The Right Angle: Creating Texture and Shape When Light Painting

The word photography means to draw or paint with light. When I first began studying photography, I was told that along with composition, the study of light would be a lifelong endeavor. Over the years, I’ve found this to be an absolute truth.

The master painters knew light intimately. They were genius at using light to define, shape and illuminate their subjects. This skill came from careful attention to the way light wrapped around their subjects. The way it reflected off them. The awareness of color in the shadows and the recognition of specular highlights.

We can learn from them. We can learn from paying careful attention to light and the way it plays on our subjects.

One factor crucial to painting in your own light is the angle of the beam. This is critical in bringing out texture and creating depth in your images (Figures 1 and 2). Painting your subject from the position of your camera will result in the least flattering light. Painting it from the side will produce the most texture and dimension.

Figure 1. Painting at the same angle as the camera will produce the least-interesting version of your scene.

Figure 2. Painting the subject from the side will result in the most texture and dimension.

The two images of the star (Figures 3 and 4) show the difference between a subject painted straight on and one painted from the side. The star in Figure 3 was painted while I stood right at the camera, which was about 8 feet from the subject. Notice how flat the image is; it displays very little depth. The photography term for this is “front-lit.”

The star in Figure 4 was created by standing to the side of the star while painting, very close to the fence, and again about 8 feet away. Everything in the scene begins to show more texture. The star becomes much more three-dimensional.

Figure 3. Created under city lights using an exposure of 30 seconds, f/8, ISO 200, and lit from the front.

Figure 4. Same ambient light and exposure, but lit from the side. Notice how the shadows add texture to the image. (Click/tap either image for larger view.)

An abandoned gas station (Figure 5) made another good subject for showing the difference between a front-lit subject and one that is side-lit. The image was created by simply standing right next to the camera while illuminating the scene.

Whereas I created the image in Figure 6 by painting from many different angles. I divided the painting of the walls into two sections. For the left wall, I stood off to the left but close to the wall and then painted inward. I did the same for the right wall. This left the chair and ground very dark. Placing my flashlight about 8 inches from the ground, I painted across the scene to give the litter-covered concrete lots of texture. I painted the chair last by getting about 5 feet from it and painting downward.

Figure 5. This old gas station in rural Arizona was illuminated using only a flashlight. There were no city lights to influence the overall exposure, but the moonlight was moderate, so I used an exposure of 2 minutes, f/11 to keep the ambient light low. In this image, I light painted from the front ...

Figure 6.  ... whereas in this frame I light painted from the side in multiple locations. (Click/tap either image for larger view.)

This light-painted old building (Figure 7) was a typical situation of establishing the ambient exposure for the night sky and then light painting the buildings. The ambient exposure was 4 minutes, f/8, ISO 200. This exposure left the building quite dark. Using my 65-lumen flashlight, I began by painting the building from the right for about 1 minute, moving further to the right as I painted. Noting the shadows of the porch posts on the building will give you an idea of my angle while painting.

Next I moved onto the porch and stood in front of the far-right window. Hiding the front of my flashlight from the lens, I swung the flashlight from right to left for about 30 seconds as I pointed toward the ground in front of the porch. This caused the light and shadow in front of the house. Keeping my flashlight in one position kept the shadows on the ground sharp. If I had physically moved the flashlight from right to left, rather than swung it from a single position, the shadows would have become softer and less defined. Because I was much closer, the ground is lighter than the building. I then repeated this process standing in front of the far-left window.

To complete the effect, a student popped a flash in the window on the right side of the building and then again on the left side of the building. This gave the impression of interior lights being on.

Figure 7. I love to visit Grafton ghost town during workshops in Zion National Park. On this occasion, I was teaching a night photography workshop with Gabriel Biderman. Our group was focused on shooting the night sky while light painting the various buildings.

In Figure 8, the only moonlight striking the scene is on the ground in front of the truck. The ambient exposure of 2 minutes, f/8, ISO 100 kept the moonlight foreground somewhat dark. Using my 65-lumen flashlight, I started by painting the back wall from the camera’s far left. This distance created a broader beam, which covered most of the wall at once.

Next, I moved close to the truck and somewhat behind it. From this vantage point I painted the grill, fenders and windshield. This gives the truck a heavy side-lit, almost back-lit feel.

At this point I moved around to the right of the camera and painted the truck from that side. I spent less time painting here, so it wasn’t as bright as the other side. Filling in some light from this side helped give the truck dimension and kept it from being pure black in the final image. I created highlights in the scene by moving very close (1 foot) to the headlamps and painting each one for a couple of seconds. To finish the image off, I painted the inside of the cab for a couple of seconds from each window.

Figure 8. I photographed this old truck at Nelson ghost town in Nevada. Our workshop group was photographing under a full moon, but most of this truck was in the shade of the building.

Paying careful attention to the way light wraps around and reflects off of your subject is a great learning experience. Notice light while you’re looking at magazines, watching TV or walking down the street. Take into account the angle, color and quality of the light. When it comes time to supply your own light, remember these lessons. Experiment with different vantage points and keep your flashlight at a severe angle to your camera.

Never paint from behind the camera!

Note: This article is adapted from an excerpt of Tim’s ebook The Magic Light Painting (Peachpit).

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.