I posted some completely unedited photos on Facebook recently a couple of hours after taking them that were lit with a simple $3 torch.
Most of the people that I’ve showed the photo don’t quite understand how you can get such great results with such basic gear; I’m going to show you exactly how it’s done.
How It’s Done
This is actually a remarkably simple process that just requires a bit of patience and a few well charged camera batteries.
Start off with the basics and build these up once you’ve got the hang of it.
The first photo I’m going to show you used basic camera gear, although relied heavily on the tripod I was using.
My tripod’s back leg was stretched out to balance the camera as it pointed almost directly down towards the ground, where my model was lying. Of course, there are plenty of other ways to pose your model. The better the tripod you have, the easier it will be.
The particular torch I was using played a very important role in the end result because, although I owned much more expensive and brighter torches, this one gave me the effect I was looking for.
Instead of using an LED torch, I used a basic one to provide a tungsten light; much more natural, familiar, and warm. It was also a lot less bright, meaning I could take my time and paint with more ease, as well as using the edge of the light to create a softer effect.
Before I go any further, it’s important to note that the only light source in any of the photos in this post came either from the torch I was using or the stars and moon in the night sky.
No flashes or diffusers were used to create the effect; you can reproduce it with even the most basic gear.
Next up was the exposure. This is entirely dependent upon the brightness of the torch and the length of exposure; any information that I can give you will need to be adjusted to suit your own techniques and conditions.
The photo below was taken in manual of course, for 30 seconds, at f/10 and ISO 400.
This was a good starting point; 30 seconds allowed enough time to paint the light.
I walked around the model on the ground, being careful to keep the angle of the light low. This meant that I didn’t light up the grass, nor did I over expose the details on her face.
The aim of this lighting technique was to make it look as though there was a sophisticated lighting setup on either side, with shadows around her facial features.
You’ll notice that, even though I used a long exposure, there is no blurring in the details. This is because the sensor sees the image as a blank canvas until you start laying down light on the areas you want it to see.
So long as the model kept the areas that I was painting still for a second or two, there were no problems.
Due to the technique used, the lighting appears fairly soft but shadows in some places are a little too dark, such as on her chin.
To counteract this effect, I used the same torch but, instead of using the bright beam, I used the light around the edge of torch. This meant that I was dealing with a lot less light that could be used for a longer time, adding detail to places where it previously wasn’t possible.
It was a little bit awkward to get the hang of but, with a longer exposure time, I was able to produce a similar effect.
This time, my aperture and ISO remained constant but my shutter speed was now 1 minute 44 seconds. You’ll notice that the shadows are a lot softer as I was able to take the time and cover more area with my torch.
Taking it Further
Once you’ve mastered basic light painting with your model, you can start to add more elements to the photo that make it even more impressive.
Exposing for a model is one thing. Exposure for both your model and the sky is a lot more complicated, making it twice as likely that you’ll get it wrong.
The trick behind this is to expose the sky first and work from there; you’re tackling the hardest part first, after which you can focus on applying just the right amount of light to the model in the time you have available.
I knew that I was never going to be able to expose the sky the way I wanted to with an aperture as narrow as f/10; the first thing I did was to widen that to f/4.5 to provide me with enough depth of field to capture the model.
It was then just a case of trial and error, trying different exposure lengths until I found the perfect one. Around 1-2 minutes seemed to work well as this enabled me to capture some star trails too.
Long exposures really start to drain your battery life; the longer it takes to find the exposure length, the less battery you’ll have left. I always carry a few spare batteries when possible, although all of these photos were done on the same one.
The photo below was taken at ISO320 for 69 seconds at f/4.5. I was able to take my time and walk around the model, shining the light on her as well as behind her.
Because the camera was much further away this time, you’ll notice less shadows on her body; I couldn’t get too close and the ground was fairly well lit up.
I like how this came out but, ultimately, the sky was a little bit too dark.
To improve the photo above, I nearly doubled the exposure time to 2 minutes 8 seconds. This allowed the sky to expose more and the moon to light up the grass.
As I walked around, I very lightly painted the grass behind too. I was careful not to over exposure the subject as some of the whites in the previous photo appeared too white.
All of this resulted in the photo below, in which you can make out the most important part of the photo – the face -much clearer. The shadows on the legs and arms are much better too as I gave priority to the front of her body.
With this sort of lighting, you can also experiment with the colour; I turned down the saturation on the yellow channel, resulting in the photo looking colder and more green.
Now that you know how it’s done, you can experiment with all sorts of lighting in a variety of environments to come up with your own results. It’s not particularly hard to do, and a great way to spend an evening.
What to Watch Out For
We’ve already been over some of the things to look out for, such as battery life and moving subjects but there are a few more that you’ll want to be careful of when shooting this sort of shot.
Firstly, think about what you want to include in the photo and whether it will be adding to the result or not. Anything that you paint light on to will be picked up by the camera; you need to be extra careful as simple mistakes can waste a lot of time.
For my original photo, the idea was to have a completely dark background so that it wasn’t obvious that she was lying on the grass.
When you start to light up the grass, you lose this effect.
I also mapped out the areas that the camera could see with shoes and a wallet. That way I knew that I wouldn’t walk into the shot at any point.
If you look at the photo below, you’ll notice quite clearly that the torch has lit up the top left of the photo, leaving some light graffiti. The leg of the tripod is also visible in the bottom right of the frame.
Both of these can be removed quite easily in post but it’s best to simply avoid them the first time round.
Finally, you can walk around and light up the scene but you need to be careful of reflecting light.
Just because you’re pointing the torch forward, it doesn’t mean that that’s the only place where the light will fall. You can clearly see me in the background as I try to paint light onto a golf bunker, shortly before the sprinkler came on and ruined the shot completely!