Photography translates to “painting with light”, but let’s make this more literal! Utilize your photographic knowledge to paint your scene into existence using light to sculpt your subject and environment. You will utilize ‘light painting tools’ of your choice to selectively illuminate your subject during a long exposure at night or in the dark. Create a portrait with light-painting techniques, make it eye-catching, and make it fun!
Painting with light helps you create surreal imagery that utilizes unusual light sources. The light you hold becomes your paintbrush, and if you’ve never tried this technique before, it’s addicting!
Another thing I like about light painting is that it is not something the average iPhone owner can create. Nowadays as I walk down the streets of New York I see people having little impromptu photo shoots with their cell phones. Maybe it’s a selfie getting just the right light. Maybe it’s their friend posing them in front of an interesting background, showing off that day’s clothing trend. Photographers and non-photographers alike are constantly creating images, so now more than ever I need to find a way to stand out. Lighting (and unusual lighting) is one way I can do that. I am not saying that your business can (or should be) focused on creating surreal paint with light images — instead, it’s just one more tool at your disposal to create something that catches the viewer’s eye. In fact, I used a light painting image as the cover of my book Creative 52 with the hope of arresting the viewer’s eye and getting them to flip through the pages!
Let’s talk about tools available for paint with light. Believe it or not, you don’t need anything special or expensive. Consider making a list of unusual items that emit light. Walk around you home, and grab anything that lights up — this is a potential light source! Everything you choose will create a different result.
Possible lighting painting sources:
- Pen lights
- Tikki Torches
- Flash lights
- LED flash
- Christmas tree lights
- Glow sticks
- String lights (used sometimes for car decor or rave decoration)
- and more
Of course your search for lighting tools can go beyond your home. There are dozens (maybe even hundreds) of sites online that sell things that glow, light up and would be perfect light-painting tools. Here are just a few:
- http://www.thepixelstick.com (check it out– super cool tool created specifically for light painting)
Other Artists for Inspiration
There are several photographers that base their entire visual style around painting with light. Portrait and commercial photographer Patrick Rochon creates unbelievable paint with light images. The subjects in his images look alien like, or exploding with high-energy as they seem to emit light. His use of color is enchanting and you can literally see his light brush strokes in the frame. He’s photographed everything from high-end car commercials, to professional athletes, to musicians. While one might expect all of his work to look the same because its all ‘paint with light’, each shoot has a unique look and approach to it.
Fashion photographer Aurora Crowley focuses primarily on painting with light for both his editorial and fine-art work. For nude work, he frequently covers is subjects in metallic powder, glitter and paint. The subjects often move and dance as he paints with lights and thus their bodies become painterly blurs. The highlights in the glitter create energetic streaks across is images, and you can FEEL the movement in the scene.
Paolo Roversi, one of the masters of fashion photography, worked on a stunning paint with project entitled “Libretto”. You can literally see the brush strokes of light in his frame and his subjects are a mix of fashion, fine art, and nudes that focus on movement, emotion and sensuality.
If you have never been inspired by paint with light imagery, when you explore the photographers here, I can almost guarantee you will be eager to try this bewitching technique.
Artists to check out:
- Patrick Rochon
- Aurora Crowley
- David Black
- Paolo Roversi (Search Paolo Roversi Libretto in Google to see images from his paint with light project)
Tips and Technique
There is a great deal to learn about paint with light photography, but fundamentally it is an experiment with no rules. Below are a few tips to get you started in the right direction.
When first experimenting with paint with light, begin in a completely dark environment so you do not have to worry about balancing with or excluding ambient light. Pure darkness will make your job a lot easier. You can shoot outside a night if there are no street lamps or other lights affecting your subject. Otherwise, photograph in a completely dark room. Even the glow from an illuminated computer screen can mess up the shot — so when I say dark I mean DARK!
- Tripod: You will want to be on a tripod to help stabilize your image.
- Cable release: A cable release helps you not only to reduce camera shake (sometimes caused by depressing the trigger), but will also allow you to keep your shutter open for long exposures. When you set your camera on “bulb”, the shutter will stay open for however long you lock your cable release open.
– Bulb: Put your camera on the “B” or “Bulb” setting. The shutter will stay open for however long you depress the shutter. You can have your exposure last for hours with a cable release locking open your shutter. If you don’t have a cable release and you are the only one doing the light painting, set your camera to its longest shutter speed (usually 30 seconds on most cameras).
– Shutter Speed: In the dark, your shutter speed will not affect your exposure. Instead use your aperture and ISO to affect how bright your painting appears on your subject. I usually start with settings around ISO 400, F/8 and adjust my aperture from there. I try to keep my ISO lower to reduce noise, but don’t go too low with my aperture because I want to be sure my image is sharp. If I am shooting on a location with ambient light, that is when my shutter speed will start to matter (as longer shutter speed means that ambient light will start to record).
Typically when painting with light, I control the light on my subject using distance to the subject and my aperture. If a light appears to dim on the subject, if I move closer the light will appear brighter. Also know that moving closer to the subject may change the quality of light, and bringing the light closer may make it a bit more focused. If I want the light to appear brighter in an image without moving closer, I can open up my aperture to allow more light onto my sensor.
– RAW: Always shoot in RAW so that in post you can help pull out details in any areas that may have been a bit under or over exposed.
