warning. Now, ultimately it's good to know the entire histogram and how it operates so that we can fully judge where the tones are in our photograph. But the most important thing, and we've already mentioned this, the most important thing is making sure we do not overexpose important highlights. And that's important because not all highlights need to have detail. So, let's say we're taking a photograph of a city street scene and there's a few street lamps up there. They could be blown out in pure white. That's okay. Not a problem there. But, if we took a shot like this, where we see this big cloud bank, that whole entire cloud bank is a pretty integral part of the scene itself. And so, if you took this picture and you had your blinkies, or your overexposure warning set, you'd see this blinking on the back of your camera. And that would be a problem because it's such a large area. And, when we're dealing with light painting, the area that we're painting is actually pretty darn important, right? If I overexpose this cross, I've basically just blocked up all the detail that's truly important to this scene. So, I find that getting in and setting up your overexposure warning on your camera is really important to night photography. Sometimes you're gonna ignore those blinkies. But many times they're gonna give us information that we need to make good decisions. Okay everybody, so here we are at Gasworks Park getting ready for our night photography shoot. It's gonna be an awesome night. The rain has cleared. We're looking for good weather here. But before we get started we gotta get our camera set up. And the camera set up for night photography is not all that different than it is for regular photography. But there's a few things that we wanna, we wanna pay attention to. First thing is file format. We wanna set our camera in RAW. We talked a little bit about this in the studio. But night photography is really dependent upon a fair amount of post-processing. And so we wanna set our camera to a RAW file so we have that ability to change our files, a lot more so than in regular photography. Another thing we wanna check out is our monitor brightness. As it gets dark, and right now you can still see it's pretty light, but as it gets darker, what's gonna happen is our eyes adjust to the night, our pupils open up, and then the LCD on the back gets really super bright. And this really influences our exposure. And we can't have this. So I don't how many times I've gone home, thinking, oh, I've got the greatest shot, only to see that it's really super dark. Our picture style. And again, we talked a little bit about this in the studio. But I wanna show you guys how to do it on your camera here. This is super important, especially for night photography. Our rear LCD is really influenced by the JPEG format and how it's formed in the camera. So if we have our camera set to Adobe standard in our picture style, what ends up happening is we get a lot more contrast and a lot more saturation than we may need in the final file. So what we're gonna do is we're gonna set our picture style on camera neutral. And what this does is it allows us to see all of the detail in the file. It's gonna show us every little bit of shadow. It's gonna show us every little bit of highlight, which is super important especially when we're photographing things like city lights at night and we're gonna be working in deeper shadows in here. So we want our file to really look as open, and flat as possible. When we first set our, when we first take our camera out of the box it's usually set to Adobe standard. Or I'm sorry, not Adobe standard, but camera standard. And that's where we're gonna shift it to camera neutral. So, we're thinking about our file format. We're thinking about our picture style. We're thinking about our monitor brightness. And then there's a few other things that I also want to talk to you guys about. When we're out in the field working in dark, it's really good know our camera. And we're constantly moving through different menu items. And so what I've done is gone into my camera and setup what's called my menu. Now that's on a Nikon. But in here what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna set all the functions that I need to get to really quick. So one click of a button and I've got all my options. I'm not fumbling around in the dark. There's nothing more important at night, or in any photography really, there's nothing more important than getting a good exposure. And, it can be tough at night and we face some challenges. So we're really gonna depend on a couple of things. The first thing is gonna be our histogram. So we're gonna wanna make sure how to get to our histogram relatively quickly and actually after each and every shot. So hopefully we're gonna get our good composition while looking through our viewfinder. But when our picture display pops up on the back we're really going to be looking for our histogram and also something called the overexposure warning. So we're gonna look at both of those things as well. Now every camera's gonna be a little bit different. And, with night photography, I really recommend you guys getting to know your camera. I mean there's nothing worse than stumbling around in the dark, fumbling around in the dark, not knowing where your things are. You'll see a little bit later, once it gets dark, how the red flashlight that I use that's real common in night photography to view the back of your camera. Right now, obviously we still have enough light. Which is great. And, you know, and that's another thing, notice that we did get here early. We still have about, about another 15 minutes until sunset proper. And that's a great time to come get set up. Get a good idea of what you want to shoot. As well as get your camera set up. Make sure all your ducks in a row. So, first thing we're gonna start off with is we're gonna start off with setting our file format. So right here I've got my quality button right on the back. And I'm able to toggle through JPEG and RAW. I don't recommend shooting JPEG and RAW at the same time. Just stick with RAW, that's all we're going to need. Next up is going to be our picture style. And, our picture style can be found, again, you're gonna have to dig in your menu, it's different on every single camera. But what we're gonna see here is, when we get in, you'll see a common grouping, it's usually standard, neutral, monochrome, portrait, and landscape. And then there can be some difference between vivid and some other picture styles that different cameras will put in. As you can see here, I'm set on neutral. So that's gonna give me a nice flat image. Which is exactly what I'm looking for. All right, next up, we're gonna be looking at monitor brightness. Now as I said, as it gets dark, our eyes are going to adjust. So we want our monitor brightness not to be on auto. We want to set it on manual. So what I'm gonna do here is I'm gonna go across and I'm gonna go down to manual. And at this point I can toggle over, and you can see that it's already set to minus five from where I was shooting last night. But you can easily see, once you get in here, how much change the monitor can display. And we just have to know that when your camera is set on auto-brightness that what is happening is your LCD is adjusting. But by us forcing it down to minus five, it's gonna give us the least amount of brightness that it can possibly give us, which is perfect for our night photography. Okay, next up, we'll just do a couple of other things that we're gonna check out here. My ISO is at 100. That's not a bad starting point. And it's getting a little dark so I'm gonna crank that up to 200. And, my white balance is set to daylight. Now I typically set my white balance to daylight as I start off. If I begin shooting and, heck we could even be doing a little light painting right now if we wanted to but, but right now it is still daylight so I'm gonna leave my camera set to daylight. As we've talked about in the studio you'll see that we can change our Kelvin temperature and we're definitely going to be doing that as the night progresses. So next up what we're gonna check is make sure we have access to our histogram. As I mentioned we want to, we wanna really see our picture, but ultimately our exposure is the most important thing that we're talking about. So let me just take a quick picture here, and we'll get a photograph up. And then we'll be able to view our histogram. All right, so it looks like our histogram is popped up right away. On a Nikon camera this thumb wheel is going to allow us to change through our different monitor views. So as you can see as I go up I get a full view. As I come down I get some information about my file. I could toggle through. I could see my overexposure warning, which is what we'll talk about in here in a second. And then eventually I get back to see my histogram. This is gold people. This is what we want to see. So, what we're gonna see is that my histogram is moved to the right. So I need to let less light in. That was three seconds at F8. So, what we'll do is we'll crank that down just a touch. We'll go down to about a, let's go down to one, about a stop and a third. And see if we can get some detail in the sky. And, once again, you can see our histogram is still a little bit blown out. Now this is the type of thing we're gonna be wanting to look for when we're shooting our city lights later on. I don't wanna blow our my highlights too much. Although it's inevitable, city lights will get a little bit bright. But in this case it's just a hair too bright. So once again, I'll come down just a touch more. And, we'll do about a second and third. See what that produces for us. All right, now we can see that our histogram has come right down into this corner, which is what I want. And if I really want a bigger histogram, I can move to the next screen. And if I need to examine my full image, you can see that I can just toggle through that. Now like I said, every camera's gonna be a little bit different. I know with Canons, it's usually an info button or a display button that you can hit to pull these up. But no matter how you slice it, you're gonna wanna have quick access to that histogram and know how to get to it. Okay, so along with the histogram folks, what we wanna pay attention to is our overexposure warning. We showed you how earlier today, how you can set that up on your camera. Now, here it is in live practice. When we pull it up, we can see that the RGB highlights is set here, and you can see that the camera is blinking, telling me that my highlights are too bright. In a scene like this, I really don't wanna blow out my sky. I want some structure. I want some detail in there. So that would tell me again, along with the histogram, that I need to close down my exposure a little bit.

