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Light Painting

Lesson 7 of 19

Light Painting Techniques

Tim Cooper

Light Painting

Tim Cooper

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Lesson Info

7. Light Painting Techniques

Lesson Info

Light Painting Techniques

So, light painting techniques. How do we go about all this? Well, the first thing, the most common thing I hear is, why don't you appear in the picture? You're walking all around, right in front of your photograph or right in front of your camera. How come you don't appear in the picture? Well, you know, this is a really interesting thing. You don't because the amount of time you're in front of the camera is so short. Think about this for a second. I'm sure you all have seen a picture where somebody's ghosted in the frame, you know, they're half there and they're half not there. Well, in order to get that, that person has to stand in the frame for half the exposure time. So let's say we're working on an exposure of four seconds, all right. So, for one thousand one, one thousand two, I stand in the photograph. Then I move out, and I'm gone. One thousand one, one thousand two, and the camera sees what's behind me. I become a ghost. That's half the time. So, if you think about the shutter...

speeds that we're using, 30 seconds, a minute, let's say we're doing a minute-long exposure. I would have to stand still in front of the camera for, what did I say, a minute, 30 seconds in order to be visible. So me walking in front of the camera, that flash, you're never going to be visible. That doesn't stop me from wearing all black, right. You don't wanna wear reflective clothing, because if you are shining a light onto yourself or if there's city lights reflecting off of you, then you might appear as a flash, or, you know, a little smear of light, so we definitely don't wanna do that. So I typically wear, you know, pretty much all black, or at least dark jeans and a dark top. So, yeah, if you're constantly moving through the photograph and you don't stand still, and you're wearing dark clothing, you will not appear in the shot, all right? So. What will appear in the shot, however, is your flashlight. Even if you just show it, the camera, a momentary glimpse of your flashlight, it will show. This is one of my earliest attempts at light painting, and I always use this as a big joke, because I had no idea what I was doing, right? So I said, oh, I'm gonna light paint this trail in Death Valley. So I run up this trail, and I grab my flashlight, and I'm pointing it right back at the camera as I'm walking down the trail, and you can see I'm going from side to side, and it just creates this absolutely crazy look. This is very unintentional and a bad mistake on my part. Thankfully, I'm not unaccustomed to making bad mistakes, so I can laugh about it. But yes, your camera will see your flash, all right. So, even after years of doing this and practicing, I went from this to even making mistakes like this. And I wanted to paint up these headstones, and so you can actually see the tip of my flashlight as I'm painting those headstones. So the trick, people, is if you are the camera, and this is the flashlight, the flashlight has got to be behind. You've got to hide the light of the flashlight from the camera, so you can't see it. And when we go up to gas works, you're going to be seeing this in the live video shoot. I'm constantly hiding that flashlight from the camera. The moment that the flashlight is, you know, the camera can see it, that's it. It's going to appear. So, that's one of our constant concerns, hiding the flashlight. But if you hide the flashlight, and you're wearing dark, you're not going to appear in the photograph, and then you can end up making the photograph much better. All right, again, that's the beautiful thing of image review on the back. Even though I started here, paying close attention to what I'm doing, I can see I've made a mistake and move onto the next shot, all right? Now, now that we've decided we're not going to show up in the photograph and we are starting to, we're getting ready to be prepared to make our images, where do we start? We start with the exposure, you guys. So, here's a little sort of workflow for you all. Of course, this is not set in stone, but this is a generalized way to think about approaching your scene. We wanna start off with a composition. I know that kind of sounds stupid, but it really determines everything else, you guys. So, as you're, you're envisioning the scene in your mind's eye, you're gonna start to think about a whole bunch of other things that need to happen. So we first come up with our composition. Rough it out. Set your tripod up, you know, look through it. If there's not enough light to look through your viewfinder or look through live view, grab your flashlight, put a big, broad beam, and you can scan the whole scene and scan the edges so that you can see what you're composed. But, but that's gonna be a great start, you guys. Knowing what focal length that you're using for this composition is gonna be super important. Next up, we're gonna gain focus. We've now talked about that. We can use our live view focus. We can use our auto focus. We can use our flashlight to assist our focusing, all right. Then, once that happens, once we've focused our camera and we've got our composition, we're gonna try to get a good ambient exposure, and this is where there's no fear, right? You guys are just setting your aperture, your shutter speed, and your ISO at some of those settings that I mentioned earlier. Just go for it. See what happens. Take a shot. Once you come up and dial in your good ambient exposure, we're