Painting With Light

Udo Kieslich

In this article, I want to explore beyond the boundaries of conventional photography

Traditionally, photography is seen as a medium for capturing available light on a light-sensitive material. In the past, this light was predominantly captured on film, whereas nowadays the norm is to capture light on an electronic photosensor. However, the basic principles of photography still remain the same. The inspiration for painting with light can be found in the term “photography.” This expression comes from two Greek words: “photos” – meaning light and “graphos” – meaning drawing. Every time we take a photograph we are drawing or painting with light. In the same way that an artist paints on canvas with watercolours or oil pastels, photographers use light to create their art.

What I want to look at now, is how you – the photographer – can go beyond just capturing the available light in a scene. You will be responsible for adding light to your photograph during a long exposure, by either introducing light to a scene that is already lit by another light source or by painting with light in complete darkness. This technique allows you to highlight a specific part of the photograph, or to add to or enhance the colour of your subject. It also allows you to reduce contrast by filling in shadow detail and to add mood to the image. With a bit of pre-visualisation, this technique lets you turn an ordinary subject into something extraordinary.

The shutter speed for this image was longer than two minutes which provided time to paint in the foreground rocks with a small Maglite.

Torches/ flashlights – Small torches can be used to subtly paint light into your photograph. A Maglite is ideal as you can focus or defocus the beam of light, which gives you different effects when painting. They come in a range of sizes, but I prefer using the Mini Maglite for smaller subjects, as it gives you finer control.

If you want to enhance or change the colour of a subject using gels over your flash or torch, it is best to go for lighter coloured subjects. These take on the colour of the light a lot better then darker subjects. Translucent subject also work really well especially when you paint them from above, below or from behind. In landscapes your ideal subject matter would be something in the foreground of your scene, for example a couple of rocks, or a tree close to the camera. Painting with light is often used in interior and architectural photography to fill in dark spaces.

Tools of the trade:

Painting with light can be done with just about anything that emits light. The most commonly used tools are hand-held flash units and small torches. For vast scenes such as landscapes, a spotlight is advisable.

Hand-held/ hot-shoe flash units – Any hand-held/ hot-shoe flash unit with a test button, on which you can manually adjust the power output, is perfect for this technique. All the Nikon speed lights have a manual mode, which allows you to control how much flash light is emitted. This is useful when painting in different sized subjects, or if you are unable to move closer or further away from your subject.

Torches/ flashlights – Small torches can be used to subtly paint light into your photograph. A Maglite is ideal as you can focus or defocus the beam of light, which gives you different effects when painting. They come in a range of sizes, but I prefer using the Mini Maglite for smaller subjects, as it gives you finer control. A great accessory for the Mini Maglite is a fibre optic cable attachment. This allows you even greater control as it narrows the beam to a fine point, which is good for detailed painting and for adding light to small areas.

Spotlights/ car headlights – Spotlights can be purchased in a variety of different outputs. They are useful for painting in large scenes and are predominantly used in landscape or architectural photography. The further away you are from your subject, the more powerful your spotlight needs to be. You can also use your car headlights to paint in a scene, but you do not have as much control over the light.

There are numerous other light sources you can use for painting with light – sparklers, pointer torches, candles, match sticks, firelight etc., some of which will come under discussion.

Coloured gels/ cellophane – Coloured cellophane (found in stationery shops and mostly used for covering school books) is used to change the colour of light that you paint with. I would recommend getting a variety of different colours and by placing them individually, or mixed together in front of the light, you are able to recreate just about any colour from the rainbow. To achieve a subtle hue you would add one or two layers of gel, for a more intense colour you would increase the layers in front of the light. Nikon also manufactures a variety of different coloured plastic inserts which you can place in front of the speed light. These can be used to change the colour of the flash light.

Cable release/ remote – Your exposure times will generally be quite long when painting with light. In bulb mode, it is very difficult to keep your shutter release button depressed and paint with light at the same time, so a cable release or remote is a must-have accessory which allows you to lock your shutter open. This gives you the freedom to move around and paint in the subject in your own time.

