Light Painting

Filling in the Shadows: Light Painting Before and After

Light painting is and can be many things. It can control the viewer’s eye. It can be a catalyst for creativity. It can bring life into the shadows of a composition. It can add drama to an otherwise ordinary scene. It can be an artist’s brush used to sweep strokes of illumination onto a landscape to allow us to see into the night in new and previously unimagined ways.

In other words, light painting is a versatile tool that can be a means to various ends. Below, all five National Parks at Night instructors share a way they have used light painting to enhance a nocturnal photograph.

You’ll notice that the examples included do not involve drenching a scene with buckets of untamed light to paint every crevice and fill every shadow. They also don’t involve dramatic re-representations of reality, wherein we let the light alter the authenticity of the world that’s in front of the camera. Rather, as Gabe says, we paint with shadows as much as we paint with light. And as Matt says, we let the light merely kiss the subject.

For each photograph, click or press on the slider, and drag it left and right to see how the light painting subtly but noticeably enhances the composition. Study the ways that the added illumination helps accomplish different tasks or helps solve problems of exposure, composition, etc. Then think about how you can apply those same ideas to your own night images.

More importantly, also think about how you may have illuminated these scenes differently. One of the amazing aspects of light painting is that it affords us an opportunity to create a completely different photograph than another photographer who may have the exact same composition.

Lance Keimig

Nikon D850, Irix 11mm f/4 lens, 15 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 3200.

This image of the backside of Lady Boot Arch in the Alabama Hills of California’s Eastern Sierra was made at the end of a long night during our workshop there last November. I had photographed the arch many times before, and was looking for a unique vantage point. It’s a situation that I often find myself faced with––trying to make an image that I’ve never seen before in a familiar location.

Once I found this perspective, I knew that I had the shot. I just had to figure out how to light it. The moon was high in the sky to the west, illuminating the left side of the arch, and the foreground was deep in shadow. I lit the right side of the formation from behind with a warm-gelled Coast HP5R flashlight, which gave depth and texture to the arch, which from the rear looks more like a tower.

The light painting worked like this: The repeated diagonals from upper left to lower right created depth and drama. However, the dark mass on the left and bottom of the frame was too heavy, so I decided to add just a hint of fill light to this part of the frame. Anyone who has studied with me has heard the mantra to “not light from behind the camera,” but in this case, there really wasn’t much of an option. A quick swipe of the flashlight along the surface of the rock was all it took to bring out the texture and fill in the shadows.

The key was to rake the light along the surface of the rock rather than to light it straight on. The flashlight was a better choice for this than my Luxli Viola because I needed a strong directional source, as I was lighting from next to the camera. Low-level Landscape Lighting with the Luxli would have been much easier, as I had only 15 seconds to paint from both locations. But as it turned out, racing to get the lighting completed before the shutter closed was a fun challenge that served the additional purpose of keeping me warm after about eight hours out in the cool autumn air!

This image ended up being my favorite of 2017, not only for the image itself, but for the challenge of executing it all in one frame in just 15 seconds.


Tim Cooper

Nikon D4s, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 60 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Light painting is all about angles and shadows. More specifically, it’s about the angle of the light source to the subject, and the shadows that the light source subsequently produces. Painting a subject while you stand right by the camera always produces the most boring light. Why? Because it causes all of the shadows to fall behind your subject. But when you paint from an oblique angle, you produce a more interesting picture with tons of texture.

Texture, and in turn drama, is brought out when you paint your subject from the side or from behind. Painting your subject from behind causes all of your shadows to fall in front of the subject and toward the camera. This type of lighting can be really dramatic. It can also be difficult to pull off when you have to hide your light from your camera.

That was the case with this footbridge in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I wanted to paint the railings and the walk, but I didn’t want the flat look of front lighting. So I tripped the shutter and hid the flashlight in front of me while I walked down the bridge pointing the flashlight backward at the left railing. When I reached the end, I walked backward and again hid the flashlight in front of me while I painted the right railing. Doing this kept the flashlight hidden from the camera the whole time.

The next and more difficult task was to light the walk. In this case I couldn’t walk away from the camera while painting with the flashlight in front of me, or my body would have blocked the camera’s view of what I was light painting. So I had to start at the far end of the bridge and walk toward the camera while painting the walk in between me and the camera. Painting in this manner brought out all of the texture in the wood decking.

