What is it about Light Paintings that make them so cool?
Feb 11, 2020 | By: Bender Photography
A light painting is not just a “shot”. You can’t create it in a single exposure, like you would a picture with a camera or cell phone. It is not simply “snapped” at a precise time or location. It is not a relatively good picture with an Instagram filter effect added. It is not an image that you can capture in an instant with your iPhone. It is much more than that.
It is a created image. It looks like a super detailed photograph. Everything in the scene is carefully lit to show it at its best. Small details in the scene are carefully lit, usually with small lights that are chosen to bring out the lighting effect that the light painter seeks.
A light painting is a combination of multiple, often dozens of photos. Each of those photos is carefully planned to highlight a particular part of the scene.
There are two steps in every light painting, the”Captures” and the “Build”.
Captures are all of the exposures that are used. A decent camera, mounted on a sturdy tripod, is required. The light painter has to compose the scene and choose the angle carefully. Light painting does not easily allow for small variations in the scene composition by moving the camera a foot this way or a few feet that way. The light painter has to choose his composition and make sure it is correct before the serious work begins. That’s not to say that the composition of the image isn’t “serious” work. It always is. But the image composition has to be done like it was done in the old days of film and prints, when every picture actually cost money to take and photographers thought about what they were shooting before they tripped the shutter.
Once the composition is determined, the camera is set. Everything is set manually. Automatic focus will not work and will mess up a light painting. Automatic exposure settings don’t work either. White balance is set manually, too. Even the ISO settings are set completely differently in a light painting, with some parts of the scene using a high ISO and other areas using a low ISO.
In fact, none of the automatic controls that have made photography easier for photo enthusiasts and professional wannabes over the years are relevant. You have to know your stuff if you want to light paint successfully.
Once the camera angle is determined and the camera is set, the light painting captures can commence. But there has to be a connection between camera and light painter. The shutter has to be opened, the lighting has to be executed for whatever part of the scene is being painted, and the shutter has to be closed. Some light painters yell to an assistant “open” and “close”. Others do it remotely with electronic triggers. The length of the exposure is largely based on the light painter’s experience ~~ sometimes it is an instant, other times it is many seconds or more.
There are often a lot of exposures made and every one of them is different. The captures are the first part of the project where there is “painting”. The artist aims his light at the part of the scene that he wants to light. The shutter is opened and the light is carefully moved across an area in the scene. An experienced light painter knows where and how to paint the light, and every part of the scene is evaluated and painted for best effect. This is a pure exercise in lighting. A good light painter knows about all aspects of lighting ~~ soft light, hard light, angle of incidence, light direction, light intensity, white balance and a myriad of other characteristics of light.
A variety of lights and light modifiers can be used. They can vary from a simple flashlight from a hardware store to a sophisticated flash unit with full accoutrements of light modifiers. It is not unusual for the painter, holding the light, to actually be in the scene during this phase as his presence within the scene will be masked out in the final artwork.
There is a lot that can go wrong during the captures phase. Batteries power everything ~~ the camera, the various lights, a triggering device, a viewing device like an iPad or cell phone, and sometimes even a mobile wifi network. A dead camera battery can ruin the project since the camera must stay absolutely still during the capture process. Changing the camera battery often means removing it from the tripod. Exact re-alignment is difficult, if not impossible, meaning that the captures have to be re-started.
While the captures “paint” light by directing flashlights and/or strobe at particularly parts of a scene, the “Build” paints light using a stylus to carefully brush and blend together the captured frames to create one dynamic and visually interesting image.
Virtually all of the work is done in Photoshop, though there are probably other applications that can handle the job. If you have a pretty thorough knowledge of Photoshop, it is a pleasurable experience. If you don’t, it is likely to be a painful disaster.
The build starts with a canvas that looks black but actually contains a lot of scene information that can be drawn upon later. There is a “secret sauce” to creating that particular layer to make it work correctly. But that is the base of the final image.
After the base is created, layers that hold the details of the image are added on top. Every light painter develops a workflow that works well for their needs, just like an oil painter might create an oil painting following a routine that they have found that works. While some light painters can create very nice images using a few layers, others create their images using several, if not dozens of image layers.
Just like the “captures” stage, the build often pushes the limits of the technology. A light painting with just a few layers can be handled easily by most computers. The file is not that big at that stage. But every layer adds to the size of the file and further taxes the system. When there are dozens of layers, and the build is getting into the hundreds of megabytes you run into problems. The system acts goofy in unpredictable ways. Sometimes it just revolts and freezes up. Most experienced light painters practice that age old computing advice ~~ Save Early and Save Often.
Every build is unique. If a second build is created from existing captures it can look very different from the first. There is a lot of thought and creativity that goes into the build, and the painter's experience with the software plays a large role. Every area of the image can be fine tuned and all of the adjustment tools in Photoshop are fair game. This is an area where the artistry of the light painter shines through. A good light painter knows which areas need emphasis or de-emphasis, and there are a lot of ways to achieve those goals in a light painting.
And, like every art, practice is essential. You can’t just do one light painting and declare yourself proficient. It is something that you have to continue to do. You learn a little more on every one. You build on your successes and learn from the failures.
The Passion of Light Painting
Light painting is not for everyone. It strips the instant gratification from modern digital photography and makes it more like old time photography where the photographer really doesn’t know instantly what he/she got. Back in the early film era, like in the days of Ansel Adams or Edward Weston, taking a single photograph was a time consuming process. Those early photographers knew their equipment, their materials, the light, and a whole host of things and planned that one photo for the best effect.
Perhaps one of the best analogies of light painting to the early days of photographers is the work of O. Winston Link. Link documented the end stages of the Norfolk and Western Railroad and steam trains. Link carefully set up his shots with dozens of lights to illuminate steam locomotives plowing into the darkness of night. For every set-up he got one chance to get the image. And there was a lot that could go wrong and probably did. But he loved what he did, made refinements as he went along, and became a master of his art.
Light painters don’t quite have the same “do or die” finality that Winston Link had. But the setup, planning, knowledge of light and many other things that it took to make those photos back in the ’50’s is present in a modern day light painting.