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Light Painting

Lesson 6 of 19

Focusing in the Dark

Tim Cooper

Light Painting

Tim Cooper

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Lesson Info

6. Focusing in the Dark

Lesson Info

Focusing in the Dark

It's dark at night and there is no light, how the heck do we focus our cameras? Well, it's really not that hard you guys. At times you can use your Auto Focus. And some other times that may not work, and we can use our Manual Focus. If you're going to use your Auto Focus though, here's my recommendation. Number one: on most cameras, this doesn't hold true across the board I think, Fujis are pretty good at this, but across the board generally, Live View focusing is not as accurate as focusing through the viewfinder in that matter because you're using two different types of focus systems. And one of the things about this focusing systems is something called a cross type sensor. And apparently, I guess these are more expensive to build into the camera because camera manufacturers will brag about how many cross type sensors they have. So that being the case, they must be expensive. So typically what's gonna happen is, you're gonna find these better cross type sensors generally grouped arou...

nd the center of your focusing pattern. So what I try to do whenever possible is... Because I'm not sure exactly which one of mine are cross type sensors, of course I could go into the manual and look this up you know, and find out, oh you know, maybe it's that one, and it's that one, and this one. Who knows? I don't know. But what I do know is the center one definitely is. So when it comes to focusing using the Auto Focus, I always put my auto focus point right in the center, then I know I'm using one of the best auto focus points there is. And when we're working under more dim light like at night, we want as accurate focusing as we can get, alright? So we're gonna use that cross type sensor in the center. Now, sometimes it may just get dim enough where you cannot auto focus. If there's not enough light, your camera will not auto focus. That's just the way of things. But, what do we have in our bag? We got a flashlight, right? So really easily you guys, it's so simple, all you have to do is find something with a little, it's gotta have some tooth, it's gotta have some grip to it, right, you can't put your flashlight on a blank white wall and auto focus on it, because that auto focus point needs something to grip into. So find something in your scene that's got a little bit of grip, put your flashlight on it, and then put your center auto focus point right over that, and auto focus. It's gonna be spot on. Then what you can do is the moment that you get that dialed in, what I typically do, typically what I usually do is just go right to my auto focus dial, and I turn it off. So now I can press my shutter release button as often as I want, and it's not gonna refocus the camera. That's something we don't want to have happen, alright? So you get it sharp, you get your ambient exposure, get your white balance set, and then you can go about your scene and light paint, and you're gonna end up with a nice, sharp photograph all the way through, alright? Now if you're not using Auto Focus, which I gotta tell you I do a lot of the time, you can use Manual Focus, of course, alright? You can use Manual Focus in Live View, which means turning on your Live View and you'll definitely see this when we go out into the field later, I'm sure I'll be showing you guys how to work on this. But the problem with the Live View in really dim situations, is the screen gets kind of grainy. Some screens get kind of grainy. And it could be difficult to do that. But again, you do have your flashlight, so you know if you put your flashlight on the scene, then turn on your Live View, you can actually manually focus in exactly where you need to be. And this is really beneficial. Alright so here we are at Kite Hill, top of Gasworks Park. We scouted around, and we saw this awesome location. We've got this really cool, I'm not even sure what to call it, inlay, statue, sculpture? But it's beautiful, of course overlooking the city. I really wanna get this shot. So, how do we start? Where do we begin? Well we've already got our basic settings set up. But we need to take that to the next level. As I mentioned earlier one of the most important things to think about is actually our F stop and our depth of field. And in this case what I wanna do, is I wanna get all the way from the front of this inlay, all the way back to the city line in sharp focus. Which means, I'm gonna need a fair amount of depth of field. Now I'm currently set at 24 millimeters. So again, what we wanna do is as we're working through things, we wanna come up with our composition first, then we wanna focus. Alright, so I've got my composition that tells me the focal length that I'm using is 24, that's gonna dictate the depth of field that I need, or the aperture that I'm gonna need to set. So what we'll do first is we'll actually focus our camera, and then we're gonna change our depth of field to make sure everything is sharp. And in order to do that, I'm gonna need a little bit of light. It's pretty dark here right now, so my camera may or may not auto focus in this situation. I'm just gonna give it a little help. I'm gonna assist it with my flashlight. Now there's a couple of different ways to do this. Number one: I could just throw my flashlight in here, and use my auto focus button, and that may work just fine in a lot of cases. So