Skip to main content

photo & video

Light Painting

Lesson 8 of 19

Light Painting Techniques: On Location

Tim Cooper

Light Painting

Tim Cooper

buy this class


Sale Ends Soon!

starting under


Unlock this classplus 2000+ more >

Lesson Info

8. Light Painting Techniques: On Location

Lesson Info

Light Painting Techniques: On Location

Alright everybody, so we're off of Kite Hill, we're down in the more industrial area of Gas Works Park, and the reason I chose this particular area is for several things that I think of when I'm trying to find something to light paint. Number one, accessibility. Can I get to the places that I wanna light paint? And we can see back here, I'm easily gonna be able to get to these spots without a problem. Number two, what does the background look like? We've got the space needle, what could be more Seattle than that? So we've got accessibility, we've got a great background, and we've got texture, which is, I think, a real important thing. What I wanna do is light paint these different pipes back here, but also the grass too. So it's going to be a little bit of smooth texture in the pipes, and I'm gonna try to draw some texture in the grass. And then that is going to be a contrast of course to the background. So we're gonna have somewhat of a dark foreground, a little bit illuminated by the...

flashlight, lighter background off in the distance, and I take it'll pull it all together to create a pretty cool photograph. Of course, we'll also be playing with some color here. So when we're up on Kite Hill, we adjusted our white balance down to about 4000K, I think it was. Here I think I'm gonna drop it maybe down even to 36. I wanna get a little bit more blue in that sky. So at 36,000 kelvin, what that means is the whole scene is gonna have a blue cast over it to cancel out that orange cast of the sodium vapor lights, so therefore, I put an orange filter back on the flashlight, much like we did up on the hill. Alright, so where are we gonna start? Well the first thing we're gonna have to do is we're gonna have to gain focus and get a good composition. Now I'm gonna have to rough out this composition by using my flashlight because it's fairly dark down in here. And just looking through the back of the viewfinder, using live view is not going to be good enough. So let me rough out my composition, and then we'll deal with our focus. Alright, so we've got our flashlight out there. As I look through the scene, I'm kinda taking the flashlight all around the corners and looking at everything that's going to be in there, making subtle adjustments where necessary. And let me just make that adjustment right there. And that's looking pretty good. Got something creeping in on the left, but we'll have to deal with that later. Alright, so that's looking pretty good now for our composition, but now we need to get focus. And the problem is I need to focus kind of out in the middle of nowhere, because these pipes that are the closest thing in the frame, these pipes right here are gonna be the closet thing in my frame, then of course, the space needle in the back is gonna be the furthest thing. So where I really need to focus is kind of right out there in that grassy area. Now what we can do in certain situations is just throw your flashlight out there and you could put it against a white piece of paper, you can grip it or lean it up against something. As long as you can see that flashlight, then that auto focus will grip into it. In this case, what I'm gonna do is I'm actually gonna focus on the closest pipe to us. And then I'm gonna take my focus ring and just push it a little bit past that. In essence, focusing one third of the way into the frame. My composition is such that I am looking at about a 100 millimeter lens, which means depth of field is gonna be crucial here, we don't have a lot of depth of field at 100 millimeters, so I'm gonna need to stop down to F16. So getting my focus and depth of field, super crucial. So lemme focus on that near pipe. And I'm just gonna do this manually here, get that pipe in there. And get that. Okay, that looks good. Now what I'm gonna do, is I'm gonna come around and actually manually focus my lens to just a little bit past that. I'm not going technically a perfect one third of the way in between this and infinity, but just rotating it a little bit. Alright. So that should give us what we need for depth of field. So I'm at F16 to get everything sharp. I'm at, let's see, my white balance is set to 3600. I think we left our ISO at 200 on the hill, so we'll start there. So now it's just time to choose our shutter speed, and we're gonna start at 30 seconds and see what that produces. Alright so that self timer is still set. And as you may or may not see, we're experiencing a little rain here. Let's hope this doesn't get too much worse, or we'll have to cover the camera. Alright, so let's see what kind of exposure we've got here. Looking pretty good. Of course, we wanna check our histogram. And we can see where, yeah we're kind of blocked up down here on the left hand side, so I'm gonna wanna add a little bit more light. But I am at 30 seconds. So at this point, what I'm gonna need to do is move my shutter speed up to a minute. 