Painting with light

Este artículo también está disponible en Español: Pintar con luz.

I had read on Internet about a photographic technique called 'painting with light', which can produce some amazing results. As I waited for the right opportunity to test it myself, a flower bouquet appeared at home, and presented itself as the perfect victim. A flashlight, a piece of paper, and some time later here is the result of my humble lighting experiment.


First of all, we need a dark place with ample space. It must be dark because we are going to do long exposures, and we do not want to get the background into the final photo; and it must be large enough so we can work comfortably, and not illuminate any surrounding wall or piece of furniture. In this case, I waited until the night hours, closed the drapers at my dinning room, and moved the furniture away from the center of the room.

Then we need a continuous source of concentrated light. Sounds complex, but in fact we just need to get a normal flashlight and put a paper cone in front of it, in such a manner that we get a small beam of light. A LED flashlight would probably make the cone unnecessary, because those tend to have a concentrated beam of light, but I must confess I never tried one.

Finally, we put the camera on a tripod, place the flowers in front of it, and compose the shot.


We set the camera at the manual exposure mode, select a relatively closed diaphragm to get a good depth of field (like f/8), and put the sensibility down to ISO100. With the room lights still on, we focus on the zone that we are going to photograph, and then we put the camera in manual focus mode (later, while we make the photos the lights will be off, and the camera will not be able to focus automatically).

To control the shutter, I selected the bulb ("B") mode and used a remote trigger. But for this kind of experiment we just need a very long enough exposure, like 30 seconds; we just need to keep the shutter open long enough to lighten our flowers adequately.

Now that everything is ready, we turn the lights off, open the shutter, and then we use the flashlight to 'paint' one of the flowers. We must move the flashlight as much as possible, illuminating all the parts of the flower. And we need to move the flashlight around the flower too, so the light gets to it from different angles. Do this for several seconds, then close the shutter and check the result.

Probably, the result will not be good on the first try. Sometimes I spent too much time lighting one zone, and then the photo was overexposed; and sometimes I put the flashlight too close, and the paper cone could be seen on the photo. But with a some patience, we can achieve a good result, just keep trying.


All photos shown in this article are almost as I got them out of the camera. I always shot RAW, and obviously there where some adjustments made during the conversion to JPEG, but I mostly touched the contrast and saturation, nothing else. All the effect was produced during the shot, there are no post-processing tricks.

I worked on the following photo a bit more: with the camera fixed, I made three exposures, illuminating one flower on each exposure; later, I merged them together using layers.


With little more that a normal flashlight and a paper cone, we can produce a fun lighting effect. Sometimes, there is no need to spend large quantities of money in costly lighting equipment: a little bit of imagination and some patience may be enough.

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