Light Painting


Night Photography Fundamentals


Lesson Info

Light Painting

Light painting is one of the most exciting and creative things that we can do with night photography. This is where we can put our imprint onto the scene. Typically we want to deal with, we're dealing with ambient light, but again, in this scene I really was assessing the situation, I really like the composition of that ladder and the top of that water tower facade. I really like that, but I needed to draw your eye a little bit more into it, and this was a simple way where I took a flashlight and I went up one pass and down the pass of the ladder rings. And it really just emphasizes your eye up into the scene. Now why I didn't light paint the whole thing, because again I want to have the light go specifically, I want to direct your eyes throughout the scene. And I liked the strong, dark composition of everything else, but I wanted to lead you up into the ladder. Now considerations with light painting. The first one is what's your tool? And the two main tools that night photographers wi...

ll have are either a flash or a flashlight. So let's discuss the difference between both of those. The flash is going to give you a big burst of light and gonna arrest or freeze time like we saw with the snow. And the flashlight, think of that as a paint brush. And we're using that to finesse and paint light into the scene. At the first image, I used a flash behind. I backlit, I love back-lighting scenes. It's gives an added sense of drama to the scene. So I went behind it, and that's why you see that shadow cast in front on the right hand image. In the next image, boy this is a, these shots of someone holding a flashlight, that beacon in the night of becoming super popular, and it's a great, epic kind of shot to take. And so I had this student stand in the image with his flashlight, probably for about 10 or 15 seconds. You can see a little bit of movement in the sky, but it's really all about giving that sense of space and place with that flashlight. So my recommended flashes are basically what do you have already. You don't have to spend a ton of money, we're going to be using those flashes in a very manual mode, usually not doing TTL. I'm usually in a manual mode and usually at full power or a fraction, 1/64th of a power. Again, flash is a big burst of light. Flashlights, let's go over the flashlights, the considerations are lumens, which means the power of the flashlight, and the color cast. I like to have a low power or the red flashlight to look in my black bag for my black camera in the black of the night, but I also like to have a medium power flashlight, something around 30-60 lumens, that is a good, general, all-purpose flashlight. And then I like a higher power flashlight, something of the 200-300 lumens, and that will help me light paint things of 100 or 200 yards away. So my favorite, my go-to flash is the Coast HP5R, cause guess what? It's either a 30 or a 300 lumen flashlight, so I can toggle between both of those instead of bringing multiple flashlights. Well, I'm always going to actually bring multiple flashlights, but that's my go-to one, cause I have a low power and I have a high power all in one unit. The most popular flashlight that probably most people have already at home or in their bag is a Maglite. Well, that's a very low power flashlight. That's about a six lumen flashlight, so again, good for looking in your bag for your gear, but it's not gonna do a ton of light painting for you. Light writing, however, it might do a good job. Now how do we manipulate these flashlights? There's lots of tools, gels, and snoots to kind of make that beam tighter or smaller, and also you wanna, we talked about incandescent is a warm yellow color to it. Most flashlights, again, are LED which is going to be a white or cooler light to it. So let's walk you through a basic light painting scenario. Here first thing you wanna do, just like any good, think of it as flash photography. You need to establish your ambient light. And in most scenes, the ambient light is going to be the sky. So we want to have not a black sky, we wanna have some sky that has some detail. Hopefully rich with detail. So, in this scene, I established my ambient exposure, which was about four minutes is what I would need to do to get that detail in the sky. And four minutes is a good enough time for me to also run around in this scene. You know, when you're light painting, you're going to have to be moving throughout the scene. You have to be careful that your flash doesn't see in your flashlight, but I basically had to run downstairs, jump over a couple animals, and then go right underneath this to get an oblique angle, and basically used a flashlight going up this tower to pull out the rich detail in the brick. Okay? You don't want to be lighting from behind the camera. You want to go at oblique angle and use the flashlight or flash to pull out detail and information and texture. And again, it's not just about painting with light. We also want to keep and create interesting shadows. So, here's a scene where I painted you know the corrugated metal from the side to create that nice shadow and light detail on it, but I also said, "Well, there's a shadow under there. Let me paint underneath it." But underneath it, all that wood, it's all very distracting, you know, so we don't want to reveal distracting items. You really want to use the light to again lead the audience through the scene and really the most important thing, part of this scene, is that corrugated metal playing against the cloud. So those are the two brightest areas of this image. You wanna also sometimes be resourceful and work together with people. It's really difficult to do light painting by yourself because we're wanting to see the light from the camera angle but we want to get at an oblique angle to paint from light, so it's hard to see what you're doing. So, go out and shoot with others and communicate. I'll say, "No, move a little bit more to the left. You'll need a little bit more movement to the right." So, we can work together to create interesting and really cool light painting and create light painting scenes. Also, don't