gonna fine-tune our white balance. Is it too orange? Is it too blue? Is it whatever? And then we can alter that. Then, that's it. We start walking with our flashlight, all right. So, you know, one example would be, again, that neon graveyard. Here was the initial shot. Super orange from the sodium vapor lights, but I got my good ambient exposure here. So then next thing I did was I changed my white balance. Actually, I can't recall what this is, probably close to tungsten or 3500 or so, and then I began light painting. I threw a little bit of light in. I looked at it. I'm like, ah, you know, I don't know. That's maybe not enough, or I wanna change the area. So ooh, you know, I add a little bit more light. It gets brighter in the Sahara, and then, you know, and then I end up finally with this, where I painted a little bit more up in the dome and more in the Sahara, and sort of that's the workflow, all right? So the first thing is, you guys, you set up your composition and you get your color balance right. So, here was an, a prison, visiting the prison. Actually, a really cool prison, Mansfield, Ohio. It's where Shawshank Redemption was filmed. And I went down to solitary confinement, 'cause I wanted to find the darkest area that I could. The prison was beautiful. It's got all this peeled paint and just, it's absolutely, you know, visually gorgeous. But I went down to solitary. It's gotta be dark, right, 'cause I wanna light paint. Everybody else wants to shoot the upstairs, but I'm gonna go downstairs. So down in solitary confinement, I saw this hallway, and this is the initial exposure I made for my ambient exposure, or shot I made for my ambient exposure. I wanted to have some detail out here. I wanted it to be bright, but I didn't wanna lose detail. So I come up with my ambient exposure, and then after that, you guys, I'm basically just recomposing and then adding in light until I ended up with my final image, and I probably painted this maybe four or five different times to get this exact look that I wanted. Again, you can see, this is somewhat warmer, so I've gelled my flashlight, all right. So, you begin with the idea of the composition. What am I going to include? That is going to dictate your aperture. That's going to dictate your focal length. And those two things are gonna dictate everything else. So, simply put, here we've got a full moon night. And I shine my flashlight on here just so I can get a rough composition. This is the kind of look that I want. Okay, I got it, right? Then I've got my ambient exposure correct. You can see the blue sky is exposed about correctly, not overly bright, not too dark. That's it. We got our ambient exposure. So the white balance is set. The ambient exposure is set. And then I just start light painting, right? And I try different things, and I never get light painting right on the first time, ever. It never happens. You try a little here, you try a little there. You think, oh, you know, I'm painting here for three minutes, or, you know, 10 seconds, and next time I say, ooh, I'm gonna paint for 20 seconds, 'cause it was a little darker. Oops, no, it needs 30 seconds. And then you go over here and you paint. So you just kind of work your way around the scene and paint different areas and experiment until it all comes together in the end, all right? But it all starts with coming up with the initial composition, gaining your focus, coming up with the proper ambient exposure, in this case, the ambient exposure being the full moon sky, change your white balance if needed, and then get to light painting. And when it comes to light painting, it's just like that initial exposure, you guys. No fear. I know you have no idea how long should you put that flashlight on that thing, how close should you be to that thing. I can't tell you. I can't tell you because everything is different. If you shine your flashlight at metal, it's gonna reflect a ton of light back compared to this barn wood, which is gonna absorb all of that light. But, we have to remember that the closer we are to a subject, the brighter the beam of the light is going to be. All right? The longer you paint one area, the brighter that's going to be. The shinier the object, the brighter it's going to be. So, as far as the amount of time actually putting your flashlight on something, it's really an unknown, and you will never know until you simply go out and experiment. Don't be afraid of failure. Just grab that flashlight, paint it for a little bit. You get back and look at your LCD. Oh my gosh, didn't even make a dent, all right? Well, I painted that for three seconds. Next time, I'm gonna paint it for 15 seconds. Okay, it's getting there. Oh, now I paint it for 30 seconds. Ah, brilliant. That's okay, that's the way this goes, all right. So, the angle of light is really what this is all about. This is one of the great aspects of light painting, is to be able to change the angle of light mid-stream. We can go from lots of different angles, and we will go from lots of different angles. But the worst thing that you can possibly do is to stand at the back of your camera and illuminate your scene from right there. That is the worst. You may as well put on an on-camera flash and pop it. It's just, it's gonna do nothing for you. Ultra boring. So, we always say you wanna get at an angle to it, and when I say get at an angle, I mean really get at an angle. So if this is the surface that I'm photographing, and my camera is here, I'm not talking about putting my flashlight here or here or here. I'm talking about putting my flashlight like right at the edge, and the closer you are to that edge, it's gonna draw out all of that texture and all of that