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How to paint with light


24 October 2007 14:32

Moving lights around a subject to illuminate different areas is known as painting with light. The results with any technique as random as this are always going to be unpredictable, so for your first attempts it’s best to stick with fairly simple subjects. Graveyards are a favourite location with many photographers, who use a torch or flash to pick out individual headstones and monuments.

If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, and have mastered the basics, then there’s almost no limit to the subjects you can try. We set ourselves the challenge of finding some more unusual subjects in a park. Getting there just before sunset gave us a chance to find a couple of promising subjects. About 15 minutes after the sun had disappeared, light levels had dropped enough to make the torchlight visible in the gloom, but still with a little colour in the sky.

We set up our tripod in-between the multiple trunks of a coppiced tree for our first shot. With the camera pointing directly upwards, framing was a bit of an educated guess, but shooting with a DSLR allowed us to review the image easily.

Choosing an exposure of 15 seconds at f/4.5 we set the camera on self-timer, pressed the shutter and set about a crazed dance waving torches up and down the trunks and at the canopy of leaves. Several attempts later we were happy that we’d got the shot, so we started the same routine, but added some bursts of light from a handheld flashgun onto the canopy to try to add extra light to the more distant areas.

The second location, with a group of pollarded willow trees, meant the camera and tripod were simpler to set up, but the almost pitch-black conditions meant framing was even more difficult. We composed the shot as wide as possible to allow us to crop the image later and set to work with our light show again. This time the torch was used on the main trees while the flashgun illuminated the smaller branches to give a candle-like appearance to the trees. With the lower light levels and the greater distance we had to cover, we used a shutter speed of 25 seconds.

• Working in the dark reveals a framing challenge. There’s no simple technique to help you frame through an almost black viewfinder, so you have no choice but to set up before the light fades too much. You can use the torch to illuminate the scene, but it’s still pretty hit-and-miss.

• Focusing is tricky too. If you’re lucky the camera will pick up the light from the torch and focus automatically, otherwise it’s down to manual adjustments courtesy of a little educated guesswork.

• Exposure depends on the power of the torch you’re using and the distance between the torch and subject. For our images (shot at ISO 100) we found an aperture of f/4.5 was a good starting point, with an exposure time of about 15 to 30 seconds. Setting the camera to full manual exposure will allow you to try a range of settings.

Remember – the light from your torch will be less effective on more distant subjects, therefore objects close to the light source need less light than those further away. When lighting your subject spend less time on the close areas, and take your time to paint the light onto the distant ones.

For our shot looking up into the trees we gave each trunk a single, quick pass over with the torch, slowing down as we moved up the tree. For the image above we also used several bursts of flash from different positions to illuminate the canopy of the trees.