we'll start off with that. Now what I wanna do here, is I wanna make sure that I'm actually focusing in the right spot. So I'm gonna need to focus about one third of the way into the frame. And if I focus way out there in the water at the far end of this, I'm not gonna get the whole thing in sharp focus. So my composition is from this near star point, all the way out to the distance. So I'm gonna be focusing about one third of the way in. So as I put my flashlight out there, I'm really looking at about that area right around in there is where I wanna get my focus. So I'm gonna put my auto focus point over that, and get a little sharp focus. Alright, now what I just did after I did my auto focus, was I immediately took my lens and put it to manual focus. What this is gonna do, is it's gonna lock it in, because there's gonna be many times throughout this shooting process that I'm gonna wanna hit my shutter release button, and I don't want it to refocus. That could be problematic, especially if I'm recomposing. In many situations what you might need to do is actually move your camera after you've gained the initial composition to get that center cross type sensor right over that auto focus point. In this case I didn't have to, I'm close enough to the center that it should be good. But nevertheless, I'm still gonna switch that lens to manual focus, that way I know my focus is locked in, and I'm set. Now, at this point I could go on and just start making my image. But what I really wanna do, is I wanna make sure that everything is sharp before I get going. One of the things we can do with that is use our Live View. If there's enough light, then we can use our Live View to determine whether or not everything is sharp all the way through. So let's go to the back of the camera here and check out how this is going to work. I'm gonna turn on my Live View, and I'm getting a pretty good overall exposure and a good scene right here. But if you look at my settings, I'm at 30 seconds at 3.2. What this has done, is I've really opened this up so that we can see the back to help us compose. Now I've got my rough composition here, but before we go on with the focus I actually wanna make sure that it's level. So I'm gonna cycle through my different functions in my Live View. Alright, and if I go far enough, I get a virtual horizon. So that allows me to make sure that my camera is level, when that center line goes green, that's gonna give me just exactly what I want as far as being level. And whenever you're out you know, certainly around skylines and water, being perfectly level is fairly important because it's gonna look awkward if it's not. Now I'm not so concerned if it's flipping a little bit, which this is, it depends on how persnickety you wanna be, I've been known to be too persnickety. But, there we go, so that's nice and level all the way across. Now at this point I'll take that off and go back to our regular screen. Now my goal here, is to see whether everything is gonna be sharp at my current aperture. Well in order to gain a composition here, I needed enough light. But ultimately I'm gonna need that aperture somewhere down around F8 or F9, and you're gonna be able to see that there's really not much here to tell us whether this image is gonna be sharp or not. So in this case I've opened it up to 2.8, I've gained my focus, now I need to bring it back to right around F8. Alright, well if I want this to get any lighter one thing I can actually do is I could increase my ISO. And that should make the screen go somewhat brighter. Alright, now what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna hit my magnify button on the back of the screen, and I'm gonna go in close and see if it's in sharp focus. Now some camera manufacturers have better Live View characteristics than others. Nikon is really pretty good, it's a little grainy when it's this dark at night, but you can see I'm relatively sharp here. And now I'm just gonna move the zoom all the way to the top. And it looks as if my buildings are not in focus. But once I press my depth of field preview button in I can see that it is now sharp. So you may have to go back and forth between using your depth of field preview button to see and witness the depth of field, and then turning it back off again to get the full brightness of the scene. It's a little bit of a dance, but you'll get used to it. So, of course the proof in the pudding will be when the initial shot is taken. So let's assume that our focus is okay for now. I'm gonna exit back out of here. De-magnify my screen a little bit. And once again, I'm gonna bring my ISO back to right around 200, where I sort of want it to be. And at this point it's telling me that 30 seconds at F may give me a good exposure for my skyline. I'm not really sure, let's take a picture and find out. So I'm gonna turn off my Live View, 30 seconds at F8 ISO and let's go ahead and take an initial shot and see what this looks like. Alright, so the shot is done and our image is up, and well, it's actually not looking too bad. But of course, we definitely have to check our histogram. So we're gonna go through and look here at our histogram, and it's actually looking pretty good. The bulk of the histogram is down low, which is suggesting that most of the image is dark and that's fine. My real concern here though of course, is the city skyline. I wanna make sure that that doesn't blow out. So I'm gonna actually go to my RGB highlights here and I can see if I blow up on the image, that a lot of that is actually blown out. So this may be a bit