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Light Painting

Lesson 3 of 19

Camera Settings and Initial Exposures

Tim Cooper

Light Painting

Tim Cooper

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Lesson Info

3. Camera Settings and Initial Exposures

Lesson Info

Camera Settings and Initial Exposures

We've already done our basic camera consideration, things like what's our file gonna be raw or Jpeg? You know setting our LCD brightness and I'll these sorta housekeeping work. Now let's get into the nitty gritty how are we gonna set up our camera to actually shootout in the field? Well the first thing we wanna think about is manual exposure mode. That's actually the M on your camera you guys, that's not the A or the P for program or even that little green square, none of those things we're talking about full on manual mode. And the reason for this is cause it's gonna give us complete control over the things that are super important to not only photography but certainly to nighttime photography and that's our ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. So what I want y'all to do is get a little brave here and we're gonna take our camera out of any of these automatic modes. Everyone of these is automatic and a lot of people like to think it's only the green square and P and if they get it off of ...

that then they're doing good. But the fact of the matter is those are all automatic modes. These are all automatic modes right? So we wanna get off of that you guys and go to the pure M for manual. Now what that's gonna mean for us is that we are taking complete control over everything we're leaving nothing left to the camera alright? So let's take a look at the settings we are gonna control. Let's begin with shutter speeds. Now the shutter speed is the time that the camera allows the sensor to receive light. And it's generally thought of in fractions of seconds. So we've got 1/2 second, 1/4 of a second, 1/8 of a second all the way up to 1/8000 of a second. You can say these are more common shutter speeds that you might use. Maybe you've never shot down to one second or two second but they're pretty common. Or maybe up to 1/8000 of a second, you know how you can capture you know hummingbird's wings at that speed, but you might not be using that everyday. But these are what most people think of the common settings. But truly, what we're gonna do we're gonna dig a little bit deeper down into that, into that realm you guys, four seconds, eight seconds, 15, 30 seconds. It's dark at night we need lots of time for the light to come through and impress upon our sensor. So there's other types of night photography that may not take this long, but for light painting we're usually looking at 30 seconds or bulb. And what happens is, 30 seconds is the end of what we call timed exposures. After that, it goes to bulb and bulb simply means that you press your cable release and as long as you hold it down, you will make an exposure. That can be 10 seconds, that could be a minute, that could be 10 minutes, it could be 20 minutes, however long you want. So of course using a cable release is gonna be really important. And if you guys have been keeping up with Night Photography Week, you're gonna see that Gabe has talked a lot about the basic equipment you guys need for night photography. I recommend going and checking that out again if you're unfamiliar with any of these terms we're talking about here today. So bulb and 30 seconds, we're into the area of long exposure times. Okay how about the aperture? Well the aperture you guys is simply the size of the hole that lets in light. Right, so here you can see again the common apertures. There is a you know you can go down to 1.8 and 1. some cameras even go up to F/32 here. There is other apertures but these are the common ones. The aperture controls the amount of light that hits your sensor. I like to think about it like this you guys, if you have got a garden hose and you wanna fill a bucket of water, the garden hose is yay big and so that would represent of course your shutter speed, garden hose. Alright, the shutter speed is how long do you turn on the spigot. So if I turn on my spigot for 30 seconds and I can fill the bucket, I've got a good exposure. Now, if I suddenly jump up to the size of a fire hose, my aperture is much bigger and when I turn on my spigot now, that's my shutter speed, I'm gonna need a lot less time. So these things interact with one another, when you close down one end and let less light in, you've got to open up the other to let more light in. Alright so what are our common apertures for again for light painting? I would say somewhere in the range of 5.6 to 16. I think that if you looked at most of my photographs, you would probably find that I shoot at F8 most often. It's not too small of a hole, it's not too big of a hole and it also happens to be the sharpest part of your lens, that's not precisely why I'm using it but it just ends up giving me just the right amount of depth of field that I need without being too excessive. So imagine this now folks, if you are set the F/16 that's a pretty small hole, which means you're gonna have to light paint for a lot longer or you're gonna have to open up your shutter speed for a lot longer. So instead of shooting let's say