Light Painting Tools and Equipment

Here is some very useful information for those interested in light sources for 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″ or 12″x12″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 great!

That said, It takes a lot of experience to use an un-diffused flashlight, so using the diffusers are the way to go.

Here is some of my favorite equipment for light painting…

The short story… to do light painting at a very high level, you only need:

  1. A flashlight
  2. A diffuser for the flashlight
  3. An LED panel
  4. A diffusion scrim (large panel) which will be used with the LED panel above
  5. A Light Wand (optional but great to have)

Update 12/04/2016: Unfortunately, O Light has discontinued my favorite light, the M-10 Maverick.

I now recommend this flashlight, the O Light S10RII  (available on Amazon)***Important*** Make sure to purchase the older ll version, which measure .91″ in diameter, and therefore accepts our .9″ adapter. Do NOT buy the S10R (original version), which has a larger diameter bezel. This larger bezel would require the 1″ adapter, which we sell, but this light will probably not be made in the future, so we recommend the newer one. Here is another alternative! The new O Light S10Rlll,(also available on Amazon) which is also .91 in width, and fits our .9 adapter. This light is different in the following way: It’s brightest setting is a bit brighter than the S10Rll, but this is not an important factor at all, but it will just mean shorter exposures for the rare instances where we use the bright setting.

(Note: there is a thin blue ring inside the bezel of this flashlight, the blue ring doesn’t cause any issues, as the light gets diffused quite thoroughly before it exits the diffuser, and we always should white balance to a grey card exposure (which we can save as a preset) for each light source that we use. We have been using this light with no issues at all).

***ALSO*** You may wish to purchase at least one spare rechargeable battery, and keep it charged (these batteries hold their charge, “shelf-life” for a LONG time), to avoid “down time” while recharging with the flashlight. (These are also available on Amazon). By the way, I simply leave my S10Rll on the charger all of the time, so its ready to go!

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-1-22-03-pm

 

These lights are great for light painting for the following reasons:

  1. Small size helps eliminate bumping into objects on your set.
  2. Batteries hold a charge (on the shelf) for a very long time.

We offer an anodized aluminum adapter in .9″, designed specifically for this light, or any light with a .9 inch bezel, and we highly recommend it. This adapter allows quick and easy fitting of the Light Diffusers I designed for light painting. To see a cool little video illustration of how it works, see below. What if you own the Surefire E1L-HA-WH? It is still a fantastic light painting tool (see more on it below), and we still make, and highly recommend, the aluminum adapter in 1, which fits the Surefire E1L-HA-WH or any light with a 1″ bezel.

****IMPORTANT: The new Surefire model (E1L-A) will not fit our adapter!****
I couldn’t recommend a light without first testing it. Here is a “test” image that I shot with the Olight M10 and the .9″ adapter with diffuser, during a workshop with student Will Doak:

Photographer Harold Ross's Light Painting Demonstration Still Life Image

Photograph by Harold Ross

PVC adapters of my design (patent pending): I make these dimmer / diffuser attachments myself, and I coat the outside with 3 layers of a heavy opaque matte black coating. 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 angle of the extension tube. One hood has a “right hand” cut, and the other a “left hand” cut, allowing the light itself to be in the up or down position, depending on the set. Due to constant demand, I’ve decided to make these available for purchase for $55 a set (set consists of both left and right angled hoods). These hoods have a thick coating which is opaque. To purchase a set, visit our ETSY shop , or contact me at harold@haroldrossfineart.com. The beautifully made anodized aluminum adapter, which works perfectly with my diffusers, is also available on ETSY:

Diffusers_Etsy1000
Light painting tools (Patent Pending) – Diffusers, .9″ Adapter, Olight M10 LED Flashlight
Photo by Harold Ross

Why use the diffusers? The light is too hard unless diffused. The diffusers increase the size of the light, and therefore the softness. The 1/8th” square LED (the light source) is increased to a 1″ diameter. This increases the softness tremendously! Also, 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 5-10 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. Using the light without diffusion takes a good deal of experience, as the bare LED is quite bright and harsh:

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 side 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 less than $50. A very versatile light source, they are made by several manufacturers, and range in price from $30 to over $400. Of course, the $400+ models are electronically 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 (our Light Wand also works well as a fill light). 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 material is #116 Tough White Diffusion, rip stop nylon, etc.). This light / scrim combination is perfect for glass and metal also! The beaker in the still life image near the top of this page was lit with this scrim and the small LED panel.