bright. Alright so 30 seconds at F8 ISO 200, looking pretty good, I'm a little concerned about my highlights, so I need to close down a little bit. I can either do that through my aperture, I could do that through my time, or I can do that through my ISO. I don't want to shut down any more on the time, because I need that 30 seconds to paint the scene. Alright, so that means I could go to ISO, or I could go to aperture. Because I'm concerned about my depth of field, by stopping down from F8 to F I'm just going to help myself get that extra depth of field that I need. So I'll do that rather than change my ISO back to 100. So let's change our aperture to F8, or I'm sorry F11, let's close down one stop, and we'll go ahead and take another shot. Alright, we're still getting some blinkies here but I think it's gonna be okay. Now remember, as we're reviewing this, these are city lights. So we expect them to be bright. We're never gonna get them completely blinky free. So I'm gonna go with this and just see what happens. Now the next thing I wanna... Well let's take a step back. So we have composed, we've now figured out our depth of field, and we've got our focus. Alright, what's the next step? Getting the ambient exposure. That's what we're working on here. And our ambient exposure ended up being 30 seconds at F11. 30 seconds gives us enough time to paint, F11 is giving me the good depth of field, ISO is at 200, and that's a really clean ISO. So the next step is, what does the color look like? Well right now I've been shooting on daylight white balance, and we can see on the image that it's really pretty ugly. It's a horrific orange color. So we need to change our white balance from daylight down to either tungsten or one of our kelvin temperatures. I'm gonna go and start with my kelvin temperature, I'm gonna say about 3600, maybe 3400. And that should put a little bit more blue in the sky. Now I've gotta admit, that sodium vapor light coming up from the city and illuminating the clouds from underneath is not terrible. Some people don't like it, I don't wanna get rid of it completely because frankly I think it adds some nice color to the scene. But I don't want it to be overpowering. So let's pull that kelvin temperature down on our white balance. Down to let's try 3600. So I'm gonna roll through here, I'm gonna get to my kelvin temperature, and then I'm gonna rotate that until it comes to 3700, let's see, I want 3600. And we've got 3600. Alright, now let's go ahead and take a shot of that, and we'll hit those lights so that we can get a full view of what our scene is actually looking like here. And this should now be the proper ambient exposure, and the proper white balance. Alright, now that's looking fairly reasonable. I can see we've got a little bit of detail in here, not nearly enough, so we certainly have to light paint. When we zoom in and look at our image it's going to be a little bit less orange and certainly more blueish. And we'll give that a roll and see how that turns out. Actually, 36 may feel a little bit neutral for me, I think I'm actually gonna take it up to a kelvin of about 4000, bring a little bit of that orange back into the sky. So let's try that out. White balance, kelvin temperature up to 4000. I'm not gonna bother retaking this shot, we'll just go with it. Subtle tweaks like that we can deal with Lightroom after the fact. So now is the fun part you guys, right? Now we get to light paint. Alright so, I've got my heavy duty coast flashlight here, and I've got it pre-gelled with a nice orange gel on here, because now that we've brought the kelvin temperature down, that's gonna make everything a little bit more blue. If I just began painting with this flashlight as it was, which is an LED, it's gonna be a really whitish blue light, that's not so much what I love. What I want is more of a bluer sky, and an orange light coming out of the flashlight. So that's why I've got the gel taped on here. Alright, now what I'm gonna do here is not paint directly from behind the camera. We talked about this earlier, but I gotta tell you again, it's the worst sin you can commit in night photography, and it's what we all do right from the beginning. So you can see when I'm standing here right at the camera, and I'm painting, it's just going to give me a severely flat light with no texture to it at all. It's a very, very boring light, nobody wants it. So instead what we're going to do, is we're gonna move around to the side, and we're gonna get really super low with our flashlight and create this beautiful texture. Now as I'm painting, what I'm gonna need to pay attention to is not only the height of the flashlight, but also the brightness of the beam and where the beam is actually striking. And I'll walk you through that as I'm walking around. Alright, so I think we're ready to go. I'm going to actually set this on a little bit of a self-timer so it gives me a few seconds to walk around to the other side. I'm gonna set my self-timer. And I'm gonna go in and check my self-timer and see how many seconds, I'm set to two seconds right now, let me give myself ten seconds and that will give me time to get into position. Alright, self-timer is set. I'm gonna plunge my shutter and get to work. Of course I'm keeping an eye on my flashing red dot, make sure my self-timer went. I'm gonna turn on my light and get nice and low. I just wanna scrape this inlay so we're getting those nice shadows. But the thing I have to be careful of, is you'll notice that my beam is further across to the other side, rather than closer to me. If