two seconds, I'm sorry let's say two minutes of F/8 if I need to shoot at F/11 I'm suddenly shooting at four minutes. If I'm shooting F/16 I'm suddenly at eight minutes. So it's this constant dance between the amount of time you need and the shutter speed and the depth of field. Aright, that just leaves us with ISO. The common ISO's are I would say 100 to 1600, that used to be the common ISO's but with modern cameras it's gone nuts, it's gone through the roof. So 3200, 6400, 12,800 25,600, these are ISO's unknown, you know several years ago but boy the sensitivity is really you know just really ramping up on these cameras. So I would say you typical ones are from 100 to but some cameras go down even further to ISO some up as far as 51,200 which is just extreme. But these are not the ISO's we're going to be using for light painting. You check them out Lance's talk on astrophotography you're gonna see that when we're doing that sort of photography you are using these high ISO's of 16, 32, 64 but not so much for light painting. We're looking for a different look. We don't wanna shoot for only 20 seconds, or 15 seconds or 30 seconds, we're trying to elongate that time to allow us to move through the photograph to create that beautiful light with our flashlight. So 100, 200, and 400, I would say these are the most common ISO's that I use most of the time for my light painting. If I had to boil it down I'd say probably 200 and 400 are certainly the most common. So when we talk about ISO's we almost always have to talk about camera noise and what this produces. Camera noise is of course the presence of that sorta sandpaper look to your photographs, we used to call it grain in film, but now we call it noise. It can be okay but we don't necessarily love it. So sometimes you're gonna need to have it and that would be again like in astrophotography but sometimes we don't want it and that would be in light painting. So there's a couple kinds of noise that we have to consideration, a couple types of camera noise that we have to consider. The first one is long exposure noise and the second one is high ISO noise. Now, long exposure noise what is it? Well over a long period of time and how long? Well we'll see. But over a long period of time when your shutter is open your sensor heats up and as that sensor heats up, what starts to happen is you get this, you can start to get these artifacts and so we have to determine how long can we actually make an exposure without getting this long exposure noise. It could be two minutes, three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, every camera is different. You just don't know until you test it. So I grabbed my Nikon D4 and I set it up in a just in my house and in a dark room kinda in the evening and I shot it at one minute, then at two minutes, and then at four minutes, and then at eight minutes and finally when I got to 12 minutes and I looked and their is still no noise in my photo I finally gave up and said that's fine I'm not gonna shoot for much more than 12 minutes. But you can take other slightly less expensive cameras and you may start to see that long exposure noise maybe even at four minutes or five minutes or six minutes. And if you're shooting in really hot temperatures, when I say really hot I'm talking relative but if you're out in the desert at night trying to do you know star trails and things like that it could be 70, 80 degrees and that's pretty warm. You may end up getting long exposure noise even sooner than say five or six minutes. So what I did when I ran my test is I actually ran it inside my house in about 70 degree weather. And that way it gave me a good idea of what I can expect out in the field. If it gets any colder than that you know 40 degrees, you're photographing in the winter, boy you can just keep going. But it's a good idea to run this test, well call it a test, but just do it really informally like I said, just do a series of exposures, find out when that long exposure noise starts to come through. So what does it look like? It really depends it changes from camera to camera, but in order to really detect this long exposure noise what you have to do is you gotta blow up your image. If you're just looking at an image you're like uh hey that may look fine, you know you're looking at it on Instagram or Facebook, that's no judge of a photograph right? So what you wanna do is you wanna zoom in to a magnification of 100%. And here you can see as soon as I do that I see all these red and green or magenta rather and green dots. This is nearly impossible to fix in post-processing it's just a bear. And it's gonna happen throughout your whole entire image, of course it's much more prominent in your shadow areas but you'll see it in your sky too. These image is basically ruined I cannot use it because of all this long exposure noise. So the key is to find out when that long exposure noise starts to kick in on your camera. Let's say yours kicks in at six minutes, alright when your going through six minute or seven minute exposure that's time to put on your long exposure noise reduction. So you go in your camera menu, you're gonna find where that is and you're gonna turn it on alright? Now, the next type of noise that we may get is high ISO noise. And this is just what you think it's