Unfortunately, it also caused the problem of the flashlight being fully visible to the camera. That’s a big no-no in light painting. To solve this problem, I held my hat in my other hand and used its brim to hide the flashlight from the camera while I painted down at the walk. The diagram below shows the basics of this technique.

Remember to always hide the flashlight from the camera, and always wear dark colors so that the bounce light doesn’t illuminate your body!


Gabe Biderman

Nikon D5, 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 24mm. 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

Light painting is a must when photographing close subject matter under dark sky conditions. We specifically chose a new moon time period for our first Ambassador Series workshop with Atlas Obscura at Borrego Springs. The focus was to revisualize the many surreal sculptures that surround the town against the billion-star backdrop.

Before I paint with light, I always take several test shots to help me see, compose and focus. This also helps me figure out where the light would create interesting shadows. We call it light painting, but I like to call it “shadow painting” because not only is it about revealing information, but it’s also about creating interesting textures and shadows! This can generally be achieved when our light hits the subject at a 45- to 90-degree angle from the camera.

I also love adding dramatic backlighting to scenes and I chose this composition specifically so that the bush would frame the turtle and I could cast light and shadows into the scene.

During the 20-second exposure I walked 10 feet to the left of the frame with my 1/2 CTO-gelled Coast HP5R flashlight. I did the side lighting at the lowest setting for 2 seconds. I was careful not to move my flashlight while it was on, which allowed me to create the dark shadows along the neck and back of the sculpture—i.e., the areas I shadow painted.

With the flashlight off, I then walked behind the bush, got low and out of view from the camera, and quickly turned the HP5R on and off while it was pointed back toward the turtle. This revealed so much texture in the sand and created an interesting mosaic of shadows reaching toward the viewer.

So give shadow painting a try!


Matt Hill

Fuji X-T1, 7artisans 7.5mm f/2.8 lens. 58 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Sometimes light painting a 400-foot tall pillar of Moenkopi sandstone calls for bringing in the big guns. I was running a long star stack/time-lapse with some other students on our Capitol Reef National Park workshop earlier this year.

The stack started during moonset, which was very gentle, and beautiful. But according to PhotoPills, the tail end of the Milky Way wouldn’t be ascending the rock formation until we came back to collect our cameras over an hour and a half later. As we came back, student Karl Zuzarte asked what was already on my mind: “Can we light paint the last frame or two of the stack?” “Heck, yes,” I said.

Since it was a bit of a slog to get to our cameras, I asked Gabe to grab a radio and a Luxli Cello panel light (which is the new big brother to the Viola), and to head off about 1/4-mile away at an oblique angle similar to moonset.

Gabe set the Cello to 3000K and maybe 2 percent intensity. Unlike sweeping a flashlight around, which softens the shadow edges, the fixed position of the panel created the perfect strong kiss of light to cast crisp shadows. And its 72-degree beam angle covered the entire massive rock formation and grazed the tops of the vegetation on the desert floor.


Chris Nicholson

Nikon D3s, 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm. 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 2000.

When shooting in Cape Hatteras National Seashore earlier this year, I was excited to tackle perhaps the most famous light house in the United States: the eponymous Cape Hatteras Light. I'd shot there only once before, in 2001 or so, and that was during daylight. This time, I got to do it with stars!

I went for a wide-angle composition, drawn by the symmetry of the scene, as well as by the low angle that allowed me to include as many stars as possible. I liked the framing, but felt the scene needed a little lighting to help emphasize the primary subject—i.e., the lighthouse. If I’d let the structure stay in relative silhouette, then the visual emphasis would have been on the sky instead.

For the light painting I used a lightly gelled (1/2 CTO) Coast HP7R flashlight. I stood to camera-right, beyond the out-of-frame fence, at almost 90 degrees from the lighthouse. I fired my shutter with a Vello Freewave wireless remote, then started light painting with a wide beam and a downward stroke, starting at the lantern and moving down to the stones and steps at the base. I then quickly focused the flashlight for a tight beam and side-lit the fence leading to the bottom of the frame, letting it catch just pieces of the fence here and there, but being careful not to light the grass.