30 seconds to 60 seconds is one stop. That will give me one stop more light. But that'll also give me more time to light paint. And this is a pretty complex light painting job. We've got several different things that I wanna hit from several different angles. So we're gonna go to one minute. And what I'll need to do then is set my self timer for one minute, because our camera only goes to 30 seconds. (soft clicking) Alright, now, I'll change my shutter speed to bold on my camera. And that should give us a one minute exposure. Now I'm fairly certain I'm gonna get this all sharp. But the only way I'm gonna be able to tell is to a little light painting anyway. So this initial exposure, not only am I looking for sharpness, but I'm also gonna begin the light painting process, to see how reflective things are, how dark, how light, and the angles, and how they're panning out on film. So we're just gonna go ahead and start this. If we can just grab the lights. Alright so I got my camera on self timer, we're set for a minute, I'm gonna get into the scene here and do a little bit of light painting. Of course I wanna keep that flashlight directly in front of me so the camera can't see it. Again, hiding that flashlight from the camera. And once again, you can see I'm actually moving my body rather than just moving the flashlight. That's gonna create a nice effect. Now at this point, I'm gonna wanna step back here. I wanna paint this top beam, but I don't want it to be as bright. So I'm moving significantly further away from the beam, as I paint. One minute exposure should be about up. Let's check it out. And it is. So we'll review our image. And okay, looking pretty good. So I got a good amount of light on the first pipe, but it looks as if the top pipe still needs significantly more light. But the overall exposure does look good at one minute. And we can see in here, we've added a ton more information. We could probably even push that up to a minute and a half. But if I go too bright, I'm afraid I'm gonna start blowing out the space needle with all that fog back there and mist. So we're gonna leave it at one minute. And go for more light painting. Now I'm not gonna get rid of this exposure, because I still may be able to use that shot mixed in with several other shots in post processing. So we're just gonna go ahead and leave that and we're gonna take another stab at it. Of course learning from what I just did. So apparently I didn't spend enough time on the upper pipes, but I spent maybe a little bit too much time on this front pipe. And I didn't even get enough time to paint the grass. So this is gonna turn out to be definitely one of those photographs where I'm gonna take several different exposures, and light paint different areas of that exposure, and then blend them together in Photoshop after the fact. So let's do one more shot. Or several more shots. Alright, so here we go again. Light's in front of my camera, spending a little bit less time there. Or I'm sorry, light is in front of my body, hidden from the camera. And then I'm gonna come at another angle here just so that we can get some drama to our image. By painting at different angles. Now let's hope we can get a little bit more light on this pipe this time. And again, this is the one I want the brightest. So I'm gonna spend more time on this pipe. And a little bit less time on the one on top. And once again, I'm backing up now. So that my flashlight is much further away from me from the upper pipe. So when I paint, it will be less illuminated. And that should be good. And of course, with this length of exposure, a minute long, there's no problem with me walking right in front of the camera, of course I'm wearing black, but even if that wasn't the case, such a short period of time will not make a difference. So let's see what we've got. Alright, that's a little bit better. The light is somewhat uneven on that upper pipe, which makes me a little sad. We're gonna have to remedy that in the next shot, and again, I spent a little bit too much time on this front pipe. And the back pipe not quite enough light. So I now have got my plan mapped out. It looks like I'm gonna do this in probably at least three different shots. So for this first pipe, I keep painting it too much, so I've gotta go back and paint that a little bit less. The main pipe that I wanna photograph is uneven, so I've gotta do a better job of painting that. That's gonna be one photograph. Then I'm gonna come back and I'm gonna paint the upper pipe, that'll be the second photograph. And then third photograph is gonna be painting the grass. Alright, so let's give this another go, shall we? Alright, so a little bit less light now on this one. I keep over-painting it, so I don't wanna keep making that same mistake. Just really quick, one and done. Good enough. Now I'll come over and hide behind this pipe, this post again, and paint that, and that, and then here we go again, painting at that different angle. And now I'm just gonna walk much more slowly this time and try to be far more even in my painting. And getting closer to this pipe will also make that beam brighter. Alright let's see how that turned out now. That was a quick minute. Alright, still a little bit uneven on that upper pipe. I'm not at all happy with that. But I like the less painting on the front pipe, and a little bit less on the next two pipes. So let's give it another shot. A little bit quicker in there. And also a little bit quicker in here. Those were a little bit hot last time. And then this is the culprit, this is the tough one. Why am I not getting this the way I want it? Trying to move nice and even so that that pipe looks evenly illuminated, rather than splotchy. I think what I'll also do is back up just a little bit, widen my beam just a hair. And I'm just gonna keep going back and forth until that minute is up. Okay, so let's see what we've got here. Ah, that's a little bit better. So I'm liking the light on here. On the front post, a little bit more even light on the pipe on the top. Now I just gotta go to that upper pipe and add a little bit of light, so that's gonna be our second shot. So that's our first shot. Now that we've completed that. And we'll start again for our second go at it. Once again using a nice, tight beam. And having my flashlight a little further away from the pipe on the top should make it a little bit more dim than the one below. So that's a pretty quick paint job on that one. That's about all I'm going to do. Alright, so that's looking pretty good now. That's