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 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.
- 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.
- 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, any shot made after that won’t stack up correctly with the shots made before. I learned this the hard way.
- 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.
- 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.
- Use an assistant. During the exposing process, I find it easier to have a friend or an assistant open and close the camera shutter while I run around in a Zen state painting light onto objects in my composition.
It’s a totally unusual process. (Having been a photographer for more than 35 years now, my use of this technique is the closest I’ve come to true creative fulfillment. It’s certainly a sort of magic to be exposing and painting with light.) You also can manually open the camera and lock the shutter open in the Bulb mode, closing it again after each exposure, but this can become very physical, running back and forth to the camera if you’re shooting a larger scene. You can also use a PocketWizard or other remote triggers.
Paint By Numbers
During the process of shooting and painting light onto the scene, I try to use the same procedure for each of my shots, as it seems to work well. I start by painting light from the top center of my main subject. I get several frames of the main subject lit from above, then move outward and down with my lighting. After the main subject is covered, it’s a matter of systematically exposing the ground, then walls and other structures to create a full palette of exposures to play with in Photoshop later. After you’ve exposed the entire scene—from the top and right and left sides, also skimming the ground at the front, back and sides, etc.—you’re done shooting. This may be only four shots total, if you’re shooting a small scene or choose to start small and simple.
Now that you have all your shots downloaded to your computer, start by opening one image, the one you like best of the main subject lit from above. Then open another image from the shoot and import it into the first photograph file.
If you use layers, you can simply stack the second image on top of the first. As you view both layers, all you see is the top layer, since the default blending mode is “normal” or fully opaque. Go to the Layers blending mode dropdown at the top-left corner of the Layer palette and change the setting of the current top photograph from normal to lighten. Now you can see through the top layer or exposure that’s sitting above the bottom layer. You can view both photos at the same time.
If the image that’s above your base photo is too bright in some areas, or you accidentally exposed some of the light from the flashlight onto your shoes during an exposure, you can simply erase that part of the image you don’t like with a soft brush. The more you play with the top image to smooth it out, the more the two images combined will look like a single smooth and even exposure.
That’s basically it. All you have to do is repeat the process of stacking images on top of each other and then erase (or use layer masks) to remove the parts of the top layers you don’t like. After you stack the next layer or image onto the top of the stack, all the layers underneath remain as you tweaked them. Eventually, you build up to what is a strikingly powerful image that has a sort of glow because the lighting isn’t the traditional, simplistic light that comes from a single strobe or even multiple strobes. It looks as though it’s coming from dozens of sources to create a full and rich scene powered by light.
I’ll share with you a thought I’ve heard expressed before about Hollywood. In Hollywood, they have all the lights and sound equipment they could use, no more cameras or props are required. What’s in short supply is a good idea! So go out and create something special that’s individual to you. All you need is a bit of patience, planning and some creativity.
For those who would like more details about how to light, photograph and add the images together in Photoshop, I have a second-edition book (published by Amherst Media) available for pre-order on Amazon. It’s a comprehensive how-to book that not only describes the processes I’ve developed, but it also explains my philosophy of photography and conceptualization in order to create strikingly beautiful pictures: amzn.com/1682031527.
See more of Eric Curry’s photography, along with video tutorials, at ericcurry.com.