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)

I now recommend this flashlight, the O Light S2 RlI (1150 lumens) *** Please search the web for the best price. This is just one place. If the link shows the flashlight is unavailable, just search for the light and find another seller. We try to keep up, but links, and sellers, are changing all the time. (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 S2 Rll on the charger all of the time, so its ready to go!

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

  1. Form factor….The size is ideal for our still life work.
  2. Rechargeable battery has a long life.
  3. The quality of the LED is very high.
  4. The brightness ranges are ideal for light painting the still life.

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.

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 in 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 The beautifully made anodized aluminum adapter, which works perfectly with my diffusers, is also available on ETSY:

Light painting tools (Patent Pending) – Diffusers, .9″ Adapter (flashlight not included)
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:

Things Change constantly in the world of tech. I now recommend this great new LED panel, the Viltrox L116T, a high quality and low cost LED panel that has several advantages: It is electronically dimmable, its color temperature can be changed (although I don’t use that feature), it is larger, and it is very bright. It is also very inexpensive! Just a couple of years ago, this panel might have cost $400! Now it is in the $30-$40 range. This panel comes with a battery and charger, but I would recommend getting an extra battery.

I recommend these batteries with charger if you want more batteries (the taller battery is easier to hold than the shallow battery that comes with the light)

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, 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:


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 is needed, as the cable that came with your camera is too short for convenience… click on the link at the beginning of this sentence or the picture below 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


31 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.



    • 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!

    • 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!

      • Evening Harold,
        I have your 3 tools and while i am still “crawling” I do have a question about the difference in the short 90’s why are they and what does one want to accomplishing with either short of standing on once side or the other of the object in the desired image. Might be lame brained question but for the life of me that is the only reason I can think of.
        Best regards,
        Doug Askew

      • Hi Doug, that’s a great question. Actually, the reason that there are two different angles on the diffusers is fairly non-intuitive… Depending on which diffuser you have on the flashlight, when using the diffuser to shield the light from the camera, the actual physical flashlight is either pointing up or pointing down. Most of the time, you would want the flashlight pointing up (toward the ceiling) for a couple of reasons. One, it gives you a great handle to lower the light into the set when lighting some of the lower objects . In a still life set, it’s very advantageous to be able to lower the light without getting your hand in and around the subjects. Which brings me to the other reason… By switching from one diffuser to the other, you can control where the “handle“ is in thereby keeping your hand out of the set where it is in danger of bumping the objects. As a right-hander, I almost always light from the right side, but I am constantly switching diffusers back-and-forth to keep my hand out of the “danger zone“ of bumping objects. I hope this makes sense. Harold

      • Not sure this is the right spot to reply too, here goes…

        I did not realize the you might want to have the light go up instead of down which might explain some of issues.

        Might I suggest that there are numerous folks who are new to light paining, especially us old film folks, that you do a video on how to use all 3 devices and which ones work for the right subject, ie backgound, objects and efforts.
        I think that you will find more potential customers who are just starting out plus adding on to that discussion point would be videos showing very basic objects to start with.

        Thank you for your reply,

      • Doug,
        I’m actually working on instructional videos as we speak. The videos that I’m creating are going to be very very detailed, and quite in-depth. Therefore, I’m going to be doing lots of shorter videos the deal with specific subjects, one of those will be exactly what your question was about.
        This subject is one of literally hundreds of things that I teach at my workshops. I can’t possibly disseminate all of the information for everyone. This is precisely why I am currently creating videos. :-)

      • Oh, and by the way… the description of how to use the diffusers (as I explained it above) is actually on the Etsy shop in the description of the diffusers. It just requires scrolling down and reading the description:-)

  6. How does the light wand recharge? New to light painting and totally inspired by your work.

  7. Hi Harold, Can you please tell me what LED lights you like to use in the field for landscapes? You mention larger ones, such as 10×10 or 12×12. Thanks! Lita

    • Hi Lita, You will need to use an LED panel of at least 12” x 12“, in my opinion. I had one custom made that’s a bit easier to handle, but you can get some basic results using a 12” x 12” panel.

      I would recommend they weigh 3-4 lbs or less because they can get a little heavy after awhile. Some out there are aluminum and can be quite heavy.

      Also unfortunately, I can’t really make an easy recommendation, as manufacturers are constantly changing their offerings seemingly week to week.

      The problem is that you must power the light with a battery pack, and, of course, find an appropriate electrical connection between the two. This is the main problem.

      Recently, there have been some terrific Lithium-ion battery packs made available, which make this problem less difficult!

      I run mine on a belt worn 12 V battery pack. Bescor makes those.

      Just be sure that any light you purchase will connect to any battery that you purchase.

      The four pin XLR connector is fairly standard, but there are some exceptions. As long as the connectors match and the voltages match, you should be fine!

      Hope that helps!

  8. It seems that the O Light S10RIlI has been discontinued. Which flashlight would your recommend which would work with your adapters? Thanks, Giulio

    • Hello Giulio! I checked, and Amazon still sells the S10RIII. Are you able to order from Amazon where you are? Please email me at: Thank you.

    • Hello Giulio, I corrected the link in the article. We try to keep up, but links are always changing. If the link shows the item as unavailable, please just do another search and you will find it with another seller. But this current link should work for you here. Thank you for the notice. Kind regards, Vera Toglia-Ross

      • Hello Harold
        After complete the training , if I want to do at home, I don’t have all your items, how can I get good picture as I got trained?

      • Hi, I am not sure I understand your question. I will send you an email to get a more clear idea of your question. Thank you!

  9. With the flashlight are you using level 2 at 400 lumens which likely is even a lower value with your diffuser?

  10. How long do you leave the bulb setting on to take the image

    • Hi Susan, you open the camera, do the light painting, then close the camera. On Bulb. The length of time depends on many factors; the aperture, the ISO, the brightness of your flashlight, the size and brightness of your subject(s). You must test-expose and then correct. Shooting tethered (Capture One recommended) is the very best way to judge exposure. For most subjects, try the medium brightness on the flashlight, ISO 50 or 100, F16, 5 seconds. This would be a good base test, and then go from there! Hope this helps!

  11. I enjoyed your Out of Chicago preliminary presentation. The lighting techniques are illustrative. In regards to the setting however are you attempting to optimize for the most dark environment as possible? If so are there specific techniques you used to achieve your goal?
    Thank you

    • Hello Rod, It doesn’t have to be completely pitch black, but the darker it is, the easier it is to work because your exposures can be a little bit longer, and to achieve a dark room, a person can use window coverings, like black cloth or blackout fabric over your windows if that’s a problem. Thank you!

      • Thank you. I am looking for to your presentation next week.


        Sent from my endoscope


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