Unless you're very lucky, my guess is that your first attempt at painting with light won't result in a picture-perfect result. Getting a nice image requires practice, timing and luck. The photograph at right was my first attempt at painting this subject with light. I was in a new location, working with a new subject and using a new flashlight. As you can see, the subject's face and part of the saddle are washed out. That's because I spent too much time shining the light on those areas, and because too much light was entering the scene from two open barn doors nearby.
You can "darken" a room by lowering your ISO (say, from 400 to 200), or by choosing a smaller aperture (say, from ƒ/5.6 to ƒ/8). Keep in mind that when you lower the ISO, your flashlight, in effect, becomes less powerful, so the length of time you "paint" needs to be increased. The same is true when you choose a smaller aperture. My advice on this stuff: Keep your variables to a minimum. I also recommend starting your painting-with-light session with fresh batteries, and have extra batteries on hand.
After closing the barn doors and after several more attempts, success! I was pleased with the way the shadows and highlights came together to make a dramatic photograph.
Here are before-and-after examples from another painting-with-light image from the same photo shoot. I was pretty happy with the lighting, but I knew I could do better using the Burn and Dodge tools, along with the Clone Stamp tool and Crop tool, in Photoshop to draw more attention to the subject and to create a more dramatic image. After cropping the image and cloning out some hot spots, I used the Burn and Dodge tools to "paint in" shadows and highlights. So, the Burn and Dodge tools give you a second chance to paint with light, which is kinda cool. But, as always, try to get it right in-camera.
You can use the painting-with-light technique to paint just about anything (including an airplane on a dark runway). Before you start your light painting, try to visualize the parts of the subject you want illuminated and the parts you want in the shadows. Also visualize where the shadows will fall from different light-painting positions. This will save you time during your painting-with-light photo session.
So, my friends, if your natural light or flash pictures look flat, make them fab with the painting-with-light technique. Be patient! You'll need to try and try again, unless you're very lucky, to get a creative image.
Our friend Rick Sammon is a regular contributor to this magazine. For more of his work, check out his website at ricksammon.com.