Light it Up!

We hope this gives you some ideas about various ways you can light the night, and about some of the ways you can use light painting to overcome night photography obstacles.

There are of course many other examples, and I’m sure we’ll offer more in the future. In the meantime, we’d love to see your work. In the Comments section, please share some stories (with photos, of course) of how you have used light painting to help you seize the night!

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at


Light Painting in Moonlight—Using the Moon as Key Light, or Using it as Fill

Many moons, many opportunities

One of the great things about night photography is the variety of lighting situations we have throughout each month, from complete darkness (around the new moon) to extremely bright conditions (around the full moon).

Photographing around the new moon is great for capturing skies chock full of stars. The skies have little or no light, which allows us to shoot with wide-open apertures that allow even the dimmest stars to be seen. This is also a great moon phase for capturing the Milky Way or shooting long star trails.

New moon. Stitched panorama. Fuji X-T2 with 10-24mm f/4 lens at 16mm. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

The rest of the month, however, is marked by some amount of moonlight. These moon phases provide the night photographer with endless opportunities for light painting.

Quarter moon (sometimes referred to as half moon). Fuji X-T2 with 16mm f/1.4 lens. 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Full moon. Nikon D4s with a 24mm f/2.8 lens. 3 minutes, f/8, ISO 100.

Can you light paint under new moons? Sure. But you do have to provide all of the lighting. Illuminating the entire foreground of a scene can be quite challenging. Sticking to smaller, more manageable subjects will ensure a better chance of success.

When the moon is up (and is more than just a sliver), it bathes the earth in a faint, soft light. On the other hand, when the moon moves toward full, it’s so bright that our images can look like they were made during the day! Using the moonlight to help illuminate our foreground is a great strategy to create stunning astro-landscape photographs. And if you want to level up those images, you can add in some light painting—either as a fill light or as a key light.

Getting Started

Here are the four basic steps to creating a light-painted night scene:

  1. Compose.
  2. Focus.
  3. Determine ambient light exposure.
  4. Add light painting.

1. Compose

It all begins with finding your composition. Regrettably, in this techie genre of photography, we often spend more time thinking about our settings than we do our composition. Spend some time here. Try out different options before you commit.

2. Focus

Once you’ve found your composition, it’s time to get your focus. For more on this, see Chris Nicholson’s recent blog post “Staying Sharp: 8 Ways to Focus in the Dark.”

3. Determine Ambient Light Exposure

With your scene composed and properly focused, it’s time to set an exposure for the ambient light. What is ambient light, you ask? Ambient light is the available light in the scene. This is the sun during daytime exposures, the city lights in a nightime urban environment, your living room lamps if you are shooting indoors at night, or (in our case) the moonlight.

Getting your exposure correct for the ambient moonlight is critical. Each situation and phase of the moon will provide different light conditions, so test out different exposures rather than depending on formulas.

The easiest way to gain an accurate ambient exposure is to run a series of test shots at high ISOs. These test shots will take only seconds and will save you a ton of time. They can also alert you to composition issues in your scene long before you start into your minutes-long exposures. Once you determine your ambient exposure at a high ISO, it’s time to calculate the longer lower ISO exposure. For example, the original test shot of the image below was made at 4 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400, while the final low-ISO setting as seen below was 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Compose, focus, ambient light exposure. Fuji X-T2 with 16mm f/4 lens. 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Add in light painting. 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Final image. 21 stacked exposures, each shot at 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

4. Add Light Painting

Now comes the fun part: crafting the light. Whether you are using a flashlight, an LED panel such as the Luxli Viola, or something as subtle as a tea lights, you can choose how best to balance your added light to the existing (ambient) light.

How do we do this? One of the simplest ways is to employ the age-old practice of lighting used by countless painters, photographers and videographers: using a key light and fill light.

  • Key Light: Also called the “main light.” This is the primary source of illumination. It is the brightest light in the scene. Wherever this light doesn’t reach becomes darker shadows.
  • Fill Light: This is the secondary source of illumination used to “fill” in the darker areas of the scene not illuminated by the key light. It’s usually one to two stops darker than the key light.

