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Painting Your Subject With Light

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I've been in real need of creative inspiration lately and I've been feeling an urge to experiment with new techniques as I continue to discover my vision and refine my craft. To that end, I remembered a guy I came across about a year and a half ago, fine art photographer Harold Ross, who has a very unique style which he has developed over nearly 20 years.

I was impressed not only by his amazing photography but also his ability to communicate his art in a consistent manner, something I feel that I am always struggling with. At first glance, the images in his gallery have a very HDR feel to them. But upon further examination, there is something more going on here. Harold is a master of the technique known as light painting.

I'm not talking about the practice of taking a shot while drawing with a light pen, though the idea isn't too far off. Light painting is the process of applying light onto a subject in a very focused and selective way to bring out its unique shapes, textures and colors. You aren't just using your off-camera flash(es) and reflectors to bounce or throw light at your subject, you are physically using your source to brush the light onto your subject, giving each element in your frame its own personalized treatment.

I'm certainly not the light painting master that Harold Ross is, but with a little experimentation, after only a few tries I was able to get a pretty good handle on the process and create some pretty cool composites. Let's get started!

Step 1: Darkness is Key

This technique requires a much slower shutter speed than we are more accustomed to shooting with. In such a case, any light from the room has the potential of having an effect on the image. To minimize this, be sure to setup your shoot in a dark room or, when shooting outdoors, at night so you can have as much control over the scene as possible.

Step 2: Use a Tripod

When shooting in low light situations where longer exposure times are required it is absolutely essential to use a tripod to ensure that your images are as sharp as possible. That proves doubly important for this technique because you will be taking a series of shots that you will then be compositing later on.

A tripod will help make sure that each frame is properly lined up from the start and will minimize the amount of screwdriver work later on in Photoshop. To further avoid any slight shifting of the camera when you press the shutter, you may want to consider using a cable or other remote shutter release.

Step 3: Light Source

I've seen anything from a simple flashlight to an LED light to a very fine point source used effectively in this technique. From my experience a good option to consider, for those of you with smart phones, is to download a flashlight app. I used “Flashlight" by John Haney Software on my iPhone, which you can download for free from the App Store.

I am usually a stickler with my battery life and try to keep my screen brightness turned down a bit to make it last longer between charges, but for this process, I crank it all the way up. It puts out more light than you might think, especially when you have a long exposure.

One of the major benefits of using an iPhone app like this for light painting is how comfortable it is to handle the phone. The app actually turns your phone into a mini handheld softbox, allowing for softer shadows and more even lighting overall. Really, whatever type of light source you want to use could do a good job depending on the look you're going for. The only thing to keep in mind is that it needs to be continuous lighting from a relatively small source so you have the control you need to make the effect work.

Step 4: Camera Settings

To get the effect we're looking for, we need to really slow down our shutters. The exact shutter speed is a matter of preference and the result of some trial and error. For my experimenting, I found that a 5 second exposure at f5.6 and ISO 100 worked well and gave me a lot of room to make any necessary adjustments later. I'm sure using a higher ISO would be fine, but because we're shooting in such low light, the lower ISO will help keep any digital noise at bay.

Step 5: Setting the Scene

When deciding on what to shoot when light painting, I've found that a scene set with a variety of textures and levels of reflectivity works best. With the lights on (if shooting indoors), setup your shot while looking through the viewfinder to make sure everything looks good to you. To make sure the focus is nice and sharp in your final image use your autofocus, with the lights still on, and then set your focus to manual and don't touch your lens again until you're done.

Step 6: Painting with Light

Now for the fun part! With everything ready to go, shut off the lights, turn on your light source and get ready to shoot. When shooting at 5 seconds you will have plenty of time to focus on a single element in the scene with every release of the shutter. Decide where you want your implied main light source to be coming from – upper left, upper right, etc. – and keep that in mind when you start painting so that you have a consistent look.

Make your way around to each element one by one and with a constant motion, within a few inches of the subject, and shine your light source on the surface to make sure there is even coverage. You should also make sure to apply some light around the sides of your subject as well so that it will soften your edges and bring out more details. You may even consider taking another shot with the light coming from the opposite direction, and from slightly farther away, the same way you would use a reflector or second strobe so the shadow areas of the subject have some detail as well.

For larger subjects – such as the lamp, in this example – light different areas individually and we'll piece them together in post. For elements like the stained glass, I lit from behind rather than from in front. This did a couple of things for me: 1) it reduced the reflections on the glass and 2) it allowed the color of the glass to be more brilliant.

One of the things I didn't pay attention to during my first light painting effort, earlier in the same shoot, but realized once I got to this one was the background and table top. I focused my attention more on the objects and forgot to consider the whole scene. Take the time, even at the end after you've hit on all of your subjects, to light your background and table surface so you won't have unintended dark areas in your finished image.

Be sure to review each frame after you take it to check on any unintended reflections that may have occurred or if you missed a spot, etc. It's always easier to take another shot immediately than to discover a mistake in post and have to go back and reshoot later.

Step 7: Import into Lightroom

The post processing part of this project is fairly straight-forward. I imported all of the frames I captured into Lightroom first so I could then easily transfer them right over to Photoshop without having to go through a number of other steps before they would be ready to bring into Photoshop (especially because I shoot in RAW).

Step 8: Edit in Photoshop

Once you have all of the frames downloaded into Lightroom, select them all and go to Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop. This will create a new PSD with each of the images as their own layer. If you aren't a Lightroom user and you have all of the images as jpegs, you can perform a similar process to automatically bring all of the shots into a single PSD. Just go to File > Scripts > Load Files into Stack. Locate and select the images and click OK and you will have your PSD ready to go once Photoshop does its thing.

Step 9: Smart Objects

Since you will be switching back and forth between layers to fine tune your masks, I've found that I will occasionally accidentally paint on the layer rather than the mask. To avoid this mistake, convert each layer into its own Smart Object – after all, you cannot paint directly on a Smart Object. Because I make so many Smart Objects when I work, in general, I setup a custom keyboard shortcut (F2) that converts the selected layer. It's a real time saver.

Step 10: Masking

Our next step is to add a Layer Mask to each layer to isolate the areas that are properly exposed and hide the areas of the layer that are useless. Do this to each layer down the panel until you have all of the rough masking done. Now you can go in and do some more precise blending to create a single uniform image from your group of individual frames. There's no real secret to this part. Use your best judgment to make each layer flow into the next, showing off the best portions of each subject.

Step 11: Save and Open Back Up in Lightroom

If you are not a Lightroom user, your next step will be to do all of your final adjustments to the overall image until you have a finished product. Since I use Lightroom my next step is to simply save the PSD, which will automatically add it to my Lightroom library.

Step 12: Final Global Adjustments

Now that I have my final composite PSD in Lightroom, I treat it like I would any other image and perform any necessary global adjustments to polish it up, such as Curves, Levels, etc...

And there you have it!

A technique like this really gives you room to try new things and see what works for you. To figure out this workflow, all I did was look at some examples of Harold's work, get a sense of what he was doing, and just grab my camera and experiment. There really is no wrong way to go about it, so give yourself permission to try something you've never done before and most importantly have a fun!

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