Painting With Light – A Beginning Guide

For this blog I am going to be discussing the basics of Night Painting. There are a variety of ways to do it but one thing is for sure when you are talking about painting light.; you need a good subject . There are many popular subjects that people like to shoot at night but the main ones have someone usually in common: history and shape. On my latest trip to the Southwest I was looking forward to shooting some Arches at night. There are so many different shapes and unique formations at Arches National Park; it was just a matter of choosing some that would work well with night painting.


So I decide to try a few different ones and settled on Double Arch and Turret Arch. There were so many but I guess you need to work the ones you have and do the best you can under the circumstances.

When night painting the first thing to do is choose a subject that has strong form and shapes. Think of it this way; would the subject look good silhouette against color. Once you have your subject, try to find a composition that will lend itself to the painting. At this point it can be difficult to see anything and focusing is never easy; but try using a flashlight on what you are trying to focus on and make sure it tack sharp. Once I feel I have the image in focus and everything is sharp I will then do a few test runs at a higher ISO to see that I do have everything as I would like such as composition, depth of field, and the right amount of light. I also use this time to determine the right amount of light needed in terms of time and space. This to me always seems to really depend on the subject I am shooting but use the test trials to figure this out.

Another important part of night painting is what kind of light to use. People use a variety of lights but I like to use LED lights ; using the one I use for a night light on my head. I also will combine this with a flashlight if the subject is not receiving enough light. Just be careful to use light in moderate amounts to avoid blowing out detail in the subject. The test trials are also a good time to try a variety of apertures trying to find a balance between depth of field and time.

Once you are happy with the outcome you are receiving on the back of the LCD of your camera. It is now time to switch the camera to Bulb mode and using a timer remote calculate the time it took at the higher ISO and change it to reflect the longer shutter speed. The reason we want to reduce the ISO to at least below ISO 800 is to avoid noise in the final image. The less you have the better the final image will look. But remember there is a balance and it is important to keep shutter speeds to a minimum if you are looking to get stars in focus behind the subject. If you are going the route of star trails then that becomes another method.

Never keep the light in one area still to long if you want to avoid blowing out highlights in the subject. When painting with light I like to move the light around the whole subject paying attention to the areas I would like to draw the viewer to. One example of this might be to go behind the subject and light up spaces in the subject such as in the arch to give the viewer the belief that there is a light source from behind the subject. This adds mystery and drama to your night painting images.

When should I night paint is probably the most asked question when it comes to night painting? It is important if you want to capture stars in your image to shoot when the ambient light in the atmosphere is at a minimum. So yes a full moon might not be the night you want to go painting if you want to have stars like the Milky Way in your image. So it goes then that the farther you are away from the city the more likely it is you will find it dark enough to capture stars.

Once you feel you are proficient at this it is time to purchase some Roscoe colored gels that can be placed in front of the light source which can add even more suspense to the image. I will discuss this in another blog coming up.

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~ by kevinmcneal on February 2, 2010.

5 Responses to “Painting With Light – A Beginning Guide”

  1. Thanks for sharing the way you go about this! I will definitely have to give this a shot! Thanks!

  2. Interesting tutorial Kevin. What I find particularly difficult with this kind of shooting, even after the preliminary high iso testing, is how to calculate the right amount of light and how to do it fast enough to get sharp stars instead of trails.

  3. Kevin, so many times whenever I see attempts at light painting, the light is quite uneven on the subject, looking unnatural. In your examples, the light is quite even and pleasing.

  4. I could have used a brief definition at the beginning of the post. It took me until almost the end of the article to understand what Night Painting is. By that point most of the technique you were describing had been lost, and I had to re-read it. That said, I love your work, and perhaps I’m not your target audience.

  5. This is the first tutorial I have found that lays it out clearly (and I’ve been searching). Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

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