Home-made diffusion panel

I’ve recently started using (Thanks, Lisa Cuchara!) the Lastolite Tri-Grip 2 stop diffusion panel. It has a very similar look to the home made panel, but it is much lighter and more portable. You will want to steam out the wrinkles and keep it unfolded, or you may see wrinkles in reflections in glass or metal!

Lastolite Tri Grip-1

Lastolite Tri-Grip 2 stop diffuser

Last but not least, our Light Wand (available HERE), not a necessity, but a great addition to the equipment set. It’s great for fill light, portraiture, reflective objects and highlights on longer and darker subjects:

LightWand

This  3 minute video explains how it can be used and shows it in use for three different images:

Assorted goodies:

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.

Tripp Lite USB extension repeater, needed as the cable that came with your camera is too short for convenience… click on the picture to link to the cable on Amazon.

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 4.09.46 PM

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

To see videos on Light Painting by Harold click HERE

 


9 Responses to “Light Painting Tools and Equipment”

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your presentation to the Coastal Camera Club last night. Can’t wait to experiment myself.

  2. Hello,

    Don’t really understand the function of the Trip Lite USB extension repeater cable. Can you explain? Am most impressed with your pictures, and would like to attempt the technique myself.

    Thanks.

    Les

    • Hi Les! I’ve known of your work since the early 70’s! I’m so delighted to get a comment from you:-)
      The Tripp Lite USB extension repeater cable is simply to get you a longer cable between camera and computer when shooting tethered… less cumbersome and less of a trip hazard.

  3. […]  I was so inspired by Harold’s work and the work of his students that I purchased one of the flashlights Harold recommended in a recent blog post, in addition to the diffuser kit that Harold makes and […]

  4. Hi Harold,
    I’m Gloria from Italy. I’m using light painting to shoot mostly food still life tabletops. I’m still looking for a good flashlight which remains consistent in the output even when the battery life decreases. I Was wondering if the Olight S10r which is rechargeable is good as the M10, in terms of light quality and color? I would rather by a rechargeable one which is more flexible. Have you ever used it? Can you help me?
    Oh! Btw, I like your work very much!
    Thanks
    Gloria

    • Hello Gloria!
      Nice to hear from Italy! Thank you for appreciating my work.
      Gloria, I would not recommend the rechargeable flashlight for the following reason: when the battery dies and it’s time to recharge, the flashlight will be “out of commission” until you recharge the battery. What this means is that if you are in the middle of light painting a still life, you will have to stop until the battery is recharged again. This is because the battery can only be re-charged while it is inside of the flashlight body.
      I would instead recommend that you get a standard flashlight and rechargeable batteries so that you can have more than one battery and they can be recharged outside of the flashlight body. This means that you can continue shooting even if a battery goes dead.
      There is another minor issue with that particular flashlight. The inside of the bezel is a blue aluminum color. If you purchase that particular model (in the non-– rechargeable option which I recommend) I would recommend that you cover the blue ring with a magic marker or some black or white paint.
      I hope this helps, and happy light painting!
      Best, Harold

  5. I want very much to learn the skills you have demonstrated on your page. How can I order you attachments the light wand & light painting tools. I will check for the light as well mindful to get the older version if still available. Great page & I got your site info from a video featuring Melanie Kern-Favilla via Kelby One.

    • Hi Doug! If you scroll up in the article, you will see the link to the Etsy shop where the diffusers and also the wand pictures are shown. The Etsy logo is also along the right hand side of the blog page itself, and if you click on that, it will also take you to the shop. Thanks so much!

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