not quite as dark as the previous image. You can see as I go back and forth, in this image we've got a little bit more dim, a little brighter on the bottom one here. So those'll be two good shots. Although I gotta be honest with you, I'm not in love with that light paint job. I might just go back and try that again. I want that to be more even. I keep coming up with these little bright spots. And I'm not quite sure why. So, I feel like we do have our second shot, which is that upper beam. But the first one, now that I see it, I'm still not quite happy with. But this front part here I can use. And these back posts I can also use. So really it's just this upper, this middle pipe that I need to fix. So one more shot at that. And maybe I'm must a little bit too close, and that's causing that unevenness. Trying to walk at a steady pace will help that. Alright. This is actually pretty common having to paint something over and over again til you get it just right. As I mentioned up on the hill, it's pretty rare to paint something just once or twice and have it come out. Alright now that's looking a little bit more even. But at this point, I might have to call that good and brighten those spots up later in Lightroom. The rain is continuing to come. Maybe if we have time at the end, I'll give that another shot. But for now I'm gonna call that good. So what we have now is we have one shot with the middle pipe good, and then we have one with the upper pipe good, and another with this front pipe good. Now it's time for us to paint the grass. What I wanna do when I paint the grass is much like I did when we were up on Kite Hill. I wanna have a really low flashlight angle, and I wanna rake across the grass. Again, just painting like this is gonna cause really flat grass with very uninteresting texture. So that low camera angle's gonna be key. The other thing that's gonna be key is I don't wanna paint very close to me. I've gotta make sure that I'm a little further away so that, the umber of the light is gonna just kinda kiss a little bit closer. So I'm trying to even out the light as I go across. So not painting super close, but out a little bit. So low angle, let's paint the grass. Alright this is where it helps to really know exactly where your framing is. You don't wanna spend a whole lotta time painting grass that's not going to be in your scene. But you wanna make sure that you do hit the grass that's important. Now when you're at a low angle like this, sometimes you have to do a lot more painting than you want to, although it's kinda wet, so I think the grass might just be agreeing with us. Now, what I'm gonna do is turn off my flashlight, walk back trough the scene, and illuminate the grass from the other side. Again, just to give some opposing angles to the light. Again, just adding a different type of interest. So it's not all the same angle. That maybe have been too short of a time on that second pass. But let's see what happens. Alright. Hey not bad. Okay. That may be a little bit, that maybe good in one shot. We've got a little bit of darker light in the background grasses. And the foreground grasses seem to be about the proximate brightness. I think I'm happy with that. So it's, again, key you guys to get that nice low flashlight angle. Again to bring out that texture, and we'll see that in the image. Alright, so, I'm a perfectionist, I gotta get that middle pipe right. It's driving me crazy, people. Alright, one more go at this, and then I think we're gonna be good. Alright let's hope that did the trick. Alright. Oh, I think we may have nailed it. Well it's a lot closer anyway. It's certainly brighter. So it's gonna be a mix of several different images. You guys, right? We're gonna use part of this image, part of that image, part of the back image, some of the grasses. And what we're gonna do is we're gonna build this all and put it together in Photoshop using something called light and blending mode. It's super easy, you guys, even if you don't understand how to use Photoshop, you're gonna love this technique. So you're gonna see those blending modes come together in future lessons when we get in the studio and we talk about post processing. But what you've seen here, folks, is really super typical. You've seen me make many, many attempts at one scene. That's not unusual. Light painting's not terribly difficult, but it does take a little bit of practice. The key is finding a great location. So why did I choose this location? Again, great background, accessibility to the things that I want to light paint, and different textures that I can work with with the flashlight. We came to the scene, we began by composing, getting good focus using our flashlight, checking that ambient exposure, that first initial exposure, then going on, altering our white balance to make that look good. Then we gelled the flash, so we'd have opposing colors, and then it was time to light paint. And as you saw, it took several attempts. Especially in a big scene like this where there's lots of different things to light paint. It's not gonna be unusual to have to take it in many different shots. And just remember folks, you don't have to go to some grand place to make great light painting pictures. Start at home. Start at your back shed. Start in your bathroom, start in your kitchen. Do it anywhere. Just turn the camera on, get that flashlight out, and start painting things. I find that the biggest think with beginners is they're afraid because they don't know where to start. I say just turn the camera on, start painting, see where it goes. Get out there, have fun. Light painting is an awesome way to extend the photographic hours from daytime into nighttime, but it's also a whole other art form. A combination between painting and photography. And I think you guys will really enjoy it. So have fun.

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.