Painting with light

In last month’s post we looked at natural vs. artificial lighting for photography.  For this month I would like to take a closer look at controlling the appearance of a subject using artificial lighting in a technique called “Light Painting”.

Light painting defined

Light painting as defined by Wikipedia

Light painting, or light drawing, is a photographic technique in which exposures are made by moving a hand-held light source while taking a long exposure photograph, either to illuminate a subject or to shine a point of light directly at the camera, or by moving the camera itself during exposure.

One of my light painting projects

As you’re already aware I’m a big fan of using artificial lighting to created dramatic contrasts in photos.  What interests me about light painting is the idea of illuminating a subject in ways that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible with large light sources.

For this project I photographed a group of decorative vases lit only by a penlight flashlight from different angles.  Using the light like a brush I moved the flashlight to help “paint” the different vases using a long exposure.

Final Composition – Vase Light Painting Project

If you look closely at the light reflecting on the different vases you can begin to see the different angles that each was lit.  This one image is comprised of eight different images (or layers in Photoshop).  Let’s take a look at each one to see how it contributes to the final image.

Layer 1

Top lighting of second vase opening.

As you can see in this image everything was completely dark with the exception of the opening of the vase.  There was some light that bled on to the wall behind the vases so I needed to remove it using a layer mask (the white rectangular shape on this image.

Layer 2

Vases lit from right slightly behind

Again, you can see some areas that I masked out using a layer mask, but notice the edge lighting on the three vases.

Layer 3

Vases lit from the left side

Layer 4

Concentrated light on left vase

Layer 5

Concentrated light on third vase

Layer 6

Concentrated light on second vase

Layer 7

Additional lighting on third vase

Layer 8 – Final Layer

Concentrated light on fourth vase

Detail discussion

Let’s take a look at this composition in Photoshop

Vase Light Painting Composition in Photoshop

In order to make the final image all of the individual shots were brought into a single file as layers.  From here each layer was adjusted to remove any unwanted lighting or other subjects using layer masks.

As I mentioned before this technique allowed me to light each of the vases in very specific ways.  Now that we’ve gone through the individual layers, look at the vase on the far right.  Notice how there there are light reflections on the right and left sides as well as on the front.

If this vase was the only subject you could probably use three different light sources, however having other vases in this grouping it makes things more complicated.

Another factor to consider.  Look at the lighting on the wall behind the vases, notice how it helps provide separation between the vases and the background.  Because of the small profile of some vases it would be very difficult to hide a light source behind them.

Closing thoughts

It’s always fun to experiment with different photography techniques.  I especially enjoyed doing this project.  While there were some challenges to overcome, such as some uncontrollable light spill it was a great learning experience.

Furthermore, I feel that this particular project does a great job of demonstrating that “if you control the light you control the shot”.  I hope that you enjoyed this month’s topic.  If you have any suggestions of topics you’d like to hear more about please let us know.

Thank you.

Doug Shatto