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.

Shooting at night can create dynamic landscapes or portraits through long exposures. By using a wide range of tools, you can add light to your night photographs to create dynamic highlights or unique shapes. Painting with light opens a door into night photography that will keep you out until the wee hours of the morning. Tim Cooper is the author of The Magic of Painting with Light and in this course, you’ll learn:

  • The basics of light painting from accessories to camera considerations 
  • How to use test shots to capture your focus and exposure in the dark 
  • How to post-process your night images in Lightroom 
  • How to use layer stacking in Photoshop to build up light in your photographs  

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Tim's Lightroom Presets

Tim's Gear Guide

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes


DiDi Hendley

The BEST class ever! Learned so much--Tim is a great instructor. I highly recommend to the creative photog looking to expand his/her arsenal of tools, talents and products. Appreciated the patience and thoroughness that Tim offered students. Great pacing and information. I can see how I can very easily take his instruction out at night and produce something. I also appreciate that this session demonstrated images that weren't created in total darkness.

Gene Chamberlin

Tim is an outstanding teacher - I love his style, thorough and basic without being too elementary or condescending. I will be looking for other classes by Tim in the future. I'm am excited to apply the things I have learned from Tim and create my own style from the tools he has given. I never would have give much thought to light painting in the past. I have already notice a change in the way I scout my shots, now that I have added light painting into my tool box. Thanks for sharing your experience with the world Tim. Gene

Andrew Gow

Really enjoyable course. Clear instruction and surprisingly easy to put what I learnt into practice, which I did for the first time last night. This is also my first exposure to Photoshop, which initially put me off buying the course. However, Tim is a great instructor and explains his approach very clearly, so as well as an introduction to light painting it's a great introduction to what Photoshop can do.