Light Painting Photography Tips : Light Sources

Here is some very useful information for those interested in light sources to use in light painting.

These are concepts that are taught and put into practice at my light painting workshops.

I’ll cover the studio, (or small set) light sources first. These can, of course be used for outdoor shots as well, but in general, are not effective for larger sets / outdoor scenes.

After that, I’ll cover light sources for use on really big sets or outdoor scenes, and as you’ll see, there will be some overlap in equipment.

First, though, I’d like to share my observations about the reasons I use light painting, and its advantages, as well as some basic (but valuable) observations about light and how I think about it when light painting:

Advantages to Light Painting:

1. Fine control of light is easier.

  • a. Easy to move lighting direction… just move your hand.
  • b. Compensate for dark areas or dark objects by adding more exposure (either increase time or decrease distance)
  • c. Affect color of local areas or certain objects by using gels for only that part.

2. Color saturation is greatly increased due to smaller source, but due to the ability to move the light around during the exposure, shadows are softened, so you get best saturation and texture without hard shadows.

3. Raking the light adds a great amount of texture.

4. Dimension of objects is enhanced by more control of direction for each area of image.

5. Look and feel of light painting can be beautiful, can resemble painting or illustration.

6. Highlights can be placed exactly where you want them, something that painters do.

7. Big advantage in studio: Open set, no need for multiple light sources, mirrors, reflectors, gobos, etc. Greatly simplifies and speeds up work. Easier to move around set, easier for others to get into set to make adjustments (food stylist, art director, prop stylist, assistant).

Basic principles of light as it relates to light painting:
(also applies to outdoor light)…

1. Size of light directly affects softness, texture and color saturation:

  • a. Larger light is softer, flatter (less texture) and has less color saturation (i.e. overcast sky)
  • b. Smaller light source is harder (shadows and highlights have harder edges and transitions), yields more texture and has higher color saturation (i.e., the Sun).

2. Longer exposure to light = more brightness.

3. Distance of light to subject affects brightness (closer light, brighter exposure).

4. Angle of light to subject affects brightness (more acute angle = less brightness)

5. Angle of light to subject GREATLY affects texture and dimension, light from camera direction is flat (little or no shadow), light from sides and rear of subject is more dimensional. Raking the light (very low light angle to surface) greatly increases texture.

6. Moving light in time exposure increases its effective size (and therefore softness).  It also controls size and shape of specular highlights!

OK, so now let’s look at the actual light sources I use (and you can use) in light painting. Starting in the studio with smaller sets, and moving to outdoor and larger sets. After each description is a photo of the source and an image that was shot with that particular source as the main light.

In general, the size of the subject determines the size of the light source. This isn’t really a logistical thing, but an aesthetic one. We don’t choose a larger source for larger subjects because of practical considerations, such as more light coverage or brightness, but for the sake of the relative softness of light (remember, bigger light, softer light). Think about this in terms of RELATIVE size, so if we are shooting a golf ball, a 5″x5″ is, when placed very close (say 5″) to the ball, a very “large” source. If we move it 20 feet away, the same light source becomes very small indeed. The larger the source, the “softer” the light source is, with softer shadow to highlight transitions, and smoother texture. Now, If we are a basketball, that 5″ light source, placed at the same relative distance from it (5″ from the golf ball would be the same as about 30″ from the basketball), is not so large anymore. To have a similarly sized (and soft) light source for the basketball, the source would have to be, say, 3 feet x 3 feet in size.

So, how does light painting help us? By MOVING the light over time (and space) we can create a larger light “source” than the actual physical one. A 5″ x 5″ panel, when moved around, can easily be a 24″x24″ light source.

When painting in the landscape, a 10″x10″ panel can have a very soft smooth look, because we are moving it around so much.

Even a point light source, like a flashlight, can be moved in a way that the shadows and transitions are smooth and soft, yet the texture yielded from this type of source can be quite a lot

Here is some of my favorite equipment for light painting…

SureFire E1L Outdoorsman Dual-Output LED – This small LED is my go-to light in many situations.  It’s perfect for using on small tight sets, has the best quality LED, and uses 123A Lithium batteries which have a shelf life of 10 years.  It has two light output levels, which is very handy… You will have this flashlight for life, unless you loose it!

