Painting with Light

Originally Published: Sep 18, 2012
Last Updated: May 11, 2016

Cascade of Stars [C_049409+12]

A Flickrite asked me a question:

 I’d like to know how long do you shine the light or use flash when you are shooting

I was really tempted to give the answer “as long as I need” but I’d just seem cruel to answer the question that way.

The truth, however is “as long as it takes”. Eric Harness, one of my partners in the Star Circle Academy endeavor uses a quite different technique than I do. He prefers to reduce the ISO and paint with light for the entire length of the exposure.  I like to keep painting short and purposeful. Each strategy has its strengths and weaknesses.

How Long?

Voyage into Pointy Land [C_061012]Painting for best effect is a knack, not a science.  You just have to try it and refine your technique based on your results.  Remember to check not just the LCD, but also your histogram when deciding how well you’ve done.  Here are some important points that will influence both the method and how long you will paint with light:

  1. Check your ISO and f/stop.  The lower the ISO or higher the f/stop the longer you will have to paint and the brighter the light has to be.
  2. The distance to the things being painted (due to the inverse-square law). You may spend a fractional second on a granite boulder nearby and long slow seconds on dark, light-eating evergreens in the distance.
  3. Brighter lights require less painting but a more deft hand.
  4. Ocean foam or white water in a waterfall will reflect a lot more light than lava rock – you have to paint the rock much longer.  A still pond or lake require a LOT more light than you would expect. The reflectivity (texture) of the surface matters quite a lot.
  5. It is harder to be precise with wide beams, but easier to uniformly illuminate.
  6. Spotlight or narrow beams make it easier to highlight specific things – but also makes blow outs and hot spots harder to control.
  7. When trying to highlight a certain thing or reveal some shadow detail you will need more light.
  8. House in the Wood [C_049613-17]Often there is too much to paint in a single shot. Using stacking techniques you can paint the scene in sections – and even in different light knowing that they are easily combined later. Or you could expose longer and try to get it “all in” but it is hard to get it just right like that.

Power and Direction

I think most people overpaint – they make the subject stand out too much or blow out the details.  Neither of these are blown out, but they have obvious hot spots.
Beholders of the Galaxy [C_061001] vs Anticipation [C_050158]

  • Don’t paint “head on”. Paint at a 30-45 degree angle to the camera view – and even from behind the subject for rimlight.
  • Consider painting from both sides to fill in shadows – but paint less from one side than the other to keep the scene from looking flat.
  • Be mindful of the color you are painting with and the thing being painted.  Bluish LED lights produce a very different feel from warmer incandescent light
  • Be cognizant of the color “bias” due to existing light.
  • If you use a flash, set it on manual and don’t try to expose all at once. Tilting the flash upward helps to even out the exposure.
  • When painting with a bright light, quick movement is essential. Continuous circular motion helps prevent hot spots.
  • Sometimes you can get more even and pleasing light on what is in front of the camera by painting the ground or rocks BEHIND you – much like bouncing a flash off an interior wall.
  • For dimmer light slow methodical movement is better.
  • Moonbow with Character(s) [C_039385]Try throwing in some color!

Star Man and Perseus [C_059960-1]


About now you may be wondering what flashlight(s) to get.  We can’t really answer that, however we do suggest you snag the following:

  1. A BRIGHT light (120 lumens or better)
  2. A SPOT light (one with a very narrow beam)
  3. An incandescent light
  4. A broad, dim light (like a keychain light)
  5. Colored lights (red, amber, blue, purple) or some cellophane or gel.

Sooner or later you’ll be like us and carry EACH of the above. Oh, and don’t spend a lot!  Get some cheap stuff – like you find at the checkout counter in a hardware store.

Nonetheless here is a list of our favorite illumination toys. Some or all of them may no longer be available.

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