always feel that it has to, light has to be in your hand. Sometimes put it in the scene. We can trigger a flash remotely, again, in this stove, or this was made by simply by putting a flashlight in the scene and letting it cook in that oven. The other scene is multiple, using multiple light sources, and I did this image with Matt Hill, and we used a sparkler on the back, that's back-lighting the figure, and then we raked some flashlights on the foreground and on the sides as well to create the interesting shadows and light throughout the scene. But I can't really give you a ton of rules for light painting, because it really depends on how powerful your flash is, and how reflective your subject is. But let's walk you through a couple light painting scenes in the field. So in this lesson, we're going to introduce you to the concepts of light painting. Light painting can be one of the most creative and expressive forms of experimenting with long exposures. In this case, we can bring our own light into the scene and use it simply to open up shadows, or to actually add a different mood, or create shadows, all sorts of different things. And it's what you bring to the table. So, I'm going to give you a couple tips on the basics of light painting. First one is obviously we need another light source and in this example, we're going to be using a flashlight. We're focused against a brick wall, simple brick wall, that is fairly well lit, but in the shadows a little bit. Exposure details when we really want to add our own light to the scene, is I'm going to underexpose one or two more stops, so that it will be a little bit darker, and then the light that I bring into the scene will be the more prominent light source. Now, the first lesson in light painting that I tell all my students is never light paint from the angle of the camera. When we just put the light and don't move and we're doing it from behind the camera, that's exactly like when we use flash on camera. Okay, it's a flat, lifeless light. Okay? Part of light painting is, and I actually like to call it, shadow painting cause we're creating interesting shadows. And how do we create interesting shadows with this brick wall? Well, we bring the light to a oblique angle, so I'll come over here and I'll scrape across the wall like this. And this way, we can see it right now, we're creating much more depth and detail. We're actually seeing the bricks and the mortar and all that information in a more creative way because there's shadows as well as just light. And we can toggle between the differences here, between that flat light and a little bit more creative light by using the flashlight. Now you might also notice that I've got a gel on my flashlight. This is one of my favorite flashlights. It's by Coast, it's got two lumens, sort of a 30 lumens and a 300 lumens. I believe it's the HP5R, but I like to gel it, cause I want to bring warmer light to this scene. Most of our night scenes are cool. If we incorporate the cool blue skies, and I want to compliment that cool blue with a warmer, oranger, or more yellow light to contrast and compliment those two colors. So I often gel my flashlights, unless they're already a tungsten or incandescent color. So let's do this again. We're going to light paint from the side, flashes up. We're gonna bring it into this scene. Okay? We're just gonna go back and forth to fill the whole scene. Keeping moving, if you leave it in one spot for awhile, you'll create a hotspot, so we don't want to do that. And there we go. We have much more again, sort of, you know it's a brick wall, and I've seen a lot here, but we've got a nice different sort of light that's here besides what you see in this scene. Here we are for a light painting 101 test. So we found this nice, dark path. No moon, no ambient light anywhere. We're going to bring the light to the scene. Okay? We have set up a couple of little ambient lights right now to film in, but we're going to turn those off and basically our eyes see nothing here and we're going to bring some light painting to the scene. And I'm going to use a combination of flash and flashlight as well, so we're going to kind of build this scene. And what I've done prior to this, we're working on this scene, is I established my ambient exposure, which again isn't much, but we're going up this path that's surrounded by trees. There is a little sliver of sky, and that's what I want. That's my ambient exposure, is just getting a little detail in that sky. I want to make enough exposure that it's not just a black slice. I want there to be just a little bit of light there. So, I've set an exposure of four minutes. And I am at, so I'm at bulb mode, controlling the shutter speed with the intervalometer. I've got my tether tools powering the camera and I went to an aperture because there's not a lot of light, but I do want some depth. I'm at F-4 as an aperture. And then focusing, again, focusing in the dark is hard, and right here we have a very close, intimate scene, so I'm not looking for infinity here. So what I did is I just shone a little flashlight on the closest tree, the closest subject matter in this scene, and I used my auto focus, pressed halfway down. It locked on one of the branches of that tree, so that locked me on that. Then I switched the camera to manual focus. That, by doing that auto focus, getting that lock, and then switching to manual focus, it keeps it at, the camera remembers that distance and keeps it at that scene. So, we probably have it locked in at about five, eight feet with F-4 on this 14-24 lens. That should give you enough depth to get up through the rest of this, of the little walkway and the trees in the distance. So that's our set up, so let's shut off the lights and do some painting. Okay, you guys probably can't see me right now. We've turned off all the lights. Again, I'm going to trip off the shutter. And I'm going to do some light painting from a few different areas. Okay? So, I have my flash attached to the battery pack again so I can get a quick burst. And right now because I'm very close to the scene, there's really not a lot of area to move around. I'm going to set my flash at 1/32nd of