detail. Now, of course, you have to paint for a little bit longer when you're at this oblique angle, because the flashlight, the power is somewhat diminished, because it's not straight on. So straight on, you can illuminate things really quickly, but it's super boring. All right, so, let's check this out. Korean War Memorial in D.C., painting right from the back of my camera. Ultra boring, right? But when you move that flashlight way off to the side, suddenly, all that texture starts to come out, all that detail, all right? Same thing here. Flashlight is right at the back of my camera, and I'm just painting this sculpture, and it's very, very boring, even though it's a very interesting and intricate sculpture. But we move off to the side, and suddenly, it just comes alive with depth, right? And drama. So, we wanna paint from the side. There's nothing worse than painting straight from the back of the camera. The moment you move to the side, you're going to create all kinds of extra energy in your photograph, extra depth. So don't be afraid to go off to the side, you guys. But in addition to getting off to the side, we need to control our light in other ways, too, and one of those is through beam width. You can zoom your, you know, if you get a good flash, like Coast, you can, the flashlight, you can zoom that head in and out, and you can change the pattern of the flash itself. And so, that's going to alter the look of the photograph in addition to the intensity, right? The more you're zoomed out, the more intense that light is going to be. But, it's also going to change the look. So here is a little bit more of a broad pattern, and you can see each one of these is evenly illuminated wherever the light hits. All right. Well, when you zoom the flashlight head in a little bit, suddenly, it starts to look a little bit different. Notice how there's falloff. It's brighter here, but it falls off. Brighter here, falls off, brighter here, falls off. That's one of the really cool things about using a very narrow beam of light. You get a different sort of look to it. So you can experiment with a narrower beam and moving your flashlight around a lot, and ultimately, I think that's usually gonna be more interesting than just having a broader beam, you know, and giving it ornamental light and then turning it off. Also, narrowing down the beam can really help you be more surgical with your light painting. So, you know, we don't wanna just do this big, broad strokes, right? We wanna get in and do little things. So in this case, I was in Fort Point in San Francisco, and the ambient exposure is for the barrels in the back and the brick, and that's where the light is hitting. But now I wanna come in and I wanna illuminate the front, the gunpowder barrels. So using that snoot that I showed you and zooming my flash head in, I literally went up to each one of these and just tapped my flashlight on, tapped it off, tapped it on, tapped it off. Tapped it on, tapped it off. And so I'm creating these little pools of light, which would be impossible to do with any other light source. You can't do that with, you know, with, you know, umbrellas or soft boxes or anything like that. This is really surgical light painting, and it's super easy. Remember, you don't have to have the flashlight on the whole time. You don't have to drag it across the scene the whole time. That button on the back or wherever your button may be, just turn it on, turn it off. Turn it on, turn it off. And that's gonna give you these little pools of light that's very exciting, which is very much what I did in this situation. So, again, in the neon graveyard, here, I had to get fairly close to these letters, because I didn't want the light to spill out. I didn't want the light to spill out on the ground and back in here and up in here and on this top here. So I'm literally a foot or two away from these letters with a narrow beam, just going around through there, painting from different angles, from this, for the H here, for the U, that's an H. U, H. Painted it from this angle. Then I walked around on the other side and painted the R from that angle. Then you moved closer and I was obscuring the R while I painted this orange from that side, and then I came back around, and then I'm obscuring the H as I painted this orange. So, lots of different angles, lots of distances to alter the amount and the intensity of light. Following through with that in here. So, here we've got again, a full moon light. So I came up with my ambient exposure. Looks to me about probably three minutes, just kind of by the star trails there. And we started painting this truck. And this was a group project. This was fun. This was one of our workshops, and there were several people doing different things. So one person was painting the left-hand side. One person was painting the front, and my job was to go in and paint the little flashlights. So using a really narrow, or, the headlamps, rather. Everything's a flashlight when you start talking about light, right? So, yeah, so my job was to go in, and I used a very narrow beam on my flashlight and came up very close, and for about two seconds, just turned on my flashlight and then turned it off. So I was about that far from the head lamp, and that just sort of makes it glow and gives it the illusion, of course, that the head lamp is on, which of course, they are not. All right. So, painting from lots of different angles. I kind of mentioned that a few minutes ago, but think about this for a second. Let's just, let's examine a portrait, if you will. Think about a portrait in the studio. What is that portrait photographer doing? Well, these people, you know, go into a studio. These