If you're a photographer, it's no news to you that light is everything in the photographic equation. The lack of light at night presents an obvious problem with no universal solution. Speedlights, flashes and strobes can be great for some purposes, but aren't a magic bullet. What if there was another way to light up the night?
In fact, there is. After stumbling upon this video and learning a little about light painting, I was captivated by the idea of using a flashlight to illuminate the darkness. Using long exposures and a flashlight, also known as light painting, creates photos that are truly unlike any others.
My Phottix remote used to trigger long exposures.
Interested in light painting yet? You're going to need some gear. Chances are you already have some of these either as part of your camera kit, or just sitting around the house. Let's take a look:
Camera choice is only a part of the recipe for great light painting photos. While I personally use a DSLR, (a Nikon D300 by the way) practically any camera with manual settings can be used. The important part is to use a camera with manual control of the shutter speed so it can be set to long lengths of time.
Choosing a good lens is just as more important for this technique as any other. Night photography and light painting doesn't require a particular focal length or aperture - just choose a lens that's appropriate for the scene. For me, most of my light painting photos are landscape style, and for this, I prefer my ultrawide Tokina 12-24mm lens. Your choice will vary depending on the scene you are trying to put together.
I can't stress enough the importance of a stable camera stand. A tripod is the best choice, but I've used the ground, my parked car, and building ledges for stabilizing my camera. With the shutter staying open for 30 seconds and longer, stability is essential. I have a really cheap tripod that I picked up from a yard sale for $5 - nothing fancy, but it gets the job done!
Even a cheap tripod can do the trick to keep your shots steady.
Remote / Long Exposure Tool
On my Nikon D300, the longest shutter speed that I can select from within the camera is 30 seconds. However, many of my night painting shots call for shutter speeds of 2 minutes and longer, so I had to find a way to bypass this.
Cue a gear search. The first way that I found to use super slow shutter speeds is with a Nikon MC-36 remote. With this remote, you can do a number of things, including slowing your shutter speed past what can be done from within the camera. However, this remote is $120+, so I continued my search.
eBay has a number of knockoffs. While clone products have a bad reputation, I elected to give one of them a shot. Spending only $17 (but waiting two weeks for it to arrive), I got a perfectly working copy of the Nikon remote. All of the functions work great. The instructions were poorly translated, but with some common sense the remote was easy to learn.
Depending on your camera, you will have to choose a compatible remote. Spend a little time Googling for the best way to set slow shutter speed with your gear, as it varies from camera to camera.
With flashlights, the choices are practically unlimited. Whether you want to use a cheap one or spend big money on a police-style maglite, practically any flashlight will work. While a high powered flashlight can cover a scene, we're really looking to carefully craft a scene as opposed to just flooding it with light.
Don't forget that just like speedlights, you can use modifiers to really control your light. One of the handiest is just a simple snoot with some craft foam that I can use to focus light. While it's handy to be able to cover an entire scene with light, often light painting requires us to focus and "limit" light to the areas we want to emphasize.
So you've got all of your gear together and you're ready to begin light painting. Now what? As with any type of photography, the most important part is to locate places that lend themselves to night photos.
A spot I may return to later. The building holds interest and this area has no lights to compete with.
Safety: This is tough to tackle. While out on night excursions, I've had numerous run-ins with the police. I've never been doing anything illegal. And while it may seem unfair, it's a fact of life that when you're out late at night with a big camera in the dark, you're going to attract some attention. I don't let fear determine my photos, but it's better to reduce your chances of run-ins and be smart.
Making the Photo
Alright, time to cut to the chase. Let's make a light painting photo. After scouting a few locations, start off at one of your favorite places. Set your camera up on a tripod or other steady surface with the scene in mind.
I think one of the greatest challenges of night photography is focusing. You're almost always going to have to manual focus. It helps to use live view function to aid with focusing as well. Using the flashlight to illuminate a focus area can also make thing easier.
Now, here comes the toughest part for which there is no perfect solution: choosing a shutter speed. For the majority of my photos, I am exposing one to two minutes when working in the dark. I find this is a great length of time because it lets the sky "burn in" resulting in great colors, like the red sky in my example photo.
Just before sunset, I eyed this spot for my night shot. The rocks would provide the perfect interest area to light paint.
After focusing and setting up the scene, let the shutter fly! Use a small enough aperture to give you the depth of field that you desire. Unfortunately, metering is a little bit of trial and error in this environment. (Believe me, I've wasted five minutes, only to find out that my settings were way off)
Now, comes the fun part: light painting!. If possible, visualize how you will paint the scene before beginning your creation. Select areas of interest to give extra time painting in order to highlight those regions. Light painting is a way to convey scenes as you see them, paying special attention to the interesting details that may be hidden during daytime.
As with most photography, it's best to keep your body behind the camera. But remember you can walk in front of the camera for short periods of time to get a good position for painting, but keeping moving so your image doesn't show up in the shot.
You're going to need to devote a lot of time to making an exposure. But to me, that's the beauty of light painting - opening the shutter and reviewing your work five minutes later to find a masterpiece.
There is a lot of trial and error involved light painting because you'll need to balance the ambient light with the light coming from the flashlight. So get started soon and explore the night! When you finally nail an exposure, your reward will make work worth it. Light painting is a totally different way of seeing traditional scenes.