a power, cause really the closest tree is about five, eight feet away. I'm going to go with a wide zoom. And I'm going to aim up, cause we are catching. Oh my goodness there's stars. And we are catching some of the trees. Again, wide angle lens. So I'm going to flash it once. And then I'm going to zoom in a little bit. I'm actually going to zoom in to 200, cause I want to get just this tree that is, have a little bit of it in the right of my frame. Okay, so by zooming in, that's going to create a tighter beam of light, so now we're going to hit that flash from behind the camera. Okay, I've got that. Now I'm going to walk into the scene, so I'm shutting off the flash and I'm shutting off the battery pack. Okay, because if I'm gonna walk into the scene, any light is going to be red. And the only light I want red is gonna be this flashlight that's going to be leading me up the path. So let me get my flashlight. My Coast flashlight here set at the lowest beam. This is a 30 lumen light. It's got a wide spread, so I'm going to walk up the path and when I get up to the path, I'm going to go behind the trees and backlight them with a flash at about half power. I'm gonna do two bursts to get a nice, moody backlit scene as well. So here I go and I'll see you in a few minutes. Tell me what you think. Okay, spreading the light evenly and the flashlight, the actual beam of light, is in front of me, not being seen by the camera. It's just the beam. Okay, I'm up here turning the flashlight off. Making sure I'm out of scene of the camera. Turning flash and battery on. Gonna change the power to half power and bringing it to a wide zoom. And here we go. We're gonna have two pops. One. Two. Okay, now I'm gonna walk back into the scene. Turning everything off, so I'm not leaving any trails of light. I can't believe how many stars. We're gonna be up all night, guys. The stars are out. Okay, and I carefully go around the tripods. Okay, and I'm just going to shut it off right now, because again, most of the scene right here is what light I brought to it. Boom! There we go. That's looking pretty good. And we have some stars, ladies and gentlemen! Look at that! It's the pathway to the stars. It is a little hot on the right side, but besides that, I like it. But let's try it again. So, with light painting, you're going to do multiple tries. You know, you're never going to get it right on the first try. I already took two or three tries before you guys even saw this. This is where I liked, but I'm going to do it one more time with a little bit less on this tree right in front of us. And now that we have some stars, maybe I'll even rip a longer exposure. All right. First things first, let's get the trigger and the camera started. Okay, we're in. Okay, turning battery pack on. Turning flash on. And basically, I'm gonna do one, I'm gonna fire one shot up high just to open up some of these trees right in front of us. I'm going to do it a little bit on a low power, but wide, so I'm going to set my flash in manual mode 1/32nd of a power, and wide at 17 mm. We're just gonna go straight up here. Ready and... Okay, looks good. Now we're going to walk into the scene, so I'm going to make sure to shut off anything that has lights, which is my flash and my battery pack, and now we're going to add another light source. A flashlight, a Coast flashlight that's gelled with a CTO. Okay, and set 30 lumens. And I'm going to basically walk up the path. This will let me safely walk up the path, but also light the path. It will be a nice leading line in. So here we go. Now I'm careful to point the beam away from the camera, so we're seeing just the light from the flashlight, but not the actual beam. If we were to see the beam, it would cause a light streak throughout the scene. All right, so I've come to the top. And now I want to back light these trees. So, put the flashlight in the pocket, better to just give these a burst of light from a flash. And gonna turn that on. Turn the battery pack on so you're going to have a quick recycle. And I'm going to adjust the settings again up here. I wanted it at half power and I wanted to keep it nice and wide as well. So we're gonna do two bursts. I'm turning the flash sideways so the trees are going vertical here, so I'm gonna turn my flash horizontal so the beam goes vertical as well. One. Two. Okay, and guess what guys? The stars have come out tonight. So, I previously did this at a four minute exposure. We're gonna go eight minutes to get even more of a dramatic star trail. We're facing north northeast, so the stars are going to be like bending like parentheses, like the closing parentheses. That's on the east side, they'll do that. So they're gonna twist a little bit like that. All right, so I'm going to come back into the scene. Or maybe I'll stay up here and just take a look at the stars. I can't believe it guys. They said it was going to be mostly cloudy tonight, but we definitely have a nice patch of stars out here. And night photography, for me, boy, it can be super therapeutic, meditative. When you're out here at night, amongst the stars, it just really, an amazing thing. It kinda puts you in your place. (chuckles) I have for the low clouds, but straight on up. We're not too far off the North Star. Again, if we shoot the North Star, that stays still. Okay, we are rotating around that, so that will stay still and the stars will bend either to the left or two the right. And it'll be straighter when we face south. So right now they're bending clockwise, to the east. That light. Okay, so then we're ready. Let's see. Boom! Look at that, guys, that is awesome! Perfect! I love it! We combined two types of light riding. We've got some nice star trails. A doorway to the star trails there, and to the night sky. All right, so we got it. This is super exciting. We used two different types of light painting, one with flash, one with flashlights, and bonus, the heavens finally opened up and we got some star trails. So, if you wanna learn more about light painting, take Tim Cooper's light painting class. If you wanna learn more about star photography, you wanna take Lance Keimig's astrophotography class. I'll see you back at the studio.