my beam was really closer to me, then what that would make is the foreground really super bright, I'm sorry not the foreground but the side next to me super bright. So notice how I'm actually moving too, I'm not just swinging my flashlight. And we'll get a little bit of ambient light around the sides just to throw that in, see what that looks like. Swing up, that should be about 30 seconds. And let's just see a review, and see if that popped up. And we've got our first image. So, let's put on the old specs here. Ah, and looking pretty good, we can see that we've pretty well matched the illumination in the foreground with that of the background. I wouldn't mind it being a little bit brighter in the foreground, but again that might be something that we can do in Post. So the only problem is I've got a lot of shadow on the left-hand side because I've painted from the right. Well you know what, that's okay, because I can either just leave it like that and I can accept that shot, which I think I'd be pretty happy with that, might need a little bit of touch-up but it'll be okay. But what I also wanna do is paint from the other side. Now what that does is it gives me the option in Post of blending those images together. So I could either use the one, or I could put them together and gently illuminate my shadows from the far side later on. But before we go any further, what I really wanna do is I wanna check my focus, right? This image has got to be sharp or it's gonna be worthless. So at this point I'm gonna depend on once again, looking at my image, and this time I want my image nice and big. So I'm gonna zoom in, and it looks really super sharp in the foreground. Let's just hope that city in the back is pretty sharp as well. That's looking pretty good, I am definitely happy with that. Alright, so at this point the light painting is not bad, but we can always fine tune it. So what I'm gonna do, is I'm gonna take one more pass at this, see if I can make it any better. It's pretty rare that I actually get anything right on the first time. It's always a lot of experimenting when you're out here light painting. Don't be afraid to try it again and again. And I've walked home with ten or 15 different shots of the same exact scene light painted in different ways, just trying to get it as good as it can be. So I'm gonna try this again, and I'm gonna try to get a little bit more illumination in the center of the frame, and a little bit less on the outside. So once again you guys, you can see is my flashlight is here, and I'm zoomed out to get that nice narrow beam. If I paint too close to me, this are right here will get too bright. So that's why I push it out a little bit further, and then the illumination is gonna be a little bit more gentle closer to the camera, or I'm sorry, closer to the flashlight. So once again, we're gonna take the shot and see if we can get a little better light painting. Maybe yes, maybe no. Let's just see. Not a bad idea to turn your flashlight on straightaway. And once again, moving my body, I'm trying to get it a little bit closer to the center here. Notice how low my flashlight is, I'm not standing, it's about two-and-a-half feet off the ground. Continuing out, pushing in. Again, a little bit more in the center here. A little ambient light in the background. And then maybe just a little bit in the center. Ah, that's what I'm talking about, that looks good. Okay, I'm super psyched with that. Now, the next thing I'm gonna do is you can see there's a little bit of shadow on the left-hand side, so I'm gonna take one more shot and paint from the left-hand side. And maybe I'll use that frame, maybe I won't, but let's go ahead and light paint it just the same. Once again we're on a self-timer, it gives me time to get into position, get my flashlight zoomed out. Turn your flashlight on straightaway, of course listening for that shutter, I just heard it go off. Now again I'm gonna go nice and low here, paying more attention to that side. And again I'm moving myself and the flashlight, not just swinging my flashlight. Now at this point I just want a little fill, so I'm dimming my flashlight and just gonna paint it with a wider beam here, and that will be my fill light, rather then so much of a directional light. And then a little bit on the far side. Always painting at an angle to your camera. Now this image shouldn't look quite as good, but that will act as our fill. Folks I think we got it, I think it's gonna be a winner. It's looking good. So to re-cap you guys, we began by setting up our initial composition, that was helped by using our Live View. And of course using your flashlight on the ground right when you're composing your scene if it's too darn dark. Then we zoomed our flashlight in, we gained focus using Auto Focus. Checked it using Live View. Then we got our ambient exposure, looked a little orange, we changed our white balance back to about 3600, then upped it to 4000. And then it's time to paint. And so in a couple tries I've gotta say that's probably the best thing I've ever done. I've never made a good light painting that fast. It always takes me four or five tries, and it certainly will take first timers a bit more than that. And that's okay because, the greatest thing about light painting is its time to experiment. So I think we're gonna call this a wrap. And there is a couple of other places that I'm seeing that are really excited, that I'm really excited about, so let's wrap it up and head to another location and do another example.

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.