Lightpainting Tutorial

Lightpainting is the technique of using a small hand-held light, usually a flashlight, to light a subject during a long exposure. It gives the photographer enormously subtle control over the way the subject is lit, but does require that the subject remain relatively static during the exposure. This is fine if you’re shooting an inanimate object, but can be a challenge when shooting a model. To get started you need a subject, a camera that can handle long exposures, a tripod, a flashlight, and a room that can be made relatively dark. It doesn’t have to be pitch-black, but if it’s too light you’ll find the unlit portions of your image won’t be completely black.

Mount your camera on the tripod and get the model into a pose that they can hold for an extended period without straining. Unsupported standing poses are almost impossible as the model will sway very slightly, blurring the image – reclining is probably the easiest to start with. The background doesn’t need to be black, but keeping it free of clutter that might catch the light does help.

Before attempting an exposure, use the flashlight to plan the movement of the light – it helps to do this with the room lights off. Decide where you want light, and where you want shadow, and practice the sweep of the flashlight required. As the camera shutter will be locked open, the exposure is controlled by the aperture, the distance of the light to the model and the speed you move it. Holding the light at different distances will vary both the brightness and the effect produced. Move the light at about 6 inches a second to start with – move it too slowly and you’ll catch too much movement – too quickly and the results won’t be bright enough.

Once you’re happy with the required movement, switch out the room lights and open the camera shutter. If possible, set the camera to “B” and use a locking cable-release to do this – that way you can close the shutter again as soon as you’re finished. If not, set a long exposure time – say, 30 seconds – and make sure you can get your exposure finished within that time. Get into position beside the model, make the exposure, and close the shutter (or wait for it to close). If you’re shooting with a digital camera, check the result of the shot and repeat until you get it right. This will take some time and patience.

When lighting the model (or background), be aware of your own position relative to the camera. If you get between the two, you’ll block the camera’s view of the light and leave a dark “hole” on the image. Similarly, if you’re in shot during the exposure, as my leg is in the first two shots in this sequence, you should make a point of moving at least once during the exposure. This will reduce the chance of you leaving a dark patch in the image where light reflected from the model was not able to illuminate the floor. The camera only sees the portion of the scene that’s lit, so you can be in front of unlit areas so long as you move before lighting them.

You also need to be aware of the position of the light. So long as it’s kept pointing away from the camera, the light itself won’t appear in the image. If you allow it to point backwards like this, it will leave a streak in the image, and if shone directly into the lens, will probably cause lens-flare. Lastly, when lighting a model, try not to go over the same area twice with the light. If you do you’ll probably get a double image. Slight movements are inevitable, so the less you emphasise them the better.

With enough time, and a patient enough model, you should end up with something like this. The main light comes from the right as shown above, but I then switched the light off and moved around to light her face from the other side. Give it a go and see what you come up with. If you do try it out and produce something interesting (or have a question), leave a comment with a link or let me know where it’s posted so that I can have a look.

DaveMc, May 2007.