Light Painting Tutorial and Pictures
Light painting is a fun experience because you can really get creative by designing effects, or creating moods. In this article I am not discussing low light photography, I am going to discuss no light photography. Well, you do use light, but only very specific light exactly where you want it. The great thing is that you don’t even need a lot of expensive equipment to do it! You will need a DSLR camera, or a camera that you can control how long the shutter stays open. If you don’t have a DSLR you can use your iPhone or Android phone with an additional application that you can use to hold your shutter open. If you decide to go that route, you will need to see what is available and read the instructions on how to set up that software from the software author. Remember, whatever camera you have available is the right camera to use.
Light Painting Set Up
To set up my light painting I took a black sheet and draped it over my coffee table. Since I wanted one side to be up higher, to provide a backdrop, I just grabbed a box and sat it on the coffee table with the sheet laid over it. The sheet is just a cheap 200 thread count twin bed sheet that I picked up at a big box store. I did fold it over once to make it thicker. My goal with the sheet is to not reflect any extra light, so no satin sheets here.
Next, I set up my umbrella stands to diffuse the light through. If you don’t have an umbrella stand just do what I did when I first started to experiment, and bounce the light off of a piece of white paper or tag board. The idea is to get the light to spread out evenly, and not be concentrated on any one particular spot. The umbrellas are easier, but certainly not a requirement for this since a piece of paper works almost as well. It does take a little bit longer with the paper since you are are bouncing the light back. Whichever technique you try though is going to require a little bit of practice until you get the feel for it. I have found that the best thing to do is to count to myself while I am painting an area. When I check the results I then know if I need a shorter or longer count. It isn’t an exact science, but after some experience you will develop a bit of a sixth sense for the amount of time you need. Of course, the beauty of DSLR is that you can just hit delete on what doesn’t work, make a mental note, and try a new technique.
After I set up the umbrellas and sheet, I went ahead and placed a toy model of the USS Enterprise, from Star Trek®, in the middle of it. I tilted it at the angle that I wanted and then set up my camera on my tripod.
This next step is very important. Once I had the the camera mounted on my tripod I put my lens to auto-focus and pressed my shutter button down half way to get the camera to focus the lens without taking a picture. I verified that the ship was in focus. I then put my lens into manual mode. With my Nikon lens this is accomplished with a small switch on the left side of the lens.
I then made sure that my camera was in manual mode, meaning I had complete control over every aspect of the picture. I opened up the aperture all of the way, to allow as much light in as possible. I suggest that you do this at least for your first shots. After that you can start to experiment with smaller apertures, but if you are just starting out, open that camera up.
A camera remote is very important, and I think that most DSLRs support an infrared remote. I bought my remote, a Nikon ML-L3 Wireless Remote Control, for just a few dollars and it has always worked great for me. With the remote I could open the shutter with it, instead of having to press the button. Pressing the button will cause a slight vibration in the image, and more important with light painting, you have to actually go to the camera to start the picture.
I also put the camera into bulb mode, which allows me to hold the shutter open as long as I want to. Remember that in a completely dark room no light is getting onto the sensor, which means that you can safely hold the shutter open for an extended period of time without ruining your shot. My only source of light to move around with was a nightlight plugged in down the hallway. With the lights turned off I could make out my umbrellas, and from there I knew where everything else was at. As a safety precaution you might also get a small chemical light, and tape it to the leg of your camera tripod. I always mean to do this, but forget to buy them.
Light Painting – The Paints
So now that the equipment was set up, the next thing to do is to get out the “paints.” A couple of years ago I was walking by a trash can at the entertainment company I worked for and noticed old light gels, and scraps of old light gels that were being thrown away. The particular gels were getting a bit thin in the middle, making then unsuitable for the stage, but the edges that had been under the rings were still in great shape. Also, some of the scraps were really quite large. I quickly grabbed all of them and brought them home. They have proved useful on many occasions. Since you probably don’t have a set of light gels, you can still use colored lights by using colored plastic dishes, colored transparencies, colored plastic food wrap or any other type of colored plastic or glass that you can shine a light through. This is one of those steps were you need to get creative, and work with what you have available. For my actual light source, I just used a little keychain maglite and a red laser pointer that I picked up on clearance for a couple of dollars.
You will want to plan out what you want to do, with your main lights on. For my first shots, I knew that I wanted to light up the edge of the ship with blue, and then shine some yellow and purple from the top through my umbrella. So I set the colored light gels where I would need them, that way I wasn’t fumbling in the dark trying to find things. If you do need to turn on your maglite to see I recommend putting a gel in front of it first, and never point it at the camera. Doing so will spoil your shot. I then turned off the overhead lights and made my way to where I would start painting. After I had the gel wrapped over the light I clicked the button on my remote to open the shutter.
I began to light paint. I painted directly on the the ship through the gel, as well as through the umbrellas, depending upon the effect that I wanted to create. For example, to achieve a nice bright front edge, I shown a blue light directly on it. This caused that edge to really light up, and bounced some of the light back to the front of the “warp nacelles.” For the yellow and purple lights I had to get up and walk to each side of my setup. Remember to not walk into your camera! If possible, cross from side to side by walking behind your object, and in front of the camera. If it is dark enough the camera will never see you. I shown my light through the gels and the umbrella at the same time. This created a nice overall scattering of the color, so you really can’t tell where the light source is, only that it is from above.
I also tried out a shot where I started by holding the laser pointer at the very top of the saucer section of the Enterprise. I lined up the light exactly where I wanted it, and turned it on before I clicked the remote on the camera. This is another great reason to have a remote, it’s almost like having an extra person helping you. After I clicked the remote button I very slowly rotated the laser pointer, causing the light to bounce around a bit. I did this while trying to make sure that I didn’t move the focus of the light from the same spot. This took a bit of dexterity, but I was able to pull it off. Then I simply turned off the laser pointer and painted the rest of the scene with the gels, similar to before. For the red tinted ship at the bottom right of the screen, I took a piece of red colored plastic and reflected the light from my flashlight off of it and onto the ship.
Light Painting – Summary
Light painting is more about artistic creativity then anything else, so make note of what you are doing, and what you want to try different. For your first shot I suggest just shining the light on the object for about 15-20 seconds and then clicking the button on your remote again. Take a look at your results and make more plans from there. Take note of the color saturation, where your light fell, shadows, and the overall impression that you are left with. Then, plan what you want to do next.
In the next part I will discuss taking this snapshot and incorporating it into an image of a star that went nova. I will be using the gimp software, and an image from NASA to demonstrate this. The Gimp is a suite of customizable picture manipulation software that is completely free. It rivals Photoshop in its features and complexity, is community supported, and has plug-ins for almost any purpose. If you can’t do it in The Gimp, you probably can’t do it in Photoshop either. The great thing about images from NASA is they are of the highest quality, freely available, and are in the public domain.
In part two I finish my painting by putting the Star Trek USS Enterprise into a NASA image, creating a composite portrait. Light Painting and The Gimp – Part 2
As always, have fun with your pictures and keep on clicking!
Thanks – Mike
Star Trek® and Related Marks are Trademarks of CBS studios. No infringement intended.