Light Painting Tools and Equipment
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″ 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:
- A flashlight
- A diffuser for the flashlight
- An LED panel
- A diffusion scrim (large panel)
- A Light Wand (Optional)
I now recommend this great little flashlight, the Olight M 10 Maverick. You’ll possibly see a “Newer Version” listed, and as long as the Product Dimensions listed show 3.7 x 0.9 x 0.9 inches, and the Lumens are 350/80/5, it is the identical light, but without the battery included.
I really like this little light, for several reasons… Firstly, the dimming control is separate from the on-off switch. This means that when you turn the light off at a certain brightness, the next time you turn it on it will be at the same brightness. With the M10, after making an exposure, you can turn the light off, then turn it on again in a few minutes and it will be at the same brightness. I find this to be convenient for light painting work. Secondly, the M10 has the latest Cree LED (the XM-L2), which is quite bright, and closer to daylight in its color balance. Third, the M10 has three brightness settings. This means it is more versatile for light painting. Fourth, it is nice and small, which is an advantage when doing light painting in a still life situation, where a larger flashlight gets in the way, and bumps into things! Last but not least, the M10 uses a great battery, the CR123A, a battery with a 10 year shelf life! John and I like the light so much, that we’ve decided to offer an anodized aluminum adapter in .9″, designed specifically for the M10, 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:
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 $50 a set (set consists of both left and right angled hoods). These hood have a thick coating which is opaque. To purchase a set, visit our ETSY shop , or contact me at email@example.com. The beautifully made anodized aluminum adapter, which works perfectly with my diffusers, is also available on ETSY:
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 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 around $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 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:
This 3 minute video explains how it can be used and shows it in use for three different images:
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.
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