Tips and Tricks
– Direction of Light Matters: When painting with light on a person, remember that the direction of light still matters. For example, when lighting someone’s face, if you direct the light source from above you help to define their cheek bones and highlights. If you paint from below the chin, you help achieve bottom (aka “Monster”) lighting that gives a creepier feel. If you light from more of a back or side angle and leave shadows on your subject, this creates a darker and more dramatic effect. It all depends on your end visual goals!
– Color matters: Not all colors record at the same sensitivity to your camera chip. For example, red very quickly becomes super-saturated and you begin to lose detail in these areas. Blue often records darker and less vivid to your camera, while green generally is much more vivid.
– Focus: Bring a flashlight with you to help point on your subject’s face, and pre-focus your camera. Next, switch your camera to manual. If you are shooting on auto-focus, your camera will begin to search for focus in the dark and ultimately give you an unfocused image. Manual focus only!
– Subject: Choose a subject that is somewhat more reflective to light. Skin is a great surface for reflecting light, but black clothing simply devours the light source and leads to dull results. Consider dressing your subject in light clothing, metallics, gems, or other bright surfaces.
– Photographer/Light Painter: Consider wearing all black to be sure that your skin and body are not recorded by the camera when painting with light. If you do not dress in black, you will often see unwanted highlights or blurs caused by the light recording on your light color surfaces.
– Painting Tips: When painting, be sure that your camera cannot see the light source unless this is intended. If you are solely trying to light your subject (and not leave highlight trails) use your hand or body to block the light from the camera. If you are attempting to prevent motion blur in your subject, but still shooting long exposures, only illuminate each part of your subject ONCE. If your light isn’t bright enough, do not paint over your subject again for more light. Instead, bring the light closer or open your aperture. If you trace over a part of your subject more than once, any movement from your subject will be recorded. This is extremely important with portraits, because often the movement can result in blur and facial features repeated… usually not a flattering effect!
For this creative photo challenge, I wanted to keep my light-painting tools simple and very inexpensive. Furthermore, I decided to stick to a pared down set and concept — no crazy hair, makeup, wardrobe, no set. Instead, I would let the unusual light speak for itself.
I began by trying to eliminate ambient light in the room. Working the CreativeLive main studio, it was actually problematic due to the large amount of light leaking in around the window blinds. We used gaffers tape to try to block out more light. Ideally, a darker place would be more conducive to light painting, but they wanted a little bit of ambient light to be able to film the behind the scenes video.
Next, I placed my model in a chair so that she would be able to sit still comfortably during my long exposure. Remember, that she can in fact move a bit as long as I don’t trace her face with light in the same place twice.
I set up my tripod, and placed my camera on manual exposure mode. Because I did not have a cable release on hand and would be the only person light-painting, I set my camera to a 30 second exposure. I begin my exposure at F/8 and ISO 500 or so. After a few tests I realized that my exposure was a bit too bright, so I lowered my ISO to 200.
Before each shoot I would switch my camera to autofocus, point a flashlight at the face, grab focus, and then switch back to manual. Any time the subject moved (basically between all shots) I would re-grab my focus to ensure I had the right focus point.
I created two variations of these light painted portraits.
Version 1: Red
For the first shot, I wanted to create a mood that was fiery and utilized warm tones (reds, oranges, yellows). I began by illuminating her face with a yellow/orange gel to set the overall tone of the shoot with my color choice. I lit her from a back angle to create Rembrandt light on her face (with the small triangle of light under her eye closest to camera) and utilized shadow to create drama. Then, it was time for my creative effects! I grabbed a crumpled piece of white tissue paper (that was actually used to separate gels in my Rosco gel kit), and an orange gel. I held the crumpled paper behind my subject and pointed the gelled light at it, while moving the the paper around in an erratic fashion. The results? It looked like FIRE! I ended the shot with just a little bit of orange gelled light pointed on the top of the head and the shadow side of the face for a bit of colored fill light.
Version 2: Blue
For this second shot, I decided to go with something utilizing cooler tones. My main light again was the LED handheld light, and I painted Rembrandt light on the face from a back angle (short light). In doing so, I knew I could come around front and use a blue gel on my flashlight in order to tone the shadow areas (gels show up most in shadow areas). You can see how the very rich blue tones are absorbed on the side of the face closest to camera.
Just painting her face with flashlight, however, was not the funky look I was going for. To create texture in the environment around her I utilized a few ‘light fiber barrettes’ (apparently intended for women to wear in their hair at raves?). These little fiber optic strings lit up and changed colors, so during the exposure I madly danced them around behind her, around her neck, and in a way to make the streaks look like they were enveloping her.
I was able to quickly create two drastically different shots (one warm and fiery, one cool tones and futuristic looking) within a couple of minutes just by varying gels and my light-painting tools!
Shutter speed: 30 seconds
Focal Length: 93mm
Total Shoot Cost:
I’ve shared my resulting image, and now it is time to share yours! Embrace the creativity and share your images by adding the hashtag #creativephotochallenge to the images you create for this challenge! Each month I’ll personally be selecting a couple of winners to be featured by @creativelive and to win some great prizes (including a Canon imagePROGRAF 1000 printer). Be sure to sign up to receive notifications about each month’s newest challenge, and don’t forget to check back on my blog for more details and inspiration!
Join the Creativelive Photo Challenge
If you’d like even more inspiration, check out my book “Creative 52” for more ideas to invigorate your photography portfolio! I can’t wait to see what you create! I hope I inspire you, because my photographic community is always inspiring me!
Used during this shoot