Class Description

There’s more to night photography than stars and hikes. The vibrance of color can be found in capturing the stars, a city skyline at twilight, or even car trails amidst a forest. Gabriel Biderman is a self taught photographer who enjoys the process of taking an image. In Night Photography 101, he’ll cover how to get started taking photos in the dark.

You’ll learn:

  • What gear you’ll need and the fundamentals of using it safely in the night 
  • How to capture stars for dynamic landscapes 
  • How to capture the sky and urban settings at night 
  • How to photograph car light trails to create more motion in your night photos  


Christiane Menelas

This class was perfect in preparation for my trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon next week. I can't wait to put all this great information to good use! Very easy to understand, and fun to watch. I thoroughly enjoyed it!


This class was super helpful in what to buy and then how to get the pictures you want. Loved all the other stuff that I knew nothing about. I knew very little about light painting. Thanks for sharing this class with us. This class was one of the best I have seen.


This course is fairly comprehensive, and offers a good intermediate/advanced intermediate examination of night photography (NOT just astrophotography, which is only one form of night photography.) I don't necessarily agree with everything he's saying here, but that doesn't make it wrong - it's just a matter of preference. He is fairly equipment-centric, but getting into many forms of night photography DOES require some specific equipment. There's a lot of useful information contained here, and I can see myself consulting this course in the future to help solve and understand certain situations and problems that are unique to night photography. Recommended.