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Light Painting

Lesson 5 of 19

The Color of Light

Tim Cooper

Light Painting

Tim Cooper

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Lesson Info

5. The Color of Light

Lesson Info

The Color of Light

So, next up is the color of light. This is a pretty important topic when it comes to light painting if you're photographing in color. All right, so what we want to think about is the different sources that we're going to encounter. Number one, the ambient light, that could be anything from the full moon to household lights, to city lights, whatever the ambient light source is, the continuous light source. Next up, we've got flashlights and we've got flash, and each one of these is gonna have a different color to them. And the way that photographers describe color is by using a unit called Kelvin, and you can see here that regular daylight, this is electronic flash and daylight here is 5500K. That is what our camera is generally tuned to. If you put your camera to the default setting, the default white balance setting of daylight, it's gonna shoot roughly 5500K. Some cameras are a little more, some are a little less, but it's in that area. So, what this means, is when we walk out on a b...

right, sunny, clear, blue sky day, the sunlight that comes through can be measured at about 5500K. We consider that, as photographers as just sort of neutral, or no color cast to our light at all. So, that's kind of our benchmark. So if you look at the rest of this chart, we'll move on up to 6500K, and that's LED lights. And so, many of our flashlights are going to be slightly cool, right, because we're looking at the cooler end of the spectrum here when we reach those higher Kelvin temperatures, or Kelvin settings. Going in the other direction, when we start getting to different types of flashlights like Xenon flashlights, and they're becoming harder and harder to find these days, but they're a little bit warmer. I pretty much stick with the LED lights from Coast, so I've got a slightly blue cast to my flashlight, and that's why I'm constantly gelling it with a little bit of a warmth, and we'll talk much more about gelling and filtration a little bit later on. But for now, let's think about our white balance setting on our camera and how that's gonna effect the overall look of our image, depending on the ambient light. So, when we're in something like, let's say, city environments with lots of what they call sodium vapor lights, you're going to see that we have a massive orange color cast. Now, in some situations this can be okay, but most times it's pretty overpowering. So, when I stepped out and shot through this window at downtown Denver, my camera was set on white balance of daylight, and you can see the orange resulting image. Changing my white balance to tungsten clears that color cast, and this is sort of important to think of kind of clearing that cast because that orange is really sort of polluting all of the other colors in the image. So, when you start to get the correct white balance in your camera, other colors will start to pop out, and that gives us color separation, which gives us a little bit of color contrast and makes our images look like they have a little bit more life. So, I was photographing up in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City. We had a fair amount of sodium vapor, not as much as the last photograph, but you can see with daylight white balance I get this heavy overall color cast to it. Now, I change it to tungsten, and you can see it almost becomes completely neutral. All right, so, what we're seeing here is that the tungsten setting is actually adding blue across the photograph to cancel out the heavy orange of the sodium vapor lights. So, we always want to think what that white balance setting is doing because if we're adding blue across our image, now I want you all to think about this, if we have an orange cast, and I introduce a blue light, the ambient light will be orange, and say we're shooting under sodium vapor, and the flashlight itself is an LED, so that's gonna be kind of coolish white. That's the color I'm gonna see on my photograph. Now, if I shift my white balance to tungsten, it's gonna add a blue cast across the orange. Now, my whole image is gonna have a blue cast, so that means if I introduce my flashlight, my flashlight's gonna become even more blue because of the white balance setting. That's why we always wanna think what exactly is that white balance doing. All right, so here again, even without too much sodium vapor light from nearby cities, this is my daylight white balance on a star point photograph, and in changing that to tungsten, you can see it brings a little bit of that blue back into the sky. All right, so this is a pretty important feature, whether you're shooting star points, or star trails, or even simply light painting in and around cities or out in our national parks. But, daylight and tungsten are not the only white balance settings. Of course there's shade and cloudy, fluorescent, there's all kinds of different