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I'm Beth, a vertically-challenged photographer, stylist, recipe developer and explorer. Welcome to my blog!

Painting with Light

Painting with Light

There's never enough daylight when you are a food blogger.  If you rely on natural light for your food photography, the winter months can be a real challenge. So, here's a creative lighting solution best practiced after the sun has gone down.

paint with tutorial

It's called painting with light.

By using a flashlight as your 'brush' you can selectively add light to certain areas of your shot. The effect is often quite painterly.  It's very useful if you are interested in achieving a dark moody feel, but depending on how much light you add, you can also create very bright open lighting.

Light painting before and after, the first photo was shot with the lights on (a wall sconce behind my shooting surface) and the second photo was taken with the lights off using a flashlight to 'paint' certain areas with light. 

Light painting before and after, the first photo was shot with the lights on (a wall sconce behind my shooting surface) and the second photo was taken with the lights off using a flashlight to 'paint' certain areas with light. 

You don't need any fancy equipment to paint with light, just a tripod and a flashlight.  This lighting technique uses a long exposure, usually between 20-30 seconds, so you'll need to keep the camera stable during the exposure in order to avoid a blurry shot. A tripod is the best tool for this, but don't be afraid to improvise and use any surface that you have available to you in the situation. By using a remote shutter release or the camera's self-timer to trigger the exposure, you will ensure that you don't cause any blur by pressing and releasing the shutter button on the camera.  You'd be surprised, it happens all the time, a slight movement caused by pressing the shutter creates a little bit of ghosting in the resulting photo, so better safe than sorry.  Every camera has a self-timer feature, no excuse not to use it. 

In this example, I stood to the right of my shooting table and moved the flashlight up and down, starting in the foreground and working my way toward the back.  I spent about 20 seconds with my light on the foreground, and about 10 seconds on the background, so the foreground pear and walnut are brighter than those in the background. 

In this example, I stood to the right of my shooting table and moved the flashlight up and down, starting in the foreground and working my way toward the back.  I spent about 20 seconds with my light on the foreground, and about 10 seconds on the background, so the foreground pear and walnut are brighter than those in the background. 

If you are photographing a relatively small area like the example above, a narrow beam allows for better control over the placement of light. The beam on my flashlight had a fairly broad spread and I wanted more precise control, so I fashioned a snoot with a piece of black card stock for the example below. 

Standing to the right and slightly behind the pear about 2ft away from the set, I moved my light back and forth over the foreground for about 20 seconds and only lit the background for 6-7 seconds.

Standing to the right and slightly behind the pear about 2ft away from the set, I moved my light back and forth over the foreground for about 20 seconds and only lit the background for 6-7 seconds.

What the heck is a snoot, you say?

Basically, a snoot is a piping bag for light. All you'll need is a small piece of black card and some tape, just roll the card into a cone shape and tape the wide end to the end of your flashlight.

My light painting 'brush' - a small flashlight with a snoot.

My light painting 'brush' - a small flashlight with a snoot.

So, let's get started!  You'll need:

The photos gets progressively brighter as I move closer to the set with my flashlight.  I was 24 inches from the edge of my frame in the first photo, and I moved 6 inches closer with each shot.

The photos gets progressively brighter as I move closer to the set with my flashlight.  I was 24 inches from the edge of my frame in the first photo, and I moved 6 inches closer with each shot.

  • a dark space
  • tripod
  • a flashlight

Set up your shot, arrange props etc... I'd suggest you frame up your photo with the lights on, to avoid potential injury tripping over the tripod and knocking over the set.

Once your all set up, it's time to test the light to determine your exposure.  Set your camera to it's Manual exposure mode (it's the 'M' on the dial on top of your DSLR).  Start out with an ISO of 100, a shutter speed of 30 seconds (30" on the camera), and an aperture of F5.6.

First, test the ambient light.  Take a shot with the lights out, don't turn on your flashlight.  The resulting photograph should be black or almost black.  With a 30 second exposure, it doesn't take much light at all for your camera to record an image, and you want to ensure that your shooting space is dark enough to allow only the flashlight to record. If your test reveals that the ambient light is recording an image, you can either move to a darker space or you can use a smaller aperture like F11, for example.  The thing to remember about aperture is the bigger the F number, the smaller the opening in your shutter.  With a smaller opening, less light will hit your image sensor, and the resulting photo will be darker.

Now that we've got things dark enough, it's time to determine the brightness of your flashlight.  Try a few test shots, standing a couple of feet away from your subject, move your flashlight over the areas you would like illuminated while counting the seconds.  Pick one area as your exposure test, leave the light on that area for 10 seconds to see how bright it appears in the resulting photo.  If it's too bright, you can either leave the light in that area for less time, take a step away from your subject with your light to reduce it's strength, or adjust your aperture.

It will take a few attempts to determine the best combination of time, distance, and aperture for optimal exposure, but once you figure out roughly what works for your flashlight, you're in business.

OK, we have our exposure nailed, now it's time to correct the white balance.  Flashlights are not generally daylight balanced so you'll likely need to adjust the white balance on your camera.  Check out this link to learn how to set a custom white balance.  It's best to do this in-camera, but you can always correct colour temperature in Photoshop or Lightroom after the fact.  Since we are not using mixed light sources, it should not be a problem.

A few things to remember when you paint with light...

  1. Focus- your auto focus may not work very well in the dark, it's best to focus your camera manually with the lights on.
  2. Make sure that you light your subject from one direction for the most natural looking results.  There is only one sun, so if you were to create an image with light coming from both the right and left sides of subject, you would create what is called cross-over shadows, something that would not occur in nature. 
  3. The closer you hold the light source to the subject and leave the light on any one area, the brighter that area will be in the photograph. 
  4. To avoid ghosted images of your hands and/or the flashlight in your shot, take note of the edges of your frame, and be sure to stay outside of that area.
  5. The light from a flashlight will be quite hard, if you prefer to soften the light a bit, you can diffuse it by using a sheet of waxed paper or parchment over the end of your flashlight.
In this example, I diffused the light source by wrapping the end of my snoot in waxed paper.  Note the edges of the shadows, they are softer and the highlights are a little less snappy than in the examples above. 

In this example, I diffused the light source by wrapping the end of my snoot in waxed paper.  Note the edges of the shadows, they are softer and the highlights are a little less snappy than in the examples above. 

Be aware that this is not a 'quick and dirty' lighting solution, this approach does take a little trial and error.  But, once you've mastered painting with light, it can be a valuable creative tool.

There are endless possibilities using this technique, certainly not limited to painting objects with light.  You can also draw with the light source itself.  Check out Picasso's light drawings here.

This is the first in my series of food photography tutorials, and I hope it inspires you try this technique, it's so much fun! 

Ginger Pear Tart with Walnuts

Ginger Pear Tart with Walnuts

Winter Salad with Pears & Bacon

Winter Salad with Pears & Bacon