Have you ever wanted to create a stunning photograph in the dark when there is absolutely no available light? If so then this light painting tutorial will definitely be of interest to you. Over the years we have ventured into many places which have been pretty much pitch black. The only light coming from the torches we bring with us, which we use to create photos like this
Firstly and probably most importantly you will need a few items of equipment in order to capture a successful light painting shot.
You’re looking for a camera with a ‘bulb’ setting which will allow you to shoot for more than 30 seconds at a time. Most dSLRs should have this function and possibly some bridge cameras too.
To make use of the ‘bulb’ setting you should pick up a cable release that has a locking function. A cable release is a small button at the end of a cable which whilst held down will keep the exposure going. The locking function will hold the button down for you until you flick it off again. You can pick these up fairly cheaply, generally less than £10. These are examples of ones which will work with a Canon or a Nikon camera.
A tripod is an absolute essential as your camera will need to be completely still for up to a few minutes at a time. I started off with a cheap plastic tripod but moved onto a lighter, more solid Giottos tripod after a year or so. Your choice will depend largely on your budget but I can’t stress enough that investing in a good tripod will pay off in the long run.
Lastly you will need to pick up a decent torch so that you can create light in the darkest of places! I would recommend a torch with a white LED bulb rather than the older, traditional orange bulbs. This will help in achieving a more accurate representation of the natural colours and also avoids any colour correction in post processing. The more lumens the better! I currently use an AP Pro Series 210 Lumens Torch however I wouldn’t get anything with less lumens as it will mean longer exposures and more light painting.
Once you have all your equipment packed and a suitable location picked out its time to set everything up and get ready for some serious light painting.
Get your tripod set up on sturdy ground. The last thing you want is for it to sink into soft sand during the shot and ruin your hard work.
Setting the focus of the scene can be tricky given how dark it will be. What I have found to be the easiest way to achieve a sharp image in these situations is one of two methods. For large open spaces such as train tunnels I set the focus manually to about 10 metres and have my aperture at about f8 or smaller. For small rooms use your torch on a narrow beam and point it at the object you want to focus on. Then use the camera’s automatic focus to use this point and focus on it. Once you have it focused switch the focus to manual to stop it from changing again.
Once you are set with your tripod and camera you are going to want to take a few test shots so that you are happy with the composition. The easiest way to do this is to crank your ISO settings up to the highest and shoot a few 30 second exposures. During the shots have your torch out and just move the torch over the nearby scenery or the main subject of the shot. The point in doing this is that taking 4 or 5 test shots instead of a 4 minute exposure is that you can correct the position after each until you are happy with the composition rather than realising after 4 minutes that your shot isn’t what you are looking for.
So now we are happy with the scene and have the camera positioned perfectly we will move onto the fun part of light painting whilst taking the shot. The length of exposure will really depend on the setting and how dark the place is. In almost pitch blackness I would recommend a 3 to 4 minute shot to begin with. You can always adjust this before the next shot if you think you need more time to light the place up. For the rest of this section I’m going to use the example of light painting an abandoned train tunnel. You may want to use the mirror lock function if you have one available to reduce the amount of movement in the camera during the shot. Start the exposure using your cable release and then begin to walk away from the camera with your torch pointing away from the camera at all times. If the torch points towards the camera at any time during the exposure it will most likely show up in the final image and could ruin the shot. The torch light can be seen in this failed attempt:
Whilst walking away from the camera keep the torch moving at all times over the nearest surfaces, being sure to cover the floor, walls and ceiling with the light. Keeping the torch moving is key in making sure the light is spread out and not centred on one particular spot as again this can ruin the final shot. Keep your pace slow and steady so the light is evenly spread out.
Once you have walked as far as you want, or the camera finishes taking the shot its time to review your efforts. If the shot seems too dark then it may be time to increase the exposure length. Also if you feel that some areas are darker than others then you may need to reshoot on the same settings but concentrate on where you are pointing the torch during the shot so that you are covering everything that you want to
For smaller, more enclosed scenes there may be no need to go for a walk. In this case you are best to stay behind the camera and keep your torch moving very quickly over the general area. When I say keep the torch moving very quickly I mean very quickly. Pretend you’re at a rave without the music and keep the torch moving constantly. By doing this you can hopefully keep the exposure length shorter and the light will look more natural. In the following shot you can see the results of keeping the torch pointed a specific point for too long:
From this point it is really a case of trial and error until you get something you are happy with.
After a few attempts in different settings you may want to try and mix up the shots a little. Try standing still in front of the camera with your torch pointing away to create a silhouette shot, or completely change where you stand with the torch in comparison to where the camera is. You could end up with something like this: