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Light Painting the Landscape

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

With Light painting the world, the landscape is your darkroom. You choose exactly what you want to illuminate, what light effects to add. You create the light.


Intro

With Light painting the world, the landscape is your darkroom. You choose exactly what you want to illuminate, what light effects to add. You create the light. The only limit is your creativity. Even well known and well photographed locations can be seen in a different light.

Light painting is challenging as you are no longer a passive observer, but have to directly make the light for the image, and it takes practice. But get it right, and the magic that appears on the LCD screen after a long exposure is very rewarding.


Logistics

It is a good idea to visit a Location in daylight. Places look different at night and this will avoid you getting lost and you will be easily able to spot any hazards such as drops. It is very easy to get disorientated at night and if you are photographing in a place with ledges and steep drops, real care must be taken. Always tell someone exactly where you are going.

It can be unnerving to be outside at night alone at first. Think about going with a friend as this is a lot safer and test shots are a lot easier, and more fun.

Nights, even in summer, can be a lot colder than you imagine. Dress to be comfortable standing around at night. Think hat, scarf/neck warmer, gloves. And nothing cheers you up better on a cold, dark night than a flask of tea/coffee and a brownie!

Waving a torch around at night can attract attention – people will ask you what you are doing, be curious, while others will be suspicious that you are up to some nefarious activity. It is a good idea to have some light painting photos with you to show them or some examples on your phone to explain what you are doing in the middle of nowhere at night!

Again, if you want to shoot on private land, always ask permission first. Show the Landowner some examples of your work, explain this is a personal non-commercial project, offer them a print of your work, and they will mostly be happy to oblige.

PRO TIPS Arrive early to safely explore the surroundings and find a good composition


Equipment

Head Torch for safely moving around at night and setting up your camera and tripod.


Remote timer – you won’t have to go back to the camera after every shot.


A powerful torch is very useful for focusing and moving safely at night. It is very easy to get disorientated at night and that path that seemed so obvious in daylight can be elusive at night. A powerful torch will help you take the right path.


Small/medium Led torch – good for general light painting and details. Orange CTO gel taped on the front to warm up the colour of your torch.


Wear dark clothing – you are less likely to show up in the images when waving torches around.

Spare torch – if one fails you can still get back safely.

Spare batteries – long exposures will drain your batteries.

LED light panel - softer, broader spread of light than a torch. Some LED light panels come ready with an orange CTO filter so you can choose a warm or a cold light.


Magpie Mine

Canon 5d MkIII, Canon 14mm lens, 204 seconds at ISO 200 F8

The challenge with this shot was to get everything done in as shortest time as possible, as the moonlight coming from the left would blow out the dusting of snow if exposure was too long. All done in a single exposure,

I hurried to light the Chimney and the Engine house from the side with a powerful torch to bring out the texture in the stone work, then lit the interior from the back with a warm gelled torch, then ran back to the camera to stop the exposure. A good way to keep warm!


The Bleach Works

Canon 5d MKII, 28mm, 487 Seconds at f11 ISO 200

Shooting locations like this requires extreme care at night because of all the drop hazards.


This was created with a single 8 minute exposure of the Lumsdale water mill ruins using a small led torch. It took me 8 minutes in total to slowly walk round the scene lighting the various elements from the side and below, being careful to shield the end of the torch from the camera. This technique with the torch being moved around creates lovely soft lighting.


Setting up the shots

Try and visualize the end result. What is important about the scene? What do you need to emphasize? What can/should you miss out?

Think about the logistics of the lighting. Will your chosen composition be easy to light or will it be difficult to move around the scene? Think about choosing a composition that will be easy to light, rather than one that requires clambering around on rocks etc in the dark.

You don’t have to wait until complete darkness to start light painting, think about using the existing light after sunset in the blue hour. This is particularly effective in foggy conditions and/or with snow on the ground. Both will amplify the “blue hour” colour.

Take some test shots whilst there is still some ambient light. It is a lot easier to fine tune your composition earlier in light, rather than when it is dark.

Then you have two choices. If you can, light paint the scene in a single exposure. This is the purist’s choice who regard any use of Layers/Photoshop as heresy. This is only possible if you can do all the light painting safely in enough time without over exposing any ambient light.

The second choice is to make several exposures and then combine them in post processing. This gives you more flexibility and allows you to make a far more detailed and accurate light painting. Also many locations could be potentially dangerous at night so multiple exposures maybe the only safe way to light the scene.


Fog Light

Canon 5DmkII, 28mm, 25 seconds at f11 Iso 200

In this exposure I waited for the ambient light to drop enough to match the light from the

sodium light in the background. Using a red gelled torch I lit the interior of the old shed from the inside to contrast with the cold blue foggy light.



Forest trails


Canon 5DmkII, 35mm, 30 seconds at f8 Iso125

Using the hill fog after sunset to create the soft diffused blue light, I used a low Iso and f8 so as to not blow out the car light trails, whilst the 30 second exposure gave enough light to expose the misty woods.