settings. I'm just mentioning the ones here that relate mostly to outdoor photography. Now, if you find that tungsten, and I often do, is not quite the mark we need to hit, we can begin to set our white balance manually in our camera. So, while we have those presets of daylight, fluorescent, shade, cloudy, tungsten, we also can manually set the Kelvin temperature to exactly what you want it to be. So, something like this, daylight is 5500K. That tungsten white balance setting is 3200K, but if you want to go to a Kelvin setting, and again you're gonna go to a K, and I'll show you guys how to do this when we get out in the field, you'll see how I set my Kelvin temperature here. We're gonna go from anywhere from 2000 to 10,000K, so this gives us a really broad spectrum of how we can dial in our color. So, let's take a quick peak here at downtown Seattle. I shot the first shot just right around a little bit before sunset this slightly overcast day, and I want you all to see, as you scan from right to left, how the color gets warmer, and warmer, and warmer. So I'm shooting this from right around sunset to, I don't know, maybe 45 minutes after sunset. So, in these first initial images on the upper left, the light is being influenced by sort of the overcast sky which tends to be a little bit more blue, and the setting sun, but as it gets darker and darker, what starts to take over is the city lights, the sodium vapor, so by the time we get to here, that is a very muted blue. It's almost no longer blue anymore, it's almost like a gray. So, by dialing in 3200K, or starting on the left 47, then 37, and then down to 32, you can see I can adjust my colors to get them to be just where I want. So in this case, I ended up stopping at 3200K to color correct my image. All right, let's look at another example. Zion National Park again, shot with daylight white balance. And you can see it's a little bit, again the sky is kind of grayish, but it's a little on the warm side for my tastes. So, in this case I didn't want to go all the way down to 3000 or 3200K. In this case I just cooled it down a touch by going to 4500K, and then my colors are a little bit more natural. Shooting in the Neon Boneyard, the neon graveyard in Las Vegas, ton of fun, great place to light paint if you can ever get in there. I think they're doing night time tours now. Again, the clouds here are low clouds over Vegas, and we're seeing a lot of that sodium vapor come up, so we've got this heavy orange cast, and what I did was I changed the white balance down to 4200K, and then during the exposure went in and light painted all of these old signs, which of course have no electricity to them, so every bit of light you see in there was created by my flashlight. Now, you can alter your white balance. You can alter your filtration to change the different colors in your photograph and that's a ton of fun, but people, remember there's always black and white. And black and white is awesome. And you can forget all about that color. If you don't want to deal with a bunch of Ks and a bunch of numbers, you're maybe afraid of the alphabet and math both at the same time, go with black and white. Right? I love black and white, and I think light painting for black and white can produce some really stellar images. Go check out some of Matt Hill's work. He's got some beautiful black and white stuff. So, get inspired, and think about black and white for light painting. All right, now, again, where do we start with this? Gosh, you know, it could be all over the map depending on where you are. But, here's some general recommendations, if it's a full moon night, and you're out photographing, then you can really go anywhere from a daylight white balance setting, down to 3800K. But remember, that moon is reflecting the sun, so it's a lot closer to actual daylight than it would be if you were say, near a city with sodium vapor. Of course, sodium vapor, as we have seen on many of our images now, is that really heavy orange cast, so somewhere between 2500K all the way up to 4000K may give you the look you're looking for. And then, of course, if you are in complete darkness, let's say you walk into your house, and you have no windows in a room, and you shut off all the lights, it's dark. So, the only color you're going to get is from your flashlight or your flash. In that case you can just dial it in, remembering LED flashlights are a little on the cool side, so you might want to gel that slightly warm, but other than that, the sky's the limit. Blue gel, red gel, green gel, whatever you want to bring out the colors in your photograph. All right, so again, much like exposure in our initial camera settings, don't get held up here, people. Just set the white balance on something. Take a picture. Look at it, and then we can ingest it afterwards. All right, so, in the next lesson what we're gonna start to get into is how do we focus in the dark? It can be maybe a little daunting at first as you're thinking about it, but believe me it's super easy. I'm gonna show you a couple cool tricks.

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.