1. It starts with focus
Spending hours in the dark making images can be a lot of fun, until you get home and realize all your images are out of focus. Doh! There are a few ways to get a sharp image in the dark. I personally have a partner stand at the point of focus shining a flashlight right back at my camera. I then look through the viewfinder and manually focus while watching the starburst on the flashlight until it appears sharp. I then double check on the back of the screen by zooming in after taking a photo. Another option is to shine a powerful light onto an object while using auto focus. No matter how you get your camera to focus, always check it before you get to deep into the light painting techniques. Also recheck anytime you bump your camera.
Here is a great video Johnny put together demonstrating how to focus in the dark.
2. Nail your composition first
When it comes to light painting, the possibilities are endless. With endless possibilities can come excitement and anxiety. Because of this, we often forget all we know about the basic elements that make a great photo. The most important thing to start with is a great composition. When it is dark it is much harder to see what your composition looks like, but it is still as important as it is in the daytime hours. Make sure you lock down a great composition before adding any artificial lights into the scene. Then once you are happy with the layout, the lights that you paint in should add to the great composition, not detract.
3. Tonal Range isn’t just for Black and White
A common problem I see with many scenes that have been light painted is their lack of a wide tonal range. Usually the thing lacking is the mid tones. Shooting in the dark can leave you with plenty of black tones, and then when you add that bright light in, you can get the other extreme on the white tone side of the equation, but where are all the mid tones? It is important to try and get tones all across the scene to shine through. The easiest way to do this is to first expose for a great shot without adding artificial light, then adding your lights in to help light the scene without over powering it. If you would turn your image to black and white, it would be great to see a spectrum from black all the way to white with a variety of gray tones in between. Histograms can tell you how you are doing as well, but a perfect bell shape histogram doesn’t always equal a great image, just keep that in mind.
4. Get that sky light
If you are shooting outside, shooting with some ambient light still in the sky can really add to the photo. For one, it is easier to make a composition when you can still see the scene fully, and also having some color in the sky other than black can really give your image some mood, and help your light painting stand out against a nice backdrop.
5. Balance Ambient with Artificial Light
Your flashlight or other light painting tools should be balanced with the ambient light in the scene. If you were shooting a portrait session during the sunset using strobes, you would balance the ambient light of the sunset with the strobes on the model in order to give it a natural and balanced feel. The same goes with light painting. If you were painting a hot rod in the middle of a street, it would be nice to have the streetlights balanced with the light you are shining on the car so they look natural. Don’t forget about the rest of the background as well. Balance is the spice of life!
6. White Balance still matters
White balance is the first thing a professional photographer will notice. It is often the case with light painting that we are mixing ambient, fluorescent, incandescent, or natural light with an LED flashlight or some other light painting tool. If you want to control your white balance through out the scene, you should first set your white balance for the ambient light in the scene. That could be the streetlights, the fading light in the sky, or whatever else is lighting the scene. Next you can use gels (colored transparent paper) on your flashlight to match the scene. It takes practice to get good at this, but it will take your images to another level when done correctly.
The final tip is to always overshoot. It sounds simple, but when you are light painting you can spend so much time on one shot that it is easy to go home, upload your images, and wonder why you didn’t shoot 20 more in order to get the perfect one. Shoot shoot shoot. When something is working great, shoot it 10 more times.
Thanks for reading! Let us know on the socials what you think. Have fun shooting!
Written by: Dan McCreight