In this portrait above, the key light is to camera-left. This makes the image brighter on the left side. Notice the highlight under the model’s right eye and cheek. The fill light is at camera-right and pulled back a bit further to make the light a little less bright. Below is the diagram of this lighting setup.

While this image was made in the studio, you can accomplish the same type of lighting outdoors at night. The moonlight can be your key light and you can fill in the shadows with your light painting tool of choice. Or you can you use your light painting tool as the key light and the moon can you be your fill.

It’s all about the balance. If the light painting you are doing is subtle and the moonlight dominates the scene, then the moon is the key and the flashlight is the fill. If you the moonlight exposure is not as bright as the light you add in, then your painting becomes the key light.

Two Examples

I began with a 3-second exposure at f/8 and ISO 6400 to compose the scene and gain focus. Next I converted the high ISO test exposure to 3 minutes, f/8, ISO 100. The evening features a full moon, so the scene could have been brighter, but this exposure made the moonlit scene behind the truck a little darker than usual.

If I hadn’t been planning to light paint the scene, I would have made the exposure brighter, and the moon would have been the key light (not to mention the only light). But, by keeping it a little darker, I allowed the moon to become the fill light. The 3-minute exposure gave me plenty of time to walk around and paint the truck. The truck is the brightest element of the composition, so this makes my light painting the key light.

Moon as fill light, flashlight as key. Nikon D4 with 35mm f/2 lens. 3 minutes, F/8, ISO 100.

In this next example, I used the full moon as the key light and my flashlight as the fill. I first set up my composition. Then I focused. Then I started my high ISO test exposures, and converted my result to a low-ISO, long-exposure setting. I settled on 3 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

This created a natural-looking scene. The sky seemed bright, but not quite as bright as the middle of the day, and the distant mountain had a nice bright glow to it. The tree and the rock formation in the foreground, however, were in complete darkness, so they recorded as pure black. Time for the flashlight!

Standing to the right and little forward of the tree, I shined my Coast HP5R back at the formation. Adding too much light made the formation and the tree brighter than the background, which was not the affect I was looking for. After several attempts at light painting, I settled on an amount of illumination that kept the foreground just a bit darker than the background.

Moon as key light, flashlight as fill. Nikon D4s with 24mm f/2.8 lens. 3 minutes, F/5.6, ISO 200.

Bringing it into the Field

When you are out under a moonlit sky, try a brighter ambient exposure with less flashlight to keep the moon as the key light. Then try less ambient exposure and more flashlight so that the latter becomes the key light.

There is no right or wrong—only the way you want to interpret the scene!

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.


Advanced Light Painting: Balancing Ambient and Added Light to Achieve Your Objective

Light painting can be fun, creative and rewarding, but also one of the most challenging aspects of night photography. Carefully crafted light painting can make the difference between a boring and a spectacular image. The range of tools and techniques we have at our disposal make for unlimited possibilities. Effects can range from subtle (from simply filling in shadows to manage contrast and exposure) to dramatic and bold (highlighting a subject in a way that only light can do).

The full moon is rising behind the vertical car. The bus has a Luxli Constructor light on medium power inside at ground level and facing toward the back of the bus. The car in the foreground does not have any added light. The backlighting from the moon created strong shadows and a glow in the sky around the car. All three variations 20 seconds, f/6.3, ISO 3200 with a Nikon D750 and Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens.

Even a quick pass of a Surefire P6 from camera-left was too much light because of the high ISO.

In the final version, I bounced the light from a Surefire P6 off my hand held over my head while standing about 6 feet to the left of the camera. It was enough to subtly light the car in the foreground while preserving the shadows and overall feel of the image.

The first step to light painting is to figure out what you want to light, and what you are trying to achieve by lighting it.

Once you have that down, the next step is to determine the amount, color and quality of light required. There are lots of decisions to be made, and the answers are different for every image and every situation:

  • Are you lighting multiple objects or multiple surfaces?
  • Do you need to illuminate from multiple positions?
  • Do you want soft, diffuse light or contrasty directional light?
  • Should you use light that matches or contrasts the color of the existing light?

The remainder of this article assumes that you have gotten to this point, and are ready to take it to the next step.

