How To Paint With Light: Patience Required

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How To Paint With Light: Patience Required

How To Paint With Light: Patience Required

There are few different types of light painting. The type I am going to show you today is a bit detailed and, to me, much more fun. It’s a bit of a process and does take time. If you’re not a patient person, or the type a person that needs instant gratification, painting with light may not be a photography technique that you will enjoy.

Equipment needed:

  • dSLR Camera
  • Tripod
  • Shutter Release (wireless release is a good idea if you’re going to try this alone)
  • Flash units, video lights or something else to “paint” with

 Here’s what you can accomplish:



What to photograph when painting with light

I like big scenes. Like the playground above. I’ll add a few images for examples of the process.

The process

Step 1: Start around dusk and get a base image.

I want a base image to build on in the editing process. My first image is a good exposure done with the camera on a tripod. It’s very important to frame the image in camera as you want your final images to appear.  Once you set the camera in position, you can’t move it. If you move the camera or bump the tripod, your images won’t line up and you’ll need to spend a ton of time lining layered images up in Photoshop. That’s not something you want to do. So, be careful around the tripod.

My first image, as I said is my base image. Every image will be layered on top of the base image.  We’ll use the El Camino as our example.  The El Camino was Light Painted with a friend, Torri Koppenaal.

My first exposure is set for the available light scene. I use a high F-Stop, usually F11. I set my ISO around 100 to 200, depending on the scene. I set my shutter speed to give me a proper exposure based on my F-Stop and ISO. Remember, the camera is on a tripod so there is no problem with a long shutter speed. I’ve used shutter speeds in t 1 to 2 minute range for my base image.

Step 2: Now the fun starts.

I’ll bring my shutter speed down to anywhere from 10 seconds to 30 seconds; again this depends on what I’m painting. The playground was done with 1 minute exposures. The grave yard with 10 second exposures. This will give you a very dark image. Don’t worry; the light will be picked up as we paint it in. This you need to experiment with to get the look you need or want. Once I settle on the shutter speed, I’ll start the painting process.

Let’s assume we are working with a 30 second shutter speed. BTW, that’s a full 30 seconds, not 1/30 of a second. I’ll fire the shutter and go into the scene and using various types of flash light, flash units and video lights, I’ll paint or move the flash or light source over the part of the scene I want to illuminate in that exposure. One thing to keep in mind, with this type of painting, I want to illuminate the scene not show light streaks from the flash light. You need to keep the light from pointing toward the camera. At times if I feel like I’m pointing toward the camera I’ll block the beam, with my hand or card board, from the camera view.


Just a few of the image that went into the finished image.

Step 3: Keep taking exposures and lighting different parts of the scene.

I keep moving through the scene until I’m satisfied that I’ve painted everything I wanted to in the scene. From time to time, throughout the process. I’ll take a look at the display just to be sure I have haven’t missed anything. Being careful not to move the camera. The images that are here as an example, took us at least 2 hours to paint. With a scene like this it’s a good idea to work with another person, someone to work the camera and tell you where to go in the scene.


Step 4: Process the images in Lightroom – select which you want.

Now that you have your stack of images (70 images as an example) of light painting, you need to process the images to complete your project. I import all the raw images into Lightroom. I review in the Library panel to see if there are any images I don’t need or want. Once I have my images narrowed down, from Lightroom, I open in Photoshop as a layered image.  Opening the image into Photoshop could take a while.

Once opened in Photoshop, I have one image with 70 layers. This does take time to process, so go get a cup of coffee. You need to understand layers for this next part.


Step 5: Combine in Photoshop

In the layers palette you see every image, one on top of the next on down to your base image. If you base image (the very first image we created for the scene) is not at the bottom of the layers, you can drag it to the bottom. Now go back to the top of the layers in the pallet. You’ll see at the top of the pallet and drop down menu. The menu shows “Normal” right now for every layer. What you need to do is, one by one, change “Normal” to “Lighten.” Do this for each layer as you move down the images in the layers palette. As you change each to Lighten you notice that each painted area in each image will now be visible through the previous layer. As you change each layer to Lighten, more and more will become visible. One thing I will mention is that as you bring up each layer, something may pass through that you don’t want. You can use the erase tool or masking to remove that part of that layer.

Our Finished image of the El Camino


Summary of Light Painting

BTW you do not need to do anything to your base image. Leave that as “Normal.” Once you have completed all the work you want in Photoshop, flatten the layers into one image. Close the image and save. The new image will open back in Lightroom as a separate image. Now you get to play in Lightroom. This is where you get to have a little fun with MCP’s Lightroom Presets to finish off the image. Usually I’ll process a few different ways, just for fun.
This was a quick explanation of the process. It may be easier to see and do then to read about.

Make sure to join the MCP Facebook Group, a place where John hangs out and is willing to answer your questions.

John J. Pacetti, CPP, AFP – South Street Studios
2013 Instructor at MARS School- Photography 101, The Basics of Photography

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1 Comment

  1. April 3, 2013 at 1:09 pm —

    This is awesome thanks for sharing!

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How To Paint With Light: Patience Required