Painting With Light - An Exercise in Fun

Many years ago as a young photographer, I made an attempt to do something at a wedding that I had never done before.  I wanted an opening page photo for the couple’s final album made up of the grooms’ boutonniere, the garter, an invitation, the couple’s rings and an edge of the bride’s bouquet. I took all of these items into a small closet at the reception area and tried to paint with light using a small flashlight.  What happened was that I discovered not only how easy it was to do, but also how great it looked.  The notion of being in a pitch black room and adding light only where I want it and in the brightness that I want was a revolution for me.

Here is an example of using a small Mini Maglite flashlight, an amber-colored warming gel over the light during a portion of the painting, and a continuous motion of the light during the entire exposure of f11 about approximately one minute total exposure time.

Painting with light is what I love to do when I want to have fun or just show off.  People who haven’t tried it cannot believe how simple it is to do yet how great it can look.  

The concept is simple.  Start in a completely dark room or in the night where there is no ambient light.  Open the camera’s lens by using “bulb” setting as your shutter speed and use a locking cable release to hold it open.  Then, using portable flash or something as simple as a Mini Maglite flashlight, begin painting. The effects you get will vary based on the amount of time you paint, the brightness of your light source, the selected aperture and the distance of your light source to the subject or object you are painting.

Here is a good place to begin:

Set your camera’s ISO to 400.  Use a small regular flashlight and keep it approximately two feet away from your subject.  I recommend opening the lens first then turning on the flashlight and started moving it around in small circular motion.  Paint in small, bite sized chunks of your subject and give each section about 4-6 seconds of painting time with the aperture set to f16.  If it is too dark you can paint for a longer amount of time.  Too light, paint for less time.

One of the techniques I recommend as mentioned is to keep the light source moving non-stop.  As soon as you stop moving the light, the shadows become sharp produced by the light.  A more painterly quality can be achieved by simply moving the light around and around.  Not only do the shadows stay very soft, the highlights become soft as well. 

Keep in mind that when painting a highly reflective surface such as a vase or other shiny object, the light source will be seen in the highlights as streaks moving back and forth.  Therefore, it seems to work best if you can select subjects that are not smooth, polished or white and glossy.