The ground glistens with frost, grass crunches under my boots, a rabbit darts off at the first sight of this strange figure walking into his domain. My breath is like heavy steam pouring out of a smoke stack tower as it filters through my scarf that keeps my face warm. My hands begin to tingle from the 28-degree air while I wave them as I light paint this humble dump truck, Mack. Am I crazy? Maybe. Is it worth it? Oh, yes! The satisfaction that comes from light painting, for me, is worth the freezing weather. Many times when I light paint my subject seems to take on its own character. As the illumination starts to carve away the night, Mack begins to find his voice, before long the engine begins to rumble and this giant beast comes to life. When I try to explain this addictive art form, called light painting, to people I get a lot of blank stares. So this blog is going to be dedicated to teaching readers how to paint in the cover of night. Not so you can see how hard it can be, but rather, so you can try it yourself and find out how much fun it can truly be.
This dump truck, Mack, sat in the field of some friends of ours who were gracious enough to let me light paint for the night. The number one rule to properly light paint is to have good rapport with the property owners that are kind enough to let you on their property. Be completely transparent even if it is an inconvenience and leave the property just as you found it. Not following these rules could leave you bound up in legal trouble or cause you to be worried for fear of being caught.
Gear is important also. The type of light source that you choose to use is just as important as the subject. When a painter paints they make necessary decisions as to what type of brush they use because no two brushes are alike. Likewise, the same is true with your light source. However, these choices are completely up to you and the aesthetics that you are going for. Next important hardware to have in your camera bag is a remote. I use the Nikon ML-L3. With a remote it allows you, as the photographer, to have long exposures that exceed 30 seconds or longer.
The key is to find the ambient exposure. A time saver is to find your exposure with a high ISO and then drop the ISO down, far down. For example, with my ISO at 6400 the ambient exposure is 10 seconds at f/5.6 would convert to ISO 100 with the exposure at 10 minutes at f/5.6. Reciprocity is a key point to keep in mind with this art form. It is also crucial to think about the time you give yourself to work. A rule of thumb for myself is to get anything five minutes or over, this gives me time to make the magic happen. One other thing to pay attention to is your histogram it will tell you whether your scene is to dark or to bright.
OK for you visual people lets put it together. Here is my step-by-step process of light painting.
Finding the ambient exposure: ISO 100 10 minutes at f/5.6. I decided to go with this one. Note the tail light of a car glowing through the woods. Also, note the star trails, typically anything over thirty seconds you can noticed the trails of light from the earth rotating. (Check out the last photograph, the star trails are emphasized)
Second attempt at light painting: ISO 100 10 minutes at f/5.6. Way to much light. I did 5 minutes of painting on the front, 3 minutes on the side, and a minute inside the cab. I was also not pleased with this one and chose to get in tighter.
Third attempt at light painting: ISO 100 10 minutes at f/5.6. 2.5 minutes of painting on the front, 1.5 minutes on the side and 15 seconds inside the cab.
Fourth attempt at light painting: ISO 100 10 minutes at f/5.6. A little to bright in the cab and a car head light appears through the brush. Though at this point I am close. 1 minute of painting on the front, 30 seconds on the side and 15 seconds inside the cab.
Fifth and final attempt at light painting: ISO 100 10 minutes at f/5.6. According to my histogram my exposure was good and I was pleased with it. The final combination of painting that was needed was 1 minute of painting on the front, 20 seconds on the side and 5 seconds inside the cab.
Here is a video of me light painting Mack. It is not the full duration of my light painting and all painting has been cut in half. Also, the video is not the full ten minutes, it is only 1:56. I hope you can see how the camera sees at night. Note, the red light is my head lamp to ake it easier for you to track me.
If you wish to learn more in depth about Light Painting, I suggest watching this video from B and H featuring Tim Cooper: The Magic of Light Painting