Painting With Light

Photography means to draw with light, but what I am going to share with you in this post is a technique you can use to add a personal style to photos. This is something I did years ago with a 35 mm camera and just recently thought about it again when my wife saw something on line and asked me about it. There are many ways to provide the light source, but you need a controlled environment to do the painting.


You’ll need: A very dark room, a light source – preferably a source projecting a beam, and of course, something to paint. Still lifes are a good way to get started. Use objects you have around the house such as vases, pottery, flowers, and other nick knacks, or anything that you want to create an artistic photo of inanimate objects from. I find it very beneficial to hang a black cloth large enough to provide a dark background on the wall behind my scene to prevent shadows and to create a more subdued atmosphere. You could use any background that you think might work for your shot though.

You can paint people, but this process is a bit slow and it’s difficult to get people to remain still, so use inanimate objects for your first try and you will have a better chance of a well focused image.

For the light source in the photo for this lesson, I used one of the newer flashlights available with an LED light source. Mine is about 4 inches long and slightly less than 1.25 inches in diameter. I went to Home Depot and found some 1.25″ pvc tubing about 18 inches long and another 1/2″ diameter tube. I inserted the flashlight into one end of the large pipe, then inserted the smaller pipe into the other end of the larger piping. When the flashlight is turned on, the light is focused into a beam as it travels through the tubing and the result is a light brush (this is what I will call it for the remainder of this post). Hopefully the diagram below will clarify my description. There are countless ways to achieve this. The main point I am trying to make is that it does not have to cost you a lot of money. Below is the light brush that I made. Total cost was less than $10.00 including the flashlight. Total construction time less than 20 minutes. This light brush is what I used to create the still life photo above. The red object on the left side is the end of the flashlight with the on/off button. I covered the entire length of the pipes with aluminum to keep stray light from exposing the scene in unwanted ways. I left the aluminum off of the smaller diameter pipe for illustration purposes. As any real man would do, I used duct tape to hold all the components together. :)


You have a scene prepared and it’s dark in the house; now what?

You really need a tripod for this, but you can set your camera on a steady surface that allows you to focus on your scene if you don’t have a tripod yet. You are going to be holding the light brush and using it to illuminate your scene, so you can’t hold your camera as you will be moving.

You will need a camera that has a “bulb” setting. A remote control will be of great benefit as well. If you are not familiar with the bulb setting, this setting allows you to open the shutter in your camera and hold it open until you are ready to close it. Some cameras have limits on how long you can keep the shutter open, but I think most will allow you at least 30 minutes.I use a Nikon camera. If I push the shutter button to open the shutter in bulb mode, it will close as soon as I let go of it. If I use the ML-L3 wireless remote control, the shutter remains open until I press the button on the remote the second time. Remote controls such as the ML-L3 for the Nikon cost $10.00 – $20.00. A Wireless remote will prove to be a great aid for many situations. I suggest that you get one.

You will need to use the manual setting of your camera for this technique also. Be sure your lens is set to manual focus and focus on the scene before you turn out the lights. It may take a few practice runs for you to have a better idea of how long to expose the areas of your scene. Start with an aperture of 6 or so and adjust as you need to after looking at your creations. You should look at each image right after you create it to evaluate the settings you are using. The idea is not to create a perfectly balanced image, but to create a dramatic image.If you create a brush similar to the one I created, it will emit a small focused stream of light that you can aim at your scene and slowly paint with the light, illuminating only where you want things to be visible and bypassing the rest. You can also expose some areas more than others creating soft edges and shadows. What type of light source you create and use is up to you. Be creative, experiment. Finally, you are welcome to share your results here.

Leave a Reply