How to Paint with Light at Night.

Joshua Trees at Night by Bill Campbell.

Photography derives its name from the “painting with light”. But the term light painting has come to mean using external sources of light (flashlight, candle, etc) to paint in light on a subject at night. The method I use in Light Painting requires a flashlight and some way to color the light.

First, choose a flashlight. I use everything from a 2 million-candle power spotlight (with color gels) to a small AA flashlight. I even have some even smaller flashlights that use really small batteries, but that is for a follow-up blog. For my AA flashlights, I color the light with pieces of plastic that I get from Staples. Just go look in the notebook section and look for plastic colored dividers. You can even get Rosco gels to put over the light source. The flashlight should have a way to turn on and leave on without having to hold a button, but a button is really nice for starting and stopping your sweeps of light.

Second, choose a subject in very dark light. Because you are going to leave the shutter open for several minutes, you may not want the surrounding area to pick up ambient light and make night into day. Even in the wilderness, we have light from the moon. This takes planning so use something like the Moon Seeker app for iPhone which shows the phase of the moon, the moon rise and moon set times and even the arc, so you can plan to have the moon behind a big obstruction when painting.

Third, set your exposure. I start out at 1 minute and go up to 5 minutes exposure (tip: you need a way to set a long exposure, with Nikon this is the MC-36 controller. Most digital cameras only go to 30 seconds for the longest exposure). Keep increasing the exposure until you start to see a little definition in the image. This will give you plenty of time to paint light into your subject. Now on to painting.

Fourth, paint with light. Pressing the button down on your flashlight, sweep the light to follow the contours of your subject. Don’t ever stop the light in one spot. Time the length of your total flashlight exposure (I use 1 mississippi, 2 mississippi to count it out). Review your image. If the painting is too bright, only paint for half the time. If the painting is too dark, paint for twice the time (see, we are using photographic stops of light). Look at how smooth your painting is. It takes some practice because you will be painting over and over areas to build up the light in the image.

Light painting of Joshua Tree

Voila’. You have a light painting. Now doesn’t that make you feel more like an artist with a paintbrush?

Try this with a double exposure. Find a subject that silhouettes against sunset. Expose for the sunset, wait about 45 minutes, then light paint your subject. If this is a true double exposure, you get only one crack at it.. But here’s a tip, photograph the silhouette several times before the double exposure, exposing for the sunset colors. Then do your double exposure. Then do several regular light paintings. You will need to combine these images in Photoshop (the first sunset images with the light painting) and play with them, but it beats just getting one shot at it.

In Camera Double Exposure.

Synchronous fireflies in Great Smoky Mountain National Park by Bill Campbell

Editor’s Note: Have you tried light painting? Let us know your experiences with this technique in the comments section below.



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