If you devour Flickr and YouTube videos on photography, you probably know about the "paint with light" photography technique—it's really more of a lighting technique. For anybody who hasn't stumbled upon this unusual and inspiring form of photography previously, you're in for a wild ride of discovery. During my own journey and experiences of a self-imposed project that lasted five years, I tried to push the boundaries.
To do this technique, you take a handheld flashlight and "paint" light onto your subject at night during a long six-second exposure. Using your light to illuminate the whole scene is doable, but inevitably you get fog and noise from overly long exposures—anything over 40 seconds or so. You also wind up splashing light onto areas of the scene that you didn't intend to "paint." So you're rushing around trying to beat the clock and avoid fog and noise building up in the frame. It's a losing battle.
Since I've been doing this for a while, and the concepts of my photography grew to include ever more complex narratives, I discovered that it's far easier to divide up the scene into smaller portions that can be exposed with my flashlight as I paint light onto individual portions and sections (for example, the right fender of an old pickup truck, the side of a building or the top of a car). Later on, after I've exposed a few, or even hundreds, of individual frames on location, it's a straightforward process of stacking some of those exposures into a single image using Photoshop.
To make the process fun and still result in a successful image, I've learned a few techniques that work well and are easy to follow.
1. Try to set up a scene or pick a location to photograph before it gets dark.
It's far harder to set up and explore the environment at night because you can't see well. Setting up your camera before nightfall also helps you to see through the viewfinder to compose your shot. It's a good time to add or tweak props or whatever else you placed in the scene.
2. Use a sturdy tripod.
This is critical. It's also vitally important that you don't kick or bump the camera and tripod. Every separate frame you expose needs to line up with all the other exposures shot of the same scene. If the camera gets bumped, then any shot made after that won't stack up correctly with the shots made before. I learned this the hard way.
3. Keep individual exposures to about five or six seconds.
Exposures shorter than that are hard to control. The light on a section of a fender for only a second will turn out spotty or uneven, as there isn't enough time to smooth out the painting of light.
4. Think about what you're trying to say in your photos.
If you're telling a story, the light could help you illustrate that narrative by becoming a part of the composition.