Creative Challenge: Painting With light

Creative Challenge: Painting With Light

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Experimenting with different genres is part of growing as a photographer. Today’s tutorial is the first in an occasional series that challenges you to try new photography techniques. Your first challenge is painting with light.

I’m going to explore the idea behind a shoot that arose from a collaboration with a friend who is circus performer. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to replicate this particular shoot as the equipment and skills required by the model to carry it out are very specific. But it will hopefully encourage and inspire you to try out some similar techniques for yourself! There are some more ideas at the end of the tutorial.

painting with light using futurehoop

Painting with light using a FutureHoop

The factor that sets this set of photos apart from other light painting photos is that Tess used a transparent, illuminated hoop that you can program to display sequences of colors and patterns. Tess also happens to be a trained dancer and performer, as well as a creative individual. She bought into the concept right away and instinctively understood how to use the FutureHoop to create patterns that looked great in the photos.

You’re unlikely to own a FutureHoop (you can buy it here if you’re interested) but you can search Amazon or eBay for similar devices. Whatever equipment you end up using there are a number of things you need to do to get the best results from your painting with light experiment.

painting with light using futurehoop

Choose a location

A dramatic location adds interest and impact to your painting with light photos. We made these photos at a monument called Massey Memorial, which is near the city of Wellington in New Zealand. There was plenty of room for Tess to move around and the light stone reflected the light from the hoop.

Don’t forget the practicalities. For example, beaches and old buildings make great backgrounds. But make sure your model can move safely in the near dark without tripping over anything. Check the ground for broken glass if she has bare feet.

A location where other people are unlikely to wander by is ideal – you don’t want a perfect composition to be ruined by somebody walking into the frame with an illuminated phone!

Pick a model

It’s essential to find the right model. I couldn’t have made these photos without Tess. She had all the gear, including an appropriate costume. She understood exactly what I wanted to achieve and knew how to strike professional poses.

Here’s an example of that. Her back is arched, her feet are positioned perfectly, and the toes on her left foot are pointed. Not everybody knows how to do that.

painting with light using futurehoop

Have patience

You’re not going to make great painting with light images right away. It will take you a while to work out how to frame the image, where to position your model and what camera settings to use.

During the shoot, look at the photos on the camera’s LCD screen so you can see what works and what doesn’t. Use the feedback to suggest new things to your model. When you find something that works, ask her to do it again. It’s better to have several frames to choose from as each one’s going to be at least slightly different.

Shoot at twilight

Twilight is the best time of day for painting with light. It’s dark enough to see the lights from your light source, but there’s still enough ambient light to subtly illuminate the background and give some color to the sky.

Keep an eye on your exposure settings. The light fades rapidly during twilight. You’ll have to keep up by watching the histogram and changing exposure settings as you go along. It’s interesting to observe as the ratio between the light from your light source and the ambient light changes as darkness falls.

These photos show you what I mean. We made the first one early in the shoot. The pillars are lit by the light from the setting sun.

painting with light using futurehoop

We made the second when it was nearly dark. The FutureHoop seems much brighter because the ambient light levels are lower (note that I got creative in Lightroom Classic to make the background of the first image darker to match the second one).

painting with light using futurehoop

Get the timing right

The best opportunities for painting with light photos come during a narrow window of time. The ambient light and the light from your light source have to balance each other perfectly. If you turn up at this precise point and start setting up you’ll miss the best light. You need to get in place early, frame the photo, figure out which lens you’re going to use and take plenty of practice photos in advance. Then you’ll be ready to create your best images when the light is at it’s best.

For example, here you can see Tess warming up at the start of the shoot. It was still too bright to create the painting with light photos. You can barely see the light of the FutureHoop. But we had to do this to get ready for the good light.

Tess with futurehoop

Depending on your location you may be able to shoot later at night. The only disadvantage of this is that the sky lacks color. But you might be able to shoot in an urban location and frame the photo so that there isn’t much sky in it. In this case the light from the light source your model is using could illuminate the background beautifully.

Camera settings for painting with light

A good tripod and cable release are essential to support the camera and avoid camera shake. Experiment with shutter speeds to see which ones work best. We used speeds between two and four seconds for these photos. Tess moved fast, so these relatively short shutter speeds worked well. You may need longer exposures if your model needs more time to move the light source around the scene.

Use Manual mode. This keeps your exposure constant. Open the aperture or raise the ISO as the light fades to keep the brightness of your photos constant. Don’t use an automatic exposure mode as the moving lights will confuse your camera’s meter. During this shoot I kept the aperture at fll or f8 and raised the ISO as the light faded.

Use the Raw format. This gives you maximum options in Lightroom Classic afterwards. It also simplifies the shoot as you don’t have to worry about settings like color profile until you develop your photos.

Set White Balance to daylight. This lets you see the natural colors of the light source and the ambient light. Don’t use auto White Balance as you’ll end up with strange color casts as your camera ties to compensate for the colored lights.

painting with light using futurehoop

painting with light using futurehoop

Other painting with light ideas

Here are some other painting with light ideas you can try.

Steel wool spinning

This is where you model whirls a burning ball of steel wool around, creating dramatic photos as the sparks fly through the air. This is potentially dangerous, so do your research before you try it.

Steel wool spinning

Steel wool spinning

Poi and other hand-held fire performing devices

If your model knows how to use poi or other fire performing devices, like burning hula hoops, you can create great images like the ones below. Again, this is potentially dangerous and its important your model knows how to handle the equipment and what to do if something goes wrong.

Painting with fire

Painting with fire

Use a light tube

This is a technique used by photographer Eric Pare using home made tubes of light, a bit like the light sabres from Star Wars.

Light painting with lighttubes

Light painting with lighttubes

Use flash or torchlight to paint with light

What if you don’t have a model? You can try painting with light techniques like using a torch or a flash with colored gels to illuminate your subject.

For example, here I used a flash fitted with a CTO (color temperature orange gel) to illuminate the lifeguard’s hut.

Painting with light using flash

Here I used a powerful torch to illuminate the rocks.

Painting with light using torch

And finally, I froze a leaf in ice and used a small torch to paint the leaf. With ideas like this you don’t even have to leave the house!

Painting with light using torch

Above all, have fun. You’ll create better painting with light photos if you enjoy the process. If you’re working with a model and she enjoys it and gets some good photos she’ll want to collaborate with you on future ideas.

Further reading

100 Composition Assignments

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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