gonna be, if you raise your ISO up too high, you're gonna get noise. But again it's important to remember that viewing small images on your phone or you know small images on Facebook or Instagram and things like that, that's really no way to judge the photograph. You guys you've got to zoom in when you're working in Lightroom or you're working in Photoshop or your image editing program. You gotta zoom in to 100%, one to one real life magnification. And when we do that we're going to see the difference in the file. Here you can see how nice and clean the ISO 200 is and how really grainy and gritty and actually poorly formed the edges are at ISO 12,800. So this is okay for once again, shooting ISO's like this is going to be the way you actually have to capture somethings like star points, but we don't need that for light painting. We can really stick with those low ISO's of ISO 100 or IOS 200. Alright, so we're shooting in manual mode this gives us complete control. We set the shutter speed. We set the aperture. Alright and we're gonna set the ISO. We make all the decisions and we're gonna take complete control of our camera and this is gonna allow us to create these beautiful light painted images. Initial exposures and test shots. I'm gonna tell you starting off it's a little guess work. But that's okay, again modern digital cameras allow us to guess. We're not shooting film anymore so we've got a lot more leeway. But don't be afraid to get started. I think the biggest thing I see with people that are shooting at night and shooting certainly with light paintings is where do I start? Where do I start? You know what just start anywhere. Just set your camera and press the button, see what happens and go from there. Don't let fear paralyze you. So we know we're gonna start off with a little guess work, but I can give you guys some hints, some helping hands here. Our ISO's that we're generally gonna wanna work in is 100 to 200 or 400. I usually start off at ISO 200. As far as our shutter speed goes, again 30 seconds, one minute, two minute. These are general settings you guys, this can change you can have four minutes or maybe even eight minutes. But I find that those three settings are where I do the bulk of my work. And then the aperture, F/8, 11, 16, kinda right in the center of the lens dial there. But generally these settings. So if I really had to pair it down you guys, here it is. If you need to set your camera to something and you have no idea what you're doing, set your camera to this, ISO 200, say one minute and F/8. Now, that is gonna vary greatly, greatly depending on what you're photographing. So if you're photographing a city scene at night, you know it may not be one minute, maybe 30 seconds. If you out under a full moon light, a full moon night, it may be one to two minutes. And if you're under a pitch black night and there's no moon at all, it may be 10 minutes. But these are some numbers just to get you started to see where you are, take the picture, look at the histogram, do you need more light? Open it up, go from 30 seconds to a minute. You need less light? Close it down from 11 to eight. Or close it down from eight to 11 sorry. Alright so what we wanna do is begin with getting some sort of ambient exposure. So this was a gardens that I photographed, I had the great fortune to have fog and a full mood, totally killer right? Fog usually happens in the morning, you don't get as much at night but this was a full moon at night with fog I was really excited. And you can see I was at ISO 400, F/8 for a minute and a half. This is the straight shot guys, there's nothing, no light painting going on here or anything. Then what I did was once I got my ambient exposure I stepped into the scene or rather walked in the scene and I hid behind this tree and from behind that tree I took my little flashlight out and I just painted the bench. And then I pointed it up at the sky and I painted all these little leaves from underneath. But it all started with that ambient exposure. So it could be really super dark out and you may not know where you are. Here ISO 100, F/8, one minute, that was my guess. And then what we do we take our flashlight or our flash we walk into the scene and we begin to light paint. So I think the most important thing here is no fear you guys, it doesn't matter whether you end up with a really super exposed or underexposed photograph you gotta start somewhere. Just set your camera and go right? ISO 200, F/8, see you're starting to see these numbers are sounding similar, three and a half minutes. This is under almost a full moon sky. And at three minutes, three and a half minutes, is of course giving us a few little star trails there, short ones but little one. But that's it that's my basic exposure, that's my ambient exposure. So we take that and then just start walking into the scene with your flashlight and painting it up and the next thing you know you've got a light painted image. Alright so it all begins with taking those test shots. Just getting out and trying, once again, ISO 200, F/8, this one three minutes. This is a full moon night, this is on one of national parks at night workshop this was in Zion National Park as a graft in ghost town. And full moon, beautiful illumination on the sandstone cliffs here in Zion. This