I posted some photos on Facebook recently which went up completely unedited, just a couple hours after being taken, 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, but 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, if you’ve got them. Start of with the basics, and build up to further elements once you’ve gotten 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. I had my tripod’s back leg stretched out to balance the camera which was pointing almost directly down to the ground, where my model was lying. Of course, there are plenty of other ways to pose your model, but the better the tripod you have, the easier it will be.
The particular torch that I was using played a very important role in the end result because, even though I had much more expensive and brighter torches, this gave me the effect I was looking for. Instead of using an LED torch, I used a basic torch which provided me with a tungsten light, which is much more natural, familiar, and warm. It was also a lot less bright which meant that 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 from either the torch I was using, or the stars and moon in the night sky. No flashes or diffusers were used to create the effect, which means that you can reproduce it with even the most basic gear. Next up was the exposure, and this is entirely dependent on the brightness of the torch and length of exposure, so any information that I can give you, will likely change depending on your own techniques. The photo below was taking in manual of course, for 30 seconds, at f/10 and ISO 400. This was a good starting point as 30 seconds enough amount of time to paint the light.
I walked around the model on the ground, being careful to keep the angle of the light low so 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 if there was a sophisticated lighting set up at on each side, with shadows around her facial features. You’ll notice that even though it was a long exposure, there was no blurring in the details, and this is because the sensor sees the image as a blank canvas until you start laying down the light of 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 light and technique used, the lighting was fairly soft, but with some shadows in places being a little bit 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, and add detail to places that I previously couldn’t. 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 a minute and 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, but exposure for a model and the sky at the same time is a lot more complicated, and twice as easy to get wrong. The trick behind finding the right exposure is to expose for the sky first and work from there, because then you’ll have the hardest part done, and 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, so the first thing I did was widen that to f/4.5, which would provide me with enough depth of field to capture the model. Then it was just a case of trial and error with exposure lengths, trying to find the perfect one, and around 1-2 minutes seemed to work well as I was able to capture some star trails too. Long exposures really start to drain your battery life so the longer it takes to find the exposure length, the less battery you’ll have left. I always carry a couple spares with me 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 and 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 that there is less shadows on her body because I couldn’t get too close, also, the ground if 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 and 8 seconds, so that the sky could exposure more and the moon could light up the grass. I also walked around very lightly painting the grass behind too. I was also carful not to over exposure the subject as some of the whites above appear to be too white. All of this resulted in the photo below, where you can make out the most important part of the photo much clearer – the face. 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 some more with the colour, so I turned down the saturation on the yellow channel, which made the photo look 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 of your time.
What to Watch Out For
We’ve already been over some of them, such as battery life and moving subjects, but there’s a few more that you’ll want to be careful of when shooting this sort of shot. Firstly, you’ll want to 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 the light on, the camera will pick up, so 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 start to 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. Also, you can see the leg of the tripod in the bottom right on the frame. Both of these can be removed quite easily in post, but it’s best to try and get it right 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 that the light is going to be. 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!
That’s all for now, I hope you’ve learned something, come over and say hi on Facebook when you get a chance. – Josh