The last-quarter moon was just rising behind camera to the right. Lit with a Surefire P9 incandescent flashlight from the left and right sides at oblique angles. It was a challenge to light both sides of this large building in 30 seconds, but it was freezing cold so I ran from side to side to do the lighting to keep warm. You can see that I overlit the right side and the underside of the top of the building. The background was too dark. 30 seconds, f/8, ISO 800. Canon 6D and Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 PC lens.

After several attempts, I conceded that I would need to use a longer shutter speed, both to add more exposure to the background and to do a better job at the lighting. The light painting is more evenly distributed, and I added light to the foreground. Additionally, the longer exposure opened up the inside of the store, which is lit by vintage, very orange Edison bulbs that have been burning continuously for decades. 75 seconds, f/8, ISO 800. Canon 6D and Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 PC lens.

Controlling the Look

Learning to control lighting ratios between the existing light and whatever light you bring to the party is one of the most powerful ways that you can influence the overall look of your images.

If you are not sure what I mean, think of it in terms of a rudimentary on-camera flash. If you use flash on a point-and-shoot camera, or even a DSLR in “P” mode indoors at night, you’ll end up with a foreground that is properly exposed, and a background that is likely to be dark and underexposed. You can adjust the flash compensation to reduce the amount of flash relative to the existing light for a better balanced overall exposure. Another way to achieve the same end would be to increase the exposure time to increase the background exposure.

The more light you add to your subject relative to the ambient light, the more your illuminated subject will stand out from the background.

We can do that same thing in the field with light painting. But it takes a bit of work, and a clear idea of what we want to say with our images.

It’s all about the context. If your added light is two or three stops darker than the existing light, it will be barely noticeable. If it is two or three stops brighter, the more pronounced and dramatic it will be.

In the simplest terms, the more light you add to your subject relative to the ambient light, the more your illuminated subject will stand out from the background. Within the parameters of a workable exposure, exactly how much light to add compared with the ambient light is a matter of taste, and is one of the ways a night photographer can style their images.

Case Study: Mono Lake Series

The exposure for all five images is 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 12800, and they were shot with a Canon 6D and Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 PC lens. Starlight conditions with practically no light pollution.

Starlight only.

Very low power, broad-beam LED flashlight from camera-right for 2 seconds.

Bright LED flashlight from camera-left for shortest possible time. The brightness of the light meant that I had to use it like a flash by waving it in and out of the scene as quickly as possible. It was impossible to control the light with any consistency.

Very low power, broad-beam LED flashlight from camera-left and right for 3 seconds from each side. I liked the look, but wanted to try a warm light that would contrast the cool, blue sky.

Very low-power, incandescent flashlight from camera-left and right for 1 second from each side. This light was brighter, and therefore harder to control at ISO 12800. It was also less diffuse, which made it difficult to light the formation with just a single 1-second pass of the light from each side, but it was my preferred result.

Arriving at a Ratio

How, though, do you decide how much light to add in comparison with your ambient exposure?

There are two main ways to vary the lighting ratio:

  1. Just as in the flash example above, you could increase or decrease the amount of added light. This can be achieved with a brighter or dimmer light source, or by using a continuous light for a longer or shorter period of time, or by popping a flash once or multiple times.
  2. Extend or shorten the exposure time. Assuming that you used the same amount of light painting, the length of the shutter speed would affect only the ambient exposure. (Whereas changing either the ISO or the aperture would affect both the existing and added light. Our goal is to separate the ambient and added light, not to adjust them proportionally.)

To summarize, you change the lighting ratio by increasing or decreasing the amount of added light, or lengthening or shortening the overall exposure time without changing the added light. Use whichever method works better for each particular shot.

Controlling the Light

You can control how much light you add in different ways depending on the painting tool you’re using:

  • If you are using flash, or a variable brightness continuous light source such as our beloved Luxli Viola, you can increase or decrease the intensity.
  • With a flash, you could also use multiple pops of light, and each additional fire doubles the amount of light on your subject.
  • If you are using a flashlight, then you can increase or decrease the amount of time you employ it to light your subject, provided that time fits within your exposure length. (Increasing the exposure time without altering the added light painting will reduce the ratio—and therefore the impact—of the light painting. Reducing the exposure time without altering the light painting will make the light painting stand out more.)
  • In some situations, of course, you may need to adjust both the added light and the exposure time to find the right combination.
  • One other way to modify your light painting is to increase or decrease the distance between your light source and your subject, keeping the Inverse Square Law in mind. The Inverse Square Law essentially states that doubling the light-source-to-subject distance results in one-quarter of the light reaching the subject.