Embrace


Canon 5DSR 28mm 30 seconds at f8 Iso 100

Simple 30 second exposure to bring out the fading

light balanced with a little light from my

head torch below left on the large boulder.







Twilight Wood

Canon 5DSR 24mm 150 Seconds at f8 Iso 400

Using a small torch, I carefully worked from the front to the back, lighting the Beech tree and then the Chestnut tree from the side to bring out the textures. 150 seconds was enough time to bring out some nice blue colour in the fading twilight sky.








Portal

Canon 5dmkIV 30mm 80 seconds at f8 Iso 800.

Using a warm gelled Led panel to create the “Portal” in the rocks, I used f8 to keep the foreground and background in focus. An exposure of 80 seconds was long enough to expose the foggy forest in the rapidly diminishing light.



Lumsdale Falls

Canon 5DSR 24mm 30 seconds at f5.6 ISO 800

This was several 30 second exposures combined to make the final image. I lit the waterfall from the side, the water mill and trees from the back with a Led light panel and the interior with a warm gelled Led panel.


Starting the light Painting

PRO TIPS Light from the side not head on to bring out the texture of the subject

Make a plan of what you want to emphasize with lighting and light from left to right or vice versa. Try and avoid holding the torch still for too long; move the torch from side to side or up and down slightly as this will help you avoid hotspots.

Try not to shine the torch head on from same point of view as the camera. This will give a flat, lifeless image. Lighting from the side is best and allows you to bring out the texture, detail and character of your light painted subject. Oblique side-lighting will bring out the texture in walls, abandoned buildings, whilst skimming the from left to right low down will bring out the texture in grass or floor.

How much light to use? This will depend on the brightness of your torch and the camera settings, but try and be consistent with your lighting, try and light each part for a similar amount of time. How far the light source is from the subject effects the amount of light, if you are twice as far away from the subject, you will need twice as much light.


Try a test shot at ISO 400 5.6. Use Manual mode for exposures of up to 30 seconds or Bulb mode for longer exposures or for when you want to remotely start/finish the exposure. Don’t rely on the LCD image – this will look far brighter at night than the image actually is. Check the Histogram. Too little light? Increase the ISO or fstop the f-stop to f4. Too much light? You can drop the ISO to 200 or lower or increase the f-stop to f8. Hide the torch from the camera using your body or snoot the end of the torch with some cardboard or light streaks will show up. Equally, do not stand between what you are lighting and the camera or your shadow will be visible in the image


PRO TIPS Don’t rely on your LCD screen – Images will appear over bright at night – check your Histogram to ensure you have added enough light to the scene.

Backlighting

Shining the torch back at the camera is a dramatic way to light up objects as it brings out the texture and edges. Also think about backlighting trees. Just be careful the light source is hidden from the camera.

Adding Light effects/Light Writing

As well as lighting up a scene with the light source hidden, you can use the light sources as the focal point of an image. This can be as simple as a light trail or creating light art by drawing shapes with a low powered light such as a key fob light or rotating fairy lights in a circle to create an orb. Think simple, be inventive and create your own light sources from recycled or DIY materials such as plastic bottles or use sweet wrappers as coloured gels and you will have a unique light sources to create “light art”.



Fairy path

Canon 5dsr 28mm 30 seconds at Iso 400 f5.6

A light snow flurry had created a touch of hill fog and as the light faded created a soft blue light reflected in the snow. Using a small LED torch gelled warm, I quickly walked down the path for 30 seconds, taking care that the end of the torch was concealed from the camera.








Joshua Night

Canon 5D MKIII 21mm 82 seconds at f8 Iso 200

This single exposure of 82 seconds was enough time to light the scene without blowing out the fading sky. Lit with a torch from the left, extra light to the Joshua tree with a torch, then rotate the fairy lights in a circle to create the orb. The fairy lights were gelled with coloured sweet wrappers.



The Path to the Shires

Canon 5D MKIII 21mm 82 seconds at f8 Iso 200

This single exposure of 82 seconds was enough time to light the scene without blowing out the fading sky. Lit with a torch from the left, extra light to the Joshua tree with a torch, then rotate the fairy lights in a circle to create the orb. The fairy lights were gelled with coloured sweet wrappers.



Post Processing

Choose the white balance of any where between 3500-4000 will give a cool night tone to your images, but this will also mean Led torch light will appear overly blue and cold in colour. If you have used a CTO orange gel on your torch you can safely drop the white balance without this happening.

Night images can appear flat as a RAW file and may need a bit of added contrast/saturation. It is a personal choice.

If you have taken multiple exposures first process them in lightroom, taking care that they all have the same white balance and other settings. Then you can export to lightroom as layers and choose the parts of each exposure you wish to incorporate in the final image.

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