Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Light Painting 101

Light Harted (Reindeer Light Painting), HertfordshireLove At First Light (Light Painting), KentSome Corner Of A Field (Black and White Light Painting)Being In The Universe (White Witch Light Painting), DorsetField Of Dreams (Penalty Kick Light Painting), RickmansworthFor Those In Peril On The C (Kraken Light Painting), Mill End

Light Painting, a set on Flickr. Over the last few months I've had some success shooting light paintings. I'm lucky enough to get Flickrmail asking about the basics, and whilst I've got plenty left to learn, here are the things I'd recommend as a starter for ten.

1: Sketch the scene first - Successful light painting means drawing images in the air, without seeing your progress as you go. Meeting this challenge is made much easier the fewer lines you need to draw. Sketching your idea on paper before going out with the camera allows you to simplify the image so that the fewest lines need tracing, and the image will be easier to produce.

2: Use the background - Remember that the light painting itself is just one aspect of the image. A great set of flashlight painted lines are super in themselves, but the magic really happens when you weave them successfully into a background scene that could also stand on its own two feet.

3: Use your body - Especially when drawing human figures, you can use your body to guide you when tracing in the air. Run a test shot, remembering the points of your body where you turn the torch. This makes it much simpler to avoid overlapping lines or distorted scales. Measure movement between positions in clear steps, counting them in your mind so you can repeat and control the process time after time.

4: Use bright torch for lines - A dim torch moved slowly and a bright torch moved quickly both have their pros and cons. I favour a bright torch. This allows swift movements, leaving smoother lines. The danger is that the bright torch causes flare at the end of lines. Dim torches are better for flare, but the slower movements they demand are often harder to keep smooth.

5: Use a smooth, non-grip torch - Especially when tracing against or near your body a grippy rubber torch will catch on clothing and ruin images. A brushed aluminium or plastic flashlight can be traced against clothes or through undergrowth without catching, allowing for smoother, more accurate lines.

6: Use flare - Whilst you won't want it on smooth lines, holding your torch in one place creates a neat sunburst effect. This can be used for creative effect, as in some of the images above.

7: Control aperture - Light lines, as well as the background, are best shown in focus. At night, when focusing is difficult, first use live view and your torch to focus midway into the scene. Then set aperture at f/8 to f/11 - giving enough depth of field to keep lines distinct. Tighter apertures are generally too slow to give good lines at acceptable ISO levels, and just a little blur makes the lines smooth.

8: Dark clothing and move fast Wear dark clothing and get out of the frame quickly, especially if you are stood against a relatively bright background like the sky. You needn't rush things; move deliberately though and do not dawdle.

9: Once you're happy shoot it again - However good your image looks on the back of the camera, shoot as many additional frames as you have time for. Tiny details on light paintings can undermine the image and they're hard to see on LCD. Once you know you have a decent image on your memory card, you can relax and try adding details. Many of the movements are like kata - the more you do them the better they become.

10: Shoot a backing plate - When you have a few images you are happy with, shoot a blank shot of the scene at an identical exposure as your most successful. Correcting errors or errant lines in light paintings is very difficult through cloning, and having a blank background layer makes it much easier to delete details that don't work.

Good luck and enjoy!