Light painting is not the most naturally intuitive process, even for someone like myself with a background in theatrical lighting. I had to swallow a bitter taste of humble pie thinking it was going to be really easy to do some of the things I’ve seen. Not so at all. Don’t let that discourage you though. It’s a really fun and exciting process. Make the mistakes and enjoy your successes.
We were visiting Red Rock Canyon State Park above Lancaster, California up the road from Edwards Air Force Base, route planning for our weekend Poppy and Wildflower Workshop. It’s in the middle of nowhere really. After heading to the north side of the park for a sunset shoot silhouetting joshua trees I thought this might be a good spot to do some experimental light painting on the striated formations close by the highway. This particular shot was serendipity happening. Nick was working a wider angle using the little grotto, while adding the Milky Way into the frame. I don’t even recall what I was trying but simply that it was failing miserably when I an idea popped into my head.
I had him pose, standing with the flashlight behind his leg and pointing at the wall of the canyon. I painted the foreground in quickly for a few seconds with another flashlight. I wanted static stars so the exposure was twenty seconds long. A quick note here, it’s against all you will ever hear or read but to get a twenty second or less exposure as you will need to get static stars you have to compromise and crank up the ISO. Yes, you will get noise. That’s easily fixable with some of the software available today. I personally use Topaz Labs DeNoise 5.
Every flashlight, or any other light source for that matter, has its own characteristic color temperature. We discovered that you can use this to your advantage while shooting at night to help create a sense of depth by illuminating a closer subject directly and bouncing the light off of the ground to illuminate the other elements in the scene. In the case of Red Rock Canyon, bouncing the light off the ground created a warm wash as it reflected onto the rocks in contrast to the cooler color temperature of the direct flashlight.
You can also vary the intensity of your light source while painting to create drama in a scene. If you paint everything evenly, many times your image will turn out flat. In the image below from the same night,Nick was hidden behind the larger foreground boulder and painting the wall on the image’s right side. By focusing the flashlight on the area behind the boulder longer, we created a highlight area that helps the foreground boulder to stand out more. I added a highlight point on the right lower third on the ground to invite your eye into the curve that leads behind the boulder and the darker area on the left hand side behind the boulder was left intentionally dark to help the subject stand out more. This is actually a composite of several images where we experimented lighting different parts of the scene and I combined them in photoshop. Make sure to keep your camera on the MANUAL mode so you don’t end up having to blend images with wildly different variables and don’t start painting until you trigger the shutter. Keeping it in MANUAL mode will ensure your camera doesn’t change a setting as it meters the scene but if you start the sequence with your flashlight on the ambient light will mess up your initial settings and you will end up with junk.
These images were taken with a Canon 5D Mark II, fluctuating between a 15mm fisheye and a 16-35mm 2.8 lens. I use a Manfrotto 055XPROB and a Really Right Stuff BH-40 Ballhead. It’s rather heavy gear but that’s a good thing at night as the wind can pick up and, trust me, you might accidentally kick a tripod leg. We lit the scene using two Fenix E-11 flashlights.