Case Study: Trona Series

From my “Loos With Views” series. A nearly full moon, with light pollution from Trona and Ridgecrest in the background.

The first attempt. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 800. Canon 5D Mark II with an Olympus Zuiko Shift 35mm f/2.8 lens. Incandescent flashlight from the right, and inside the loo. I considered this to be overlit.

The second attempt. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 800. Canon 5D Mark II with an Olympus Zuiko Shift 35mm f/2.8 lens. Incandescent flashlight reflected off my hand from camera-left, and LED bounced off the back wall of the structure. The LED was too harsh, and I didn’t want to see the signage on the front.

The third attempt. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 800. Canon 5D Mark II with an Olympus Zuiko Shift 35mm f/2.8 lens. Better-controlled LED bounced off the back wall of the structure, and no light on the front.

The final attempt. 10 minutes, f/4, ISO 100. Canon 5D Mark II with an Olympus Zuiko Shift 35mm f/2.8 lens. A few seconds from camera-far-left with a Surefire P6 incandescent flashlight to show texture in the structure. I used the same light for a few seconds inside the loo, bounced off the front wall. The light on the rock and the vent pipe was ambient that accumulated during the long exposure. The color of the sky is so different due to the combination of the long exposure and the moonlight’s effect on the white balance.


Other constraints (such as shooting at high ISOs to avoid star trails) may come into play, and these can complicate things further.

A common scenario when light painting at high ISOs to preserve star points is that a light source may be so bright that a fraction of a second is all that is required to light a scene, making it next to impossible to control the light well. Reducing the camera exposure would have a negative impact on the stars, and would also even further reduce the amount of time available to get into position and execute the lighting.

In that case, using a dimmer light source is the best option. If the location is treacherous and getting into position takes some time, two good strategies are setting a delay on the exposure or triggering the shutter remotely once you get into position.

Conversely, when working under the light of a full moon, a longer duration of light painting is a good way to increase the added-to-existing light ratio. In urban environments with a lot of ambient light and relatively short exposure times, utilizing a brighter light source might be the best approach.

But It’s Really Not Complicated

In any case, some thoughtful examination of the situation and available options will go a long way toward achieving the desired look.

If after reading this you are thinking about going back to daytime photography, please know that these decisions and tactics are really not that complicated. I don’t know anyone who does mathematical calculations in the field to figure out their light painting—at least no one who has done it more than once!

Like everything related to night photography, it’s a mélange of art and science that can be mastered only by trial and error, accumulating knowledge and experience along the way.

Lance Keimig is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He has been photographing at night for 30 years, and is the author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (Focal Press, 2015). Learn more about his images and workshops at


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.


Level Up With Light Painting: Correcting the Color of Your Flashlight (Part II)

Note: This is the conclusion of a previous post, “Level Up With Light Painting: Correcting the Color of Your Flashlight (Part I).”

In my last post on flashlight color I demonstrated how LED flashlights produce a cooler light than I prefer. I went on to show you how to analyze and correct the color using simple gels from the Roscolux Swatchbook.

In that post, the filtration I worked out for my favorite flashlights—the Coast 300-lumen Coast HP7R and 185-lumen Coast HP5R—was a Roscolux 1/2 CTO combined with a 1/8 minus green. This combination works well when my Nikon’s white balance is set to Direct Sun (Daylight on a Canon). Night photography, however, often requires a significant deviation from our common white balance settings.

Finding the Fix

Direct Sun white balance has an approximate Kelvin temperature of 5500. Although, as I mentioned in my last post, Lightroom may display your Kelvin temperature higher or lower depending on Adobe’s interpretation of your camera. Adobe interprets my Nikon’s D4s’s white balance as 4900 K. For the remainder of this post I’ll refer to the Kelvin setting on the camera rather than Adobe’s interpretation.

When using the Direct Sun white balance setting, subjects photographed under average midday sunlight will be rendered properly with regard to color. If, however, your white balance is set to Direct Sun and you photograph a subject under a different light source, the subject will take on the color cast of that light source. For example, for the photo in Figure 1, I kept my camera set to Direct Sun white balance while photographing under the heavy orange cast of the sign lights. Figure 2 shows the color-corrected version at 2000 K.

