Painting with Light

My sister-in-law asked me to take some photos of her Christmas decorations the other day. I said sure – sounds like fun. Well, here is a look at one of the areas she wanted me to shoot, the foyer (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Original shot. Straight out of camera.

Wow, that is ugly. The tree looks good but the cool blue light in the lamp has to go and I sure would like to see the dresser and stuff on top of it (since that is why I am here – to shoot the decorations). I could use a longer exposure but then the tree would be really blown out and there is no way I am getting that dark dresser to look good. This is an ideal situation for some light painting.

I first saw light painting done by one of my favorite photographers – Dave Black. The basic idea is to use light from a external souce such as a flashlight to add light only where you need it. Dave typically shoots in a completely dark room and uses a small light to illuminate different parts of the scene as required to get the look he wants. It may take several shots to get the one you want but with some patience and persistence you can get some amazing results. Click here to see some of Dave’s work.

My challenge was a little different. I had to maintain the exposure on the tree and keep the lights on it looking good. I determined that I had an exposure of f11 @ 4 seconds at ISO 100. I took a small flash light and put a 1/4 CTO gel over the end of it to keep the light color more consistent (more on that later). With the camera mounted on a tripod (possibly the most important detail) I would open the shutter and use the flashlight to light various parts of the scene. You just use a brushing motion like painting as you move the light over the scene. Move slower when you need more light and faster when you only want a little kiss of light. Below are some example of how the scene looked as I lit the various sections:

  • Figure 2

    Add some light to the front and side of the dresser.

  • Figure 3

    Add some light to Santa’s face and suit. Splash a little light on the wall above the mirror and up the stairs.

  • Figure 4

    Gotta see the flowers and decorations so add a little light.

By no means is this an exact science. I made about 15 different pictures reviewing each on the back of the camera and making any adjustments. Don’t move the camera until you are positive that you have eveything you need!!

Now the fun begins. Download the images into Lightroom and find the ones you want to use. Make your general post production changes (e.g. white balance, sharpening, etc.) to one image and sync it to the others. Export the images with the changes and open them in Photoshop. You will load each each image onto its own layer with the original on the bottom of the stack. You could load all the images at once but it I find it easier to load them one at a time. Create a layer mask on the new layer and hide everything (color fill black). Then simply use a soft white brush to erase the mask and show the area from your “light painted” image on top of your base image. Slowly work through the layers until you have added all your images into one. You can see a couple of screen shots from photoshop below:

Figure 5

Here you can see all of the images loaded into Photoshop and the layer masks in place.

Figure 6

Figure 6

Close up view of the layers pane – note the layer masks which allow me to only see the areas I need.

Important note: You will notice that the Photoshop picture (Figure 5) and the layer image (Figure 6) show a different view of the foyer than all the other pictures. Well, I had already finished the original image and flattend all the layers before I decided to write this post. Either way, the process is the same.

The Layers blowup view (Figure 6) shows each of the layers and their layer masks. The black areas are hidden and the white areas draw on top of everything below them. Notice Layer 3 and Layer 4 have gray areas and white areas. The gray will only be partially hidden allowing you some additional control.

So in the end what did I end up with? Figure 7 shows you the final image after all the images have been combined and everything flattened.

Figure 7

Figure 7

Final image after all the images have been combined and everything flattened.

So that’s it – an easy way to solve a huge exposure problem. Be sure to check out some of Dave’s light painting images for more ideas.

Figure 8

Figure 8

Before and After.

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