Light Painting Tips and Techniques: Closer is Softer.

In my light painting workshops and presentations, I talk a lot about lighting theory, and how I believe that it is easier to understand how light works if you can break lighting theory down into just a few basic rules.

One of the most important rules, and one that becomes essential to understanding light painting, is that the softness of light is in large part determined by the size (relative to the subject) of the light. To take it further, the size of the light is (effectively) changed as the distance of the light to the subject changes. As a way of illustrating this idea, think about a light source 10 inches in diameter. At 30 feet away from the subject, that light source is quite hard, and yields shadows and highlight/shadow transitions that have sharp edges. Now, bring that same light source 1 foot away from the subject, and it becomes a very soft light source, with soft shadows.

In light painting, we have the fantastic ability to bring the light in very close to the subject, often just 1 inch or so away. In this way, a 1 inch diameter light actually becomes quite soft. Also (and this is something that we can only do in light painting), we can move the light in particular ways to even further soften it as the movement, in effect, makes the light source even larger in relation to the subject.

I decided to make the following video tutorial while I was photographing some of my pipes, most of which my grandfather had given me. This is the same grandfather who inspired me to photograph an anvil a few years back. He spent his career as a blacksmith trained in the Journeyman System in Switzerland, and he smoked a pipe for as long as I can remember. He recently decided to stop smoking pipes, and he gave me several of his favorites, which I treasure.

The video demonstrates that by simply moving a light closer to the subject, we make it effectively larger and therefore softer, which in my opinion, is usually more beautiful.

This is one of a series of tutorials that I’ve created involving my light painting process, and it is just a quick look at the kind of information that my students learn more in depth at my workshops.

After the video starts, please click on the “gear” icon on the lower right to increase the video resolution for better viewing quality (1080 recommended)… especially if you want to watch it full screen.

To see more of my videos on Light Painting technique click HERE

~ by Harold Ross on September 25, 2013.

14 Responses to “Light Painting Tips and Techniques: Closer is Softer.”

  1. Thank you for that video. Beautiful work.

  2. Thank you for the video’re very fortunate to have these pipes ..I’m looking at the fine texture they show..each one different in its own right Thanks again Duncan G.

  3. Another good one, Harold. You’re the best !

  4. Another good video! It appears to me that the lighting instrument is sometimes between the object and the camera. I wonder if it doesn’t show up in the final image because it is: A} Black, and B} Constantly moving?

    • Exactly, Susan. Because it is not illuminated, it doesn’t register. That said, if it were held still, and in front of a lit area, a shadow would register. This doesn’t happen due to the constant motion.

  5. Thank you – this is very, very lovely. Do you think it is possible using film, or are the exposure variables too difficult to calculate?

    • Peter, thanks for your comment. Actually, this is very do-able on film, and I shot color transparency (4×5 and 8×10) with this technique for many years. You will need to be more careful about not seeing the light itself, and remembering each area of lighting will be a bit more challenging. Also, you won’t have the instant feedback. I would suggest, in lieu of Polaroid material to test your lighting, use a digital camera to judge your lighting, then shoot on film when you are ready!

  6. Thanks Harold. This has brought back many memories. I attended Aaron Jones light painting seminar in Santa Fe probably 22 years ago and used his Hosemaster system for years. I’ve only used light painting sparingly of late but have some new ideas I’m going to try out. Thanks again.

    • Hi Fred, thanks for your comment. I, too attended an Aaron Jones workshop in Santa Fe about 22 years ago! My friend (and co-instructor) John Corcoran was there also. I used the Hosemaster for years also, and still do for some things. Light Painting on film was a whole different ball of wax. No Photoshop, everything had to be right on one sheet of film. Things are better now:-) Best, Harold

  7. It is awesome and I am so keen to have a go. I am fascinated by light painting. Thankyou so mich for sharing with us your knowledge, expertise and talent.

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