This light retails for $139, but if you are an eBay sniper, you may be able to snag one for around $80-$90.

PVC adapters of my design: They are designed to fit a flashlight with a 1″ outside dimension bezel. I make these dimmer / diffuser attachments out of simple PVC tubing, and I paint them black on the outside. The elbow does several things: It dims and diffuses, just by virtue of the bend in the tubing, but it also allows the photographer to get in very close, due to the extension tube. The elbows are 3/4″ PVC (which have a 1″ inside dimension), and the inner tube is 3/4″ PVC tubing (which has a 1″ outside dimension). My recommendation is to make them like the one on the right side of the image, cutting the end at 45 degrees, and make a couple of these with different rotation on the angle cuts to provide light blocking for left and right directions. You can also do a simple straight tube, this will be a 1″ PVC tube (1″ inside dimension), but you will need to put a small disc of diffusion material in the tube to soften the light. If the fit is a little loose, just put some tape on the inside edge of the elbow:

Light painting tools - Surefire LED flashlight

Light painting tools – Patent Pending – Surefire LED Flashlight Copyright Harold Ross

The light is simply too bright to use without some dimming, as in light painting small objects, you must get in close, and you really want to have an exposure for each area you are lighting of at least 2-3 seconds. Otherwise, it’s too fast to really be able to think about where and how you are placing the light.

My image “Planer” (below) was lit solely with the LED flashlight (with no diffusion), using some available light as fill:

NITE IZE fiber optic adapter – This adapter can be used for very precise points or areas of light.  Very useful for jewelry photography.  Priced around $6.99.

Flashpoint 160 LED Dimmable Lite Panel – This is a very affordable, small LED Light panel for studio light painting that I have found.  This unit has a dimmer control knob on the back and is powered by 5 AA batteries, which will last approximately 4-5 hours. A very flexible and useful light source. This light can be found for between $70 – $80.

Cool Lights CL-LED256 (5″x5″) and Cool Lights CL-LED600 (10″x10″) – These LED lights are primarily marketed to video shooters and are of high quality construction and durable, made by Cool Lights.  I use these lights mostly for larger objects and night landscape photography.

Light painting tools - 5x5 LED box
Light painting tools - 10x10 LED box
Light painting tools – 10×10 LED box

These Cool Lights are great to run (4-5 hours) off of a BESCOR battery… I like and use the Bescor PRB-8XLRATM.

These lights can be easily mounted to a light stand extension pole such as the Lowel.

Also, a swatch book from Rosco Gels comes in handy sometimes for adding a bit of color or diffusion to your light source for certain areas.

A very versatile light source, these are made by several manufacturers, and range in price from $30 to over $400. Of course, the $400+ models are dimmable and a bit more robustly made. The inexpensive one runs on 4 AA batteries, and give about 4 hours of light on a set. These lights have a pretty good amount of light output, and again, when moved around, can be used as “detail” lights in a landscape or large set. This light is ideal for using as an all-important FILL light for small sets. I routinely use a very inexpensive diffusion panel (called a “SCRIM”), like a 20″x20″ or so canvas stretcher frame stretched with any kind of diffusion material (tissue paper, thin white shower curtain material, ROSCO diffusion material, rip stop nylon, etc.). This light / scrim combination is perfect for glass and metal also!

My image “Quaker Cemetery Wall” (below) was photographed using the LED panels as the main light source. There was no evening light to use for fill. It was pitch black that night:

To see more light painting tips and techniques and videos by Harold, click HERE.

~ by Harold Ross on May 25, 2010.

3 Responses to “Light Painting Photography Tips : Light Sources”

  1. Have you tried this technique on a live model? I mean, someone who could sit still for you to light paint that person.

  2. Hi Harold, Excellent technique with the softness of the light painting. I have a question, I’m looking all over B&H and cannot find a 5″x5″ Led panel. Could you point me into the direction of where I can obtain one? Also, I realize these are video lights, what color temperature do you prefer? Thanks, –Josh

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: