Painting With Light Flowers

Painting With Light – A photography tutorial you can actually do at home!

Painting With Light Setup Sketch

Sketch of the painting with light setup.

About The Technique

“Painting With Light” is an age old (and really fun) photography technique based on actively manipulating the light in a scene during a long exposure.  It can be done in a variety of settings from studios to outdoors, and a variety of styles from macro to nature.  The basic process goes like this:

  1. Find / setup a scene where your controlled light source will dominate over any other light sources.  The easiest way to do this is to shoot indoors with all the lights off, or shoot outdoors at night.
  2. Find a light source.  This can be anything that gives off light – a standard flash, a candle, or even a laser pointer.  In this example, we’re going to be using a flashlight and the screen of an iPhone.
  3. Start exposing the scene (open the shutter) and use your light source to “paint it”.  Light up the subjects you want to focus on, create or remove shadows, add background interest, or even create shapes / write words in the frame.

The fun part about this process is that there are so many different ways you can control the result, and every picture you create will be different.  Don’t like a shadow?  Illuminate it.  Texture doesn’t look good lit from the bottom?  Light it from the top.  Let’s get into an actual example of painting with light that I did in my kitchen with equipment that most amateurs will have access to.

The Equipment We’ll Use

  • Camera – nothing special here.  We’re shooting with a Canon 5D classic.  At the time of this writing, you can get one for a couple hundred dollars on Craigslist.
  • Lens – ok, so this is special…. but it doesn’t have to be!  I used my Canon 100mm Macro L IS because it’s such a fantastic piece of glass and lately, is always attached to my camera.  The same technique could be done with a 50mm prime or any other lens in your bag (and might arguably have more interesting results.)
  • Tripod – mounting the camera on a tripod is an absolute necessity.  We’re going to be shooting exposures of 15 to 30 seconds, possibly longer.  No handholding these photographs.  I used my Gitzo Explorer and off center ball head.  I can’t say enough good things about this tripod.
  • Shutter Release – Since you’re going to be running around your scene lighting it up from different locations and angles, you’ll want remote control of the shutter.  Of course we’re using a Shutterbug Remote and an iPhone for our controller.  We can get into position, trigger the exposure from the app, and light up the scene while watching the exposure count down.  This is especially useful when painting outdoors, where you might be 10 or 20 feet away from your camera.

The Process Step By Step

  1. Setup your scene.  In our example, we’re taking a photograph of a bouquet of flowers sitting on a table.  The table is moved into the middle of the room to separate it from the background (we don’t want to accidentally illuminate a wall or other object.)  Close all sources of stray light like windows, doors, etc.  Leave one light on so that you can focus (outdoors, you’ll have to deal with what you’re given.)
  2. Setup your camera.  Frame the shot, focus the lens, and switch it to manual focus (we don’t want the focus to change once we shut off the lights.)  Set the ISO to the lowest value you have, and crank up your aperture until the depth of field is as deep as you can tolerate.  We want the exposure to be as long as possible giving us maximal control over the lighting.  Also, if possible, shoot in RAW mode.  JPEG can give you some nasty artifacts in dark areas that will come back to bite you in post.
  3. Setup your shutter release.  Put the camera into BULB mode (check to make sure the aperture value didn’t change).  Plug in the shutter release cable into the Shutterbug Remote and into the camera.  Tun on your phone and fire up the app to connect to the remote.  On the BULB page, choose an exposure of 15 seconds.
  4. Paint.  Turn off the remaining light, get into position, and tap the START button on the app.  When the shutter opens, turn on your light source and begin painting the scene.  Experiment with different angles, times, and speeds.  Highlight the subject briefly, then walk around it softening the shadows from all angles.  Or, keep the light in one spot creating hard shadows before moving it into the background.  Take a bunch of shots, experiment, and have fun!  In our example, we lit up the flowers from the top and front, then moved into the background and tried some interesting swirls and lines using the flashlight and the phone itself.

Results

First, lets take a look at a normal photograph with the lights in the room on and a shutter priority exposure.  The background is clearly visible, the lighting of the flowers is dull and uninteresting, and most importantly, taking the picture was boring!  Now, you could spice it up with some soft boxes and reflectors, but we want something that the average amateur can tackle at home.

Flower Bouquet

Shutter priority shot with lights on.

Here is a light painted shot of just the flowers.  So much better!

Painting With Light Flowers

Shot in darkness, illuminated mostly from above.

Here is another shot where we moved the flashlight into the background after lighting the flowers and moved it around to create the swirls.

Painting With Light Flowers and Swirls

Shot in darkness, off-axis flashlight moving in background.

Here is a similar shot where we used the iPhone screen of the Shutterbug Remote app as an additional light source in the background.

Painting With Light Flowers Blue Background

Shot in darkness, iPhone screen used as background light source.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless, the results impressive, and the process really fun.  Take a look at a few other shots we did using exactly the same setup.

Painting With Light Whiskey

Whiskey bottle and glass shot in darkness, illuminated with a flashlight behind a towel.

Painting With Light Mushrooms

Mushrooms shot in darkness, illuminated with a flashlight behind a towel.

Painting With Light Beer

Beer and Glass, shot in darkness, illuminated from above and back-left.

And finally, here is an infographic detailing the entire process.  Please share it and pass it along!

Painting With Light InfoGraphic