Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Painting with Light

Posted in photography, technique, Uncategorized by Jason Gray on July 6, 2012

As a painter, I can attest that this technique is probably more akin to writing or drawing with light than it is with painting, but the common referent is to painting so we’ll go with that.

Painting with light requires essentially four things: 1. a subject with improper illumination/cast in darkness/in full darkness, so much so that an exposure longer than 1 second is necessary (longer than 30 seconds is ideal for complete control of the light); 2. a constant light source, preferably with directability (ie. flashlight); 3. a camera on a tripod, preferably with a “bulb” or “time” setting for shutter speed; 4. patience and a creatively experimental countenance.

To paint with light, the photographer simply uses a directed light source to illuminate the parts of a picture, during a long exposure, that he/she wants to be lit. Because the effect is cumulative, the photographer can increase the exposure by making several passes (the painting part) over the subject, as opposed to the more conventional approach of having to continuously light it. This freedom allows the photographer, in near or total darkness, to do things with only one light that would otherwise take many lights to achieve. Experimentation, creativity, and patience are all that are required to master this technique.

An interesting side note is that, because the effect is cumulative, exposure is approached somewhat differently than if you were to take a photograph in daylight. For instance, let’s say that you have a pitch black room with three chairs in it, and you have a single person who you want to make it appear to be sitting in all three chairs simultaneously. You would set the overall exposure according to the sum of what it would take to illuminate the person sitting in each chair separately (adding in the time it takes for them to move in between the chairs). In others words, let’s say that the chairs are each positioned at roughly the same distance from the camera, and that it takes 10 seconds of waving a flashlight over the subject to get a correct exposure for the person sitting in each chair. You’ve also determined that it takes 5 seconds for the person to move between the chairs and get situated. Therefore, your exposure for the overall scene would be 40 seconds (10+10+10+5+5).

A caveat to the above technique is that, if there is any ambient light in the scene, you must consider this and determine a base overall exposure that will act as the parameter wherein you will adjust the individual exposure times for elements that are to be “painted”. So, if you are wanting to do the same shot as above, but the room you are shooting in has some ambient light coming from an open window, then you will need to determine the time that it takes for the ambient light to reach its “blowout point”, in terms of the highlights, and set your individual exposure times accordingly. Let’s say that in the above scenario, the room is not pitch black and there is in fact enough ambient light that will cause parts of your scene to overexpose after 28 seconds. Because 10 of those seconds will be dedicated to your subject having to move in between the chairs, the time that you have to paint with light is basically 6 seconds for each chair. Since you’ve already determined that it takes 10 seconds per each chair to expose correctly, you’ll either need to grab a more powerful flashlight, or move in closer to your subject with your existing light (changing aperture or ISO will equivalently effect your ambient light exposure time and so not solve your problem).


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