photographers know light. They know what they're doing. So we should take a page from their playbook. So, in this case, you can see we have something called a hair light, a main light or sometimes called a key light, and a little bit of fill light. And so if you were to look at this lighting setup, it would look something like this. Down here, we have a fill light, which means it's basically just filling in, just ever so softly, but not as intense or as bright as the key light or the main light, which is the main light source itself. And somewhere in the back here, we had a little hair light kicking up the hair in the back. So, the reason that I bring this up is because we can take this, this same theory of lighting, lots of different angles, lots of different intensities, and bring it to our light painting. Indeed, I recommend you guys do this. Look at any Hollywood film. Go to any commercial or portrait studio, and you're gonna see photographers that know light, and none of them are just putting one light straight on and that's it. There's always, there's always gonna be a kicker. There's gonna be bounce. There's gonna be fill. And the more we can learn from this, the better we can actually start light painting. So, take it, take this theory and move it on out to the field where you're light painting, and suddenly, hey, wait a second. What have we got going on? Yeah, we've got a main light. We've got a fill light. We have different intensities. We have different angles. So in this particular shot, I spent the bulk of my time off to the truck painting back in that direction, and that is giving me the strongest light. Then, I circled around over here, and you can see, I'm just giving, again, kissing with my flashlight, just kissing a little bit in here, kissing a little bit in there, and then overall, just gently painting in this area. Now, bear in mind, this is in the pitch black. So there is no light here whatsoever. So, everything from the background to this truck is being illuminated by the flashlight. What you see here is a shadow of the moonlight, so it's a full, full, full moon and moonlit night, and you can see that the gravel here is actually being illuminated by the moon. But everything else is in the darkness. So, the key light, the key light in this case is me standing over here, painting back. The fill light is me standing way back here and filling in, less intensity, a little further back, except when I came in and painted the little pools of light. Then once again, stepped up close, painted in the little headlights, and then went to work on the background, and for the background, I got way off to the side, and ever so slightly, just a little bit of time to give it some gentle illumination, because I want this to be much brighter than the background. So, we have to think about that intensity. Okay, this was an example shot that we did for our Zion National Park workshop, and again, this is that Grafton ghost town, and here, we've got lots of different angles. So again, do realize that this is fairly, fairly dark here. There is no light in this house or on this house, and everything that's in here is coming from one flashlight. I take that back. There's a flash involved, and I'll get to that. So what I did was I stood about 20 feet or 30 feet off and to the right-hand side of the scene, and basically, you know, just sort of painted the roofs, the two different roofs of the house here. Then what I did was I came down and I began painting from this angle. And if you guys look at the light, there's a lot you can learn from this. So, you can see here how this is casting a shadow here, this is casting a shadow here. So that means I didn't actually paint from just one singular angle. I did kind of move around a little bit, which changes where the shadow is gonna lie, but painted the roof, painted the roof, then in another section came down and painted in here, and while I was doing that, we had two of our students go around, one to this side of the building and one to the other side of the building and put on their flash and just do a couple of pops inside the building. And that gives us that internal illumination. But that in itself is not enough to give us the shadow stripes from the porch. For that, what I had to do was I went up, and I stood in front of the window, and I put my flashlight pointing down, and again, my snoot so the camera, which is directly out in front of me, couldn't see the flashlight itself. And what I did was I simply moved my flash up and down like this, but I didn't move my flash sideways. 'Cause as soon as I do this, the shadows are going to start to fade out and become diffuse. But if you hold your flash in one position and do this, then the light emanates from one spot and you can see, the light is emanating right from here, and so, we get these nice, hard shadows. So again, a lot to be learned from Hollywood and commercial and portrait studios about lighting. I highly recommend you guys do as much experimentation and inspection of these things as you can. Same thing here, lots of different angles. In this case, you can see for this, I got really super low, and my flashlight was probably about maybe six inches, maybe a foot off of this concrete slab as I'm painting up. Then I jumped over there and painted back in the direction to paint that up, jumped over here, came in a little closer and painted that edge, so notice how we're putting in a little highlight there that's up against a shadow. And then in subsequent exposures, I walked around down on the beach and illuminated here and illuminated back here, all from different angles, and that gives it that drama, that sort of cinematic look that's