Figure 1. 5500 K (Direct Sun) white balance

Figure 2. 2000 K white balance

Lowering that white balance had the effect of adding in a blue cast, counteracting the orange/yellow cast it had before. Now imagine if I had used my somewhat blue LED flashlight to paint the people in the foreground. After color correction, the subjects illuminated by the flashlight would be even more blue due to the lower Kelvin temperature.

So while the filter combination I used for my flashlight worked well with Direct Sun white balance, that same filter combinations would turn the flashlight light to blue when using white balance settings typical of night photography.

Finding the Filters

How to resolve this issue? Once again I turned to my X-Rite ColorChecker chart for my visual tests. I began by setting my camera’s white balance to Tungsten, which is roughly 3200 K. This is a setting I often use for night photography. Next I light-painted the chart with my standard filtration of 1/2 CTO combined with a 1/8 minus green. This produced the color in Figure 3.

Figure 3. 3200 K white balance, Coast HP7R filtered with Rosco 1/2 CTO and 1/8 minus green filter gels

Figure 3. 3200 K white balance, Coast HP7R filtered with Rosco 1/2 CTO and 1/8 minus green filter gels

The chart is noticeably cool due to the lowered white balance setting of 3200 K. So I experimented with a variety of gels, looking for the right mix to produce a more accurate color balance. After experimenting, I settled on a Roscolux Dark Bastard Amber, which when added to my 1/2 CTO and 1/8 minus green, produced the effect we see in Figure 4.

Figure 4. 3200 K white balance, Coast HP7R filtered with Rosco 1/2 CTO and 1/8 minus green  plus  Dark Bastard Amber filter gels.

Figure 4. 3200 K white balance, Coast HP7R filtered with Rosco 1/2 CTO and 1/8 minus green plus Dark Bastard Amber filter gels.

You can see that new combination of filters has produced a color cast that is neutral to slightly warm when shooting with Tungsten white balance.

Putting This Into Practice

For the last step, I took a new clear plastic filter from a Coast LF100 filter kit and again traced and cut out a 1/2 CTO, a 1/8 minus green and a Dark Bastard Amber, and taped them all to the filter. Now I can easily interchange the two plastic filters (one with my original gel combo and the second with the original combo plus Dark Bastard Amber) when I change my white balance from Direct Sun to a Tungsten.

Figures 5 through 8 show a real-world example of how this affects the color of a scene. In Figure 5, my camera’s Direct Sun white balance produces an overly orange image due to the sodium vapor lights (common in most city lighting) illuminating the building.

Figure 5. Direct Sun white balance

Figure 5. Direct Sun white balance

Figure 6 shows the same scene after I changed my camera’s white balance to Tungsten (3200K). Notice the nearly neutral color of the metal and white door.

Figure 6. Tungsten white balance

Figure 6. Tungsten white balance

For Figure 7 I kept the white balance set to Tungsten and illuminated the door with my unfiltered flashlight. The door becomes very blue due to the cooler white balance setting.

Figure 7. Tungsten white balance with unfiltered flashlight illumination

Figure 7. Tungsten white balance with unfiltered flashlight illumination

Figure 8 shows the same scene with my camera still on the Tungsten white balance setting, but light-painted with the flashlight gelled with the 1/2 CTO, 1/8 minus green and Dark Bastard Amber combination.

Figure 8. Tungsten white balance with filtered flashlight illumination

Figure 8. Tungsten white balance with filtered flashlight illumination

Of course, Tungsten white balance is not the only setting I use for night photography. My night settings range from 3200 K to 5500 K, with 3800 K being the setting I use most often. So, you may ask, why did I run my test at 3200 K if use 3800 K more often? In a word, warmth. I like my flashlight illumination to be somewhat on the warm side. A gel that produces a neutral cast at 3200 K will produce a warmer cast at 3800 K. Just how I like it!

Remember, no LED flashlight will produce perfect color. But, with a little testing and experimentation, you can create your perfect color for your light-painting illumination!

Learn more techniques from Tim Cooper’s book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.