Light Painting Tips and Technique: The Shape of Things…

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing posts dedicated to specific aspects of making photographs with light painting. Finding the time, however, isn’t so easy!

These posts will probably appeal mostly to photographers, but I’m hoping that even you non-photographers will find them interesting. Of course, they’ll be pertaining to the intricacies of lighting (for the most part).

In general, photographic lighting is intimidating. In my workshops, I break lighting down into a few simple rules or principles. These principles are easy to grasp, and there are only a handful of them, but learning to use them together in a fluid way is the biggest challenge of light painting.

The information that I’ll be presenting in these blog posts is information that I teach in my workshops.

Remember, these images are made in a dark studio, while applying the light over a time exposure, and while moving the light for desired effect. The same principles apply to landscape work, but on a larger scale.

So, today’s post is an abbreviated look at how the angle of light can and does enhance shape and texture.

For all of these demonstrations, I’ll be using a simple LED flashlight with homemade diffusers, using the same tools and techniques that I teach in my workshops.

I can’t emphasize enough how important lighting angle is. It’s important and powerful. As an exercise and demonstration, I’ve taken a flat metal plate which has a patina and photographed it several ways.

The 1st image is as one would expect… The flat metal plate looks… well, flat. The lighting is coming from roughly a 45° angle up and to the right, and the lighting has been applied evenly across the surface of the plate.

Now here comes the fun part… With lighting alone, I can make this flat metal plate look very much like a sphere. I’ve used my LED flashlight, and moved it so that the light is smoothly blended from highlight to shadow, and concentrating it where one might expect to see a gradation of light on a sphere. This is simply applying light as a painter would apply white paint to create depth and shape. I find it amazing that we can easily make a flat surface look round, but imagine how much easier it is to enhance the shape of something that already has some shape!

Next, I wanted to demonstrate something that is fairly obvious, a subject that gets a lot of attention in the workshops… that is, how lighting from anywhere near the camera angle is not a good thing. We all know that on camera flash produces a flat light, and we live with it out of necessity sometimes, but in the studio and especially in light painting, we have total choice and control over where we place our light. In the workshops, I find myself repeating the mantra “Don’t light from the camera”, so here I wanted to visually demonstrate how light on the camera angle destroys shape and texture. Pretty bad, huh?

The next image shows what happens when we light for shape, and employ the same basic technique I used above with the metal plate. I am lighting the baseball, applying the light in a specific area that enhances the shape of the ball. This image is a lot better than the previous one, right?

Now, how do we create shape while at the same time, enhancing texture?  Texture is revealed and enhanced by “raking” or “skimming” the light. Here are 2 images, close-ups of the flat metal plate. One is lit with a “normal” lighting angle, and the other is lit with an extremely shallow angle, where I am raking the light, or skimming it across the surface of the plate. Notice the tremendous amount of texture which is revealed by the shallow lighting angle. The lighting angle is the only difference between these two images.

With the baseball, we want to create overall shape, but to maintain the texture of the surface of the leather, we must skim the light across the surface of the baseball as opposed to aiming the light directly at the baseball. The way I explain it in the workshops is to imagine the “cone of light” coming from the light source, and then concentrate on using only 1/3 or so of that cone of light. This forces us to skim the light across the surface of the object.

See my attempt at an illustration:

Below are 2 images, close-ups of the baseball surface. One shows the texture we get when aiming the light directly at the baseball, and the other shows the texture we get when we skim the light. It’s a bit subtle, but for me, it’s about the details.

So, I hope you enjoyed these little exercises… I am constantly amazed at the power of light, and how light painting can make something that is relatively mundane look absolutely fantastic!

To see more posts on light painting tips and techniques and also video tutorials that I’ve done, click HERE.

Until next time,


~ by Harold Ross on December 5, 2011.

14 Responses to “Light Painting Tips and Technique: The Shape of Things…”

  1. Many thanks for sharing this info Harold. I’m a big fan of your lighting style. I love the depth and texture you create in your light painted images. Really looking forward to seeing your next post on this topic.

    All the best

  2. I found your article fascinating and highly informative. I love your work.

  3. Excellent tutorial — exceptionally informative and a great motivator to get me to further pursue the technique.

  4. Ron, I encourage you to play with it! It’s so much fun and very rewarding! Thanks for your feedback.

  5. Very informative. I think I’m going to do some still lifes to figure some of this stuff out. That is the problem I had when I started experimenting with light painting. I went big with landscapes instead of learning how to light individual, smaller scenes.

  6. This was incredibly helpful, Harold. Thanks for taking the time to do this. I can’t wait for the next article.

  7. Thanks for finally writing about >Light Painting Tips and Technique: The Shape of Things | Harold Ross Fine Art Photography
    <Liked it!

  8. hi harold, great post! and yeah, these little details make the difference, thanks for share friend

  9. Loved your article.. thanks for the details.. encouraging me n my colleagues to play around and practice the technique..!

  10. Thank you so much Harold. I can viusualize my shed becoming a sort of mecca for me and my camera as the blackout is total. Skimming is King, tiny lights carry more overall info, masking in photoshop is so easy compared to the time and patience required to, not only collect all the products together but to, play around with lighting techniques. Wow! sums it all up for me!

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