Painting with Light – Everything you Need to know

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As a photographer, I am always looking for new subjects to shoot, and different things to try.

After reading an article in a photography magazine about painting with light, I was really motivated to try it.


First I went out and purchased some flashlights. I got a miniature one called a mag-lite, which had several different color attachments. Then I got some larger flashlights big enough to tape filters to them. I also purchased a 1 million candle power searchlight. Then I purchased a 12-volt battery to connect to the searchlight.


The next stage was to brainstorm for subject material. I decided I would do some tabletop photography with glass tumblers. But I knew I had to add some “juice”. A term I use to describe another element to give the image high impact. I selected three nice-looking tumblers for my first image. Then I set up the scene lining up three tumblers in a row with black velvet background. Using the large flashlight with a red filter and 100 asa film in my camera, I then lit the glass tumblers from overhead for 2 minutes per [email protected] Then, the next move was to add the blue mist effect. I used a blue floodlight in front of my 105mm lens, I knew I would not get any lens flare as the lens is recessed. The exposure for the mist was done on the automatic exposure meter and was unrecorded, the camera was a Nikon f90. I was very pleased when I got my results back. The odd thing was that the mist effect only worked on the blue floodlight.

My next idea was to have a tilted glass appearing to float on top of the water, but done in a way that would not show how it was secured. To do this I purchased a small aquarium, then made a frame inside out of 2×2 wood. I painted the wood black, and cut a nick in the wood to secure the glass.

Next, I filled the tank with water and put black paint in it. Then I put a few soap suds in so the viewer would recognize it as water. Then I set my camera up on a tripod, using a 105mm lens. I painted with the light on the miniature glass with a red filter, for 2 minutes @ f2.8 on 100asa film.

Next, I added the blue mist to the bottom half of the image. Again using the camera’s exposure meter to record the right exposure.


Next, I tried searchlight exposures. To do this I would go out at night [usually on clear nights] to isolated parts and experiment. I recorded exposure times. I found through painful experience not to hook up a searchlight to a car battery. I blew my air conditioning, as my exposure time was too long. What I learned from my research is that it is important to have no ambient light. Also, I could have very effective saturated reds and greens if I used these filters on the lens of my camera. then I learned to scout for subject material during the day.

Again I started to brainstorm for scenarios. I wanted a scenario of 2 pup tents and a small tree about 10 feet high. Going to work one day I saw the perfect tree about 10 feet high and leaning. I went out on a clear night and set up the two tents, I put an electronic flash slaved in both tents, and flashed them off 4 times. The f stop was f4 for the tents, a 28mm lens was used on an f3 Nikon. Then I used the searchlight to paint light on the grass with a green filter on the lens, exposure time was 2 minutes @f5.6 on 100 asa film. Next, I light painted the tree using a red filter, the exposure time was 90 seconds @ f.8

This image was #1 in a nationwide filter contest in a photography magazine, I also managed 5th place as well.

I wanted to do a huge subject with the searchlight. I picked out an isolated old abandoned log cabin. It was on a highway with very light traffic, it was a perfect scenario, fitting all my criteria. I went out on a clear night to photograph it. No doubt about it this was a challenge. I went back quite a few times before i got the correct exposure. I had to open up 3 stops for the trees in the background. I used a 100 asa film on the log cabin with a red filter, exposure time was 2 minutes @ f5.6. also used a 28mm lens. The grass using a green filter was also a 2-minute exposure @ f5.6. The background trees I split into 4 sections because of its massive size exposure time was 4 minutes @f2.8 for each section. The image did win a local contest, the judges commenting on how different the light was!

The next scenario I tried was truck tail lights at night. I scouted for an isolated highway, which was winding and facing north, as I was considering star trails as an element in the image. I finally found what I was looking for. Now for the action. I soon found out, when I got my images back, that the trucks had to have lights at the top to have a high impact. Unfortunately, it was too late to chance as I had to press the shutter before the truck went by. Another negative was oncoming traffic headlights, I prepared myself for this scenario by using a black card to cover the lens.

I decided to light the road the shoulder and the side of the road. I, always, turned my searchlight off whenever any cars were quite a way off. One night a cop saw the light from my searchlight and spoke with me. He told me he thought it was a UFO. The exposure time on my road shots with a 28mm lens was about 20 minutes as it was quite a big area. Also, I had to turn my searchlight off a lot as soon as there was any traffic. An aperture of f5.6 was used on these images. The star trails were a disappointment as there was a problem with moisture on clear nights in that location. The subject material is very limited in painting with light via searchlight. When it was all over, I knew a lot more about light, and I had a lot of fun. All in all it was a very interesting experience.

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Mathew Daly

Mathew Daly

Mathew Daly, is a 32-year old photographer from Boston. Mathew has been intrigued by photography from an early age ever since he was given his first camera. He started wandering his neighbourhood to capture the beauty in the most mundane of things. He curates interesting buyer guides on cameras and helps buyers make an informed choice. 
Mathew Daly

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