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Our chief photographer shares his insights.

Painting with Light

By Earl Nottingham

In the dark of night, your flashlight becomes a paintbrush.

In a previous column we explored the photographic possibilities waiting to be captured in the waning hours of daylight, thanks to faster films and digital sensors. The intent was not only to illustrate the greater sensitivity of films and sensors, but to encourage creative photography at the times of day most folks wouldn’t consider “good light.” This month, we ratchet up the creativity level by shooting in the darkness of night using a fun (and educational) technique referred to as “painting with light.”

Painting with light is a method traditionally used to provide nighttime illumination for the photography of large objects such as buildings, aircraft or trains. However, the same technique can also be used as a creative tool for photographing other outdoor subjects, such as trees, flowers, barns and windmills. It involves lighting the object from several directions with either multiple hand-held flashes or — for this discussion — one constantly moving continuous light source, such as a flashlight, headlight or spotlight. Since the subject is in total or near darkness, the only image recorded in camera is what you choose to “paint in” with the moving light.

Painting a scene with light first involves setting up a sturdy tripod, since exposures can run from several seconds to several minutes. Also, use of a cable release and your camera’s “bulb” setting will enable the shutter to remain open until manually closed. Some automatic cameras don’t have the “bulb” setting and are limited to exposures around 30 seconds (check your owner’s manual).

It helps if you can enlist the aid of an assistant to open and close the shutter while you shine your light. Because of the limitless variations of subject sizes and light intensities, finding the correct amount of time to paint the subject for a proper exposure is usually a matter of trial and error. If you are using a digital camera, a quick look at the screen will tell you if a little more (or less) light is needed in a specific area. Exposure time will also be determined by the camera’s f-stop. A relatively large aperture, such as f4 or f5.6 is a good starting point for larger subjects that need a lot of light. Additionally, setting your digital camera at a higher, more sensitive ISO rating will shorten exposures. Try starting with an ISO rating of 400 or 800. If the image appears too grainy (electronic noise), back off to 100 or 200. Be aware that exposures can become unbearably long using smaller apertures and lower ISO speeds.

To start, have your assistant open the shutter. First, light the subject from its side, and then work your way around it, moving constantly to illuminate it evenly from several angles, using up-and-down or sideways strokes as needed to cover the subject evenly with light, much like you would use a can of spray paint. Use your own creativity to determine the look you want. Just remember to keep your body out of the frame and certainly don’t stand between the camera and the subject, otherwise you will see a nice silhouette of yourself in the final image. As soon as you have finished painting the scene, close the camera’s shutter. That’s it.

Part of the fun and educational value in painting with light is to see how different types of common flashlights, headlamps and spotlights render a subject in the finished photograph. On smaller subjects, I particularly enjoy working with the new generation of L.E.D. headlamps that provide the creative choice of a traditional warm-colored light output, or a bluer, more daylight-balanced color depending on the bulb type. If you are using a spotlight with too narrow of a beam, try placing a frosted material, such as crinkled paper, over the lens to spread out the light.

After perfecting your painting with light technique on a dark night, try painting under other nocturnal situations, such as moonlit nights or late evenings where there is just a hint of postsunset blue left in the sky. You’ll be blown away by the results.

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