house has not been inhabited since the 1800's but I wanted to do some light painting. So come up with my initial exposure and then I walked into the scene and painted it with the flashlight and we've transformed the image into something completely different. Alright so the main thing here you guys is just to get out an experiment. I cannot emphasize that enough. I know in my workshops and out in the field, and classes people are always worried about getting that first initial exposure so don't worry about it. Set it at ISO 200, set it F/8, start at 30 seconds. Not bright enough, open it up to a minute. Not bright enough, open it up to two minutes If it's still not bright enough open it up to four. Just get out there and do it. Alright so out of all those considerations the first thing I typically think about is depth of field. This is something we really can't alter afterwards. We can't change it with out ISO or our shutter speeds and it's pretty important. It's gonna determine a lot. So as we're looking across a scene like this, I need a lot of depth of field. I'm fairly close to my front subject and of course I have infinity all the way in the background. That's gonna suggest a very deep depth of field. Now right now I'm currently set on 14 millimeters on my 104 to 24 millimeter lens. So that's a real wide angle lens, the wider angle lens you have the more depth of field you have. So I could probably get away with setting this at say about F/8, have this been a 70 millimeter lens I'd need to go down to 16. Of course the smaller the aperture the less light painting is gonna be affected. So I prefer to have an aperture around F/8 at least to get started, that way it gives me room to move five, six or 11 on either side. So let's go ahead and set that. I'm gonna come back here and tap my info button looking on the back of my camera here and I'm gonna set my aperture to F/8. Alright next up, is our ISO. And it's starting to get darker so we're probably gonna need to crank out ISO up a little bit. I don't wanna go too far, if I was doing a let's say star trail or star points or something like that, then yes I might need to raise my ISO significantly. But that's not the case here, I want longer exposure this is gonna give me time to run around the scene and paint with my flashlight. So I'm gonna set my ISO for starters at ISO and I believe that is currently where we are set. Let's just pull that up and see yep we've got ISO 200. So with ISO 200 F/8 and I'm just gonna ballpark it here, I really don't know bright it is, my camera may or may not give me good exposure under these conditions, I'm not sure. So I'm just gonna set my shutter speed initially to 30 seconds and see where it looks. So hit my info button again here and I'm gonna start cranking down we're now pushing down to the end of the scale here. We may not be able to go, and look at this at 30 seconds it says I am right on and it should give me a good exposure. If I'm using a nice overall pattern like matrix metering or value Tiv in Canon this could be about right. So we've got 30 seconds a pretty long exposure. We've got F/8 it's gonna give us a good amount of depth of field. We've got our ISO set to 200, it's gonna give us really good grain structure to our image. The last real consideration would be white balance. And I'm gonna start off on daylight just to see what that looks like. Now we'll do just a quick test shot and see how this comes out. One thing you might wanna think about and I don't currently have my tripod setup this way but is to get a little bit of Velcro and put it on the back of your tripod or on the leg of your tripod and a little bit on your cable release as well and then right after you hit your shot you can fasten that to it. You can also use rubber bands or any kind of tie but it's always nice to keep that from swinging. Especially if you're in real long exposures and some wind. Alright, so our exposures up and we'll pop it right up to the histogram and see what that's looking like straight away and our histogram looks pretty good. So as we start off here, we began at F/ for depth of field, we went to the limit of our timed exposures which is 30 seconds and our ISO is at 200, these are our basic starting points and we can see that we actually have a pretty good histogram. Now the question is, is this gonna give us enough time to light paint? Maybe, maybe not. In this particular scene here, there's an awful lot to light paint. So 30 seconds may not be long enough I may need to move to two minutes which of course if I move to two minutes or one minute we're gonna have to do the math right? So one minute would be twice as long so that would take me from F/8 to F/ and then two minutes would take me to F/ and that would give me plenty of time to shoot. Now do bear in mind though when we do get down to F/ that's a smaller hole so the flashlight is gonna be less effective, so you're gonna wanna move to your more powerful flashlight at this point. Okay so now we've got our basic camera setup, we've got our settings about where we want there's a lot going on in this place, let's walk around and see what we can find.

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

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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.