basically impossible to achieve with just an on-camera flash. All right, this is the last really fun example. You may have even seen this, maybe in one of my friend's, their images, but this was a group effort between Gabriel and I and a couple of the students we were working with on this workshop. And we're all doing different things. So this is set at ISO 400. I've got a three-minute exposure, and we're set at f/8. And to get this, it took three different people. So, Gabe, his job was to run inside and pop the flash off with the blue gel, if I remember correctly, I think he gelled it blue, and did a couple different pops to get that glow from the inside. Our student, what he was doing was painting the outside, a little bit in here and a little bit in here, just to give it a, just to give it a little bit of fill light. And then I had the dirty job. I had to go around the back and create the beam of light. The only problem is, you don't get a beam of light unless you have some particulates. So, it was literally me grabbing handful of dust, throwing it up in the air, and letting the beam of light go through it, which would be fine, except the wind was coming directly in my face. So, that was a dirty job. But throwing dust up, putting a beam of light through, does actually create a beam of light. Okay, so next up, flashlight filtration. What are we gonna do? How are we gonna change the color of our flashlight? Well, this is pretty important, you guys, because we can add a lot of dimension to our photographs by doing that. So, in both of these cases here, what I've done is gelled my flash. And you've just seen how you can gel your flash when we did our talk on accessories, and in this case, because my white balance is, instead of sodium vapor, I've turned it to tungsten, that would mean that the whole image would be overall blue, and especially my LED, which is already kind of slightly blue would become even moreso. So to get these warm colors out here, I've heavy gelled my flash, a heavy orange color. Same thing here with the sandstone little rock in Zion National Park. My white balance has gone from daylight to slightly cooler, so therefore, I gel my flashlight with a warm gel to create that look. And you know, it's amazing how color can really alter the way you think about or perceive an image, right? So, here we are in Grafton ghost town, and once again, a full moon night, and what I did here was I painted the fence. So you can see the shadows, a little bit of the fence here. It's coming from the full moon off in that direction, and once again, you can also see the full moon striking this side of the building. Well, everything else is in the shadow. So I painted the front of the fence at an oblique angle, came around, painted the front of the building, and then went inside and just kind of crouched in a corner and with my flashlight, you know, just kind of painted all around the entire inside to make it glow. So I spent much more time on the inside painting than I did on the outside. But I used a warm gel. So, even though this is an uninhabited building, it kind of looks warm and welcoming. Hey, let's, you know, go in and grab a cup of hot cocoa, right? That's a very different feeling than what I created, you know, 10 minutes later at the same ghost town, which is like, yeah, I'm not so sure I wanna go in that place, right? And that's because of that blue, right? I've created, I've certainly used a very cool white balance, but then I gelled my flash so it was blue, so I painted the building and even painted some blue in here, and making it much more cool gives you a very different feel. So, it's hard to overstate the importance of color and how that's going to affect us, but certainly, play with it. Here, first attempt. I was just using my straight-up flashlight, and I felt like it was too yellow, so I put more of a red or magenta gel on to kind of match the colors a little bit better. Here in this next shot, what I did was I actually used a flash behind the cross, and, and gelled it with blue, and then I actually had a little spritzer bottle, and I was just spritzing water. And so I spritzed a bunch of water and then popped the flash, and that kind of gives that the sparkly kind of glow behind it, and then once that was done, I came out with my flashlight gelled yellow and then painted in the one cross. So, that color contrast, that color harmony, is really gonna play to, to your audience. So you have to figure out what you want. The more color contrast you have, the more dissonance you have. It's gonna be wow-pow, and it's going to, it's gonna be striking. If you have more color harmony, the image is gonna be a little bit easier to digest, and you're gonna be able to live with it for a little bit longer. It will be less like the visual equivalent of a sour ball. So, not one right, one wrong, just, how do you want your image to look? So, for this final photograph here, once again, we've got probably three-quarters of a moon, and we've got sodium vapor in here. So I had to correct for that. Basically the ambient light here is sodium vapor, so I corrected it down to about a tungsten setting, but then I gelled my flash blue, my flashlight blue, to go inside and paint again, just to play off of that very red color, red being opposite of cyan on a color wheel, to give this some color contrast, all right? So really think about your colors when you're out there, whether it pertains to your white balance setting, your ambient light, but also your flashlight itself. And remember, color contrast more powerful; color harmony, more subtle. Which way do you wanna go? They're both awesome.

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.