Monday, March 31, 2008
Painting With Light
Use a flashlight and colored gels to keep the photography going after dark
This is the fun part! You now have an excuse to be running around in the middle of the night with a big flashlight blinking on and off! I have to admit I have had some hilarious encounters with locals when they find me in the middle of a field flashing a big spotlight. I once light-painted a cabin with a 2-million-candlepower light (imagine your car's headlights on high beam) in Crested Butte, Colo. In the middle of flashing the cabin, a bunch of people stumbled out thinking it was a police raid. Make sure to check with landowners before light-painting on private property!
To avoid burned out areas, pulse the light in quick bursts, choosing interesting parts of the scene to highlight.
To avoid burned out areas, pulse the light in quick bursts, choosing interesting parts of the scene to highlight. Remember, your goal is to illuminate not the entire scene, but just key areas. Choose some areas to be highlights, and other areas to be shadows or dark. Light painting is all about experimenting. Try an exposure, check your LCD and fix what needs correcting.
Exposures will vary. I like to start light painting at twilight so the sky will have some color and detail. These exposures generally start at about 20 to 30 seconds at ƒ/4 with an ISO of 100. As the scene goes into total darkness, your exposures will go into the two- to five-minute range. If you want to create a really dramatic effect, try an hour-long exposure to add star trails in the background of your light painting. Also, experiment with different white-balance settings. I often use the incandescent setting to make my skies deep blue.
Dealing With Noise
Since exposures are long with light painting, noise creeps in, especially in deep shadows. There are a few things you can do to reduce noise. For starters, turn on your in-camera noise reduction (if your camera has it). Although I normally shoot in RAW and avoid any in-camera processing, in-camera noise reduction is the one exception to this practice. This setting will give you much better results out of the camera. Just be aware that once your exposure is over, your camera will take some time to run this noise-reduction process, so you won't get instant LCD playback.
The other way to reduce noise is in the computer after capture. Photoshop offers many techniques for dealing with noise. One method I like is converting your image to Lab Color, then going into the channels palette and applying Gaussian Blur to the A and B channels, which won't affect the detail areas (in the Lightness channel) in the photo. Another effective method is using Photoshop's Reduce Noise filter. Select the advanced button in this window, and choose the blue channel. Blue-channel noise is often the biggest culprit in these images, so try reducing the blue-channel noise using the slider in this window.
The next time you're packing up your gear after capturing a stunning sunset, don't forget your shooting is only half over. Grab a flashlight, set up your tripod and go light-paint!
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