 Tripod – A sturdy tripod will ensure you to get perfectly sharp images while you are painting with light.

Hand-held light meter – Painting with light is far from an exact science, but a hand-held light meter will give you a good idea of how long you need to paint in a specific area with a torch, or how many bursts of flash you need to expose a scene correctly. With digital cameras, a hand-held light meter has become less important as you can use your LCD screen as an exposure guide.

Black cloth – This is used to cover up the lens during the exposure while you are moving different light sources into and out of position. It can also prevent over-exposure when painting with light while there is ambient light in the scene. Lastly, you can use it to cover your painting hand if it is in the photograph, to prevent it from being exposed by the light.


Exposure: Painting with light should be done in a dark environment, or in subdued ambient light as this lets you use longer shutter speeds. Outdoors it is best to paint very early in the morning, or late in the afternoon or evening. This prevents the ambient light from overpowering the torch or flash. If the light source is continuous, such as a torch, you will need to paint this light on your scene for a specific amount of time to get the correct exposure. The amount of time you paint is determined by the intensity of the light, the distance of your light source from your subject, the number of gels you have over your light and by the size of your aperture. Flash light is only exposed by the size of the aperture, as it is a brief burst of light. Your aperture setting will depend on the amount of depth of field (DOF) you want to achieve in your shot. A wide open aperture will give you shallow DOF whereas a smaller aperture gives you deeper DOF. I would recommend using an aperture of f8 to f11 as this gives you enough time to paint in an area with repeated “brush strokes.” If your aperture is too large and your light source is quite powerful, it is very easy to overexpose your scene. On the other hand, if your aperture is too small and your light source very subdued, then it could take many minutes to paint in a small area, which is impractical.


Camera Settings:

Your camera needs to be set on manual mode, as this will allow you to adjust both aperture and shutter speed manually. If your digital camera has a noise reduction feature in the menu, then I would recommend turning this on. This function reduces digital noise at long exposure times (1 second or longer), giving you better quality images. With digital cameras, it is also important to set the correct white balance. For painting with light, you should be set on daylight white balance, as this setting captures the true colour of the light you are photographing. On this setting, your flash light without any gels in front of it will come out a clean white colour. When you place a coloured gel in front of the flash, the colour of light will change to that of the gel. Your Maglite and spotlight with no gels emit a warm orange colour, which can be great to enhance the mood in a scene.

It is also important to set the image quality that you record to its highest level. I would recommend shooting in RAW mode or in JPEG mode with the image size set to “large” and the quality setting set to “fine.” You can always reduce the size of an image on the computer for e-mail or web purposes, but it is not possible to considerably enlarge a very small image.

Your shutter speed is determined by the amount of ambient light in the scene, or in a dark environment, on how long it takes you to paint in the scene. If there is ambient light in the scene, then your shutter speed and aperture need to be set for this ambient light. Here you would use your camera’s light meter or a hand-held light meter to get the correct exposure. Your shutter speed will generally be between 1 and 60 seconds if there is ambient light around. Shutter speeds faster than 1 second are impractical, as they do not give you enough time to paint with light. Longer shutter speeds are preferable as they give you time to paint in the darker areas of the scene or highlight a specific part of the image. You could also underexpose the ambient light a little if you want to achieve a low-key effect. For a high-key effect, you can purposely overexpose the light you are painting with. When painting in complete darkness it is advisable to use bulb mode and lock your shutter open using a cable release, as you then do not need to hurry to finish your painting in a predetermined time.



Torchlight exposure –

When using any continuous light source such as a spotlight or torch, your exposure will be determined by a combination of shutter speed and aperture. You now need to determine the length of time you should paint your subject, in order to get correct exposure at your chosen aperture. You can use your hand-held light meter in ambient mode to get a good idea of the length of time you need to paint in a specific area. Point the torch at the dome of the light meter from the same distance that you will be painting from and take a light meter reading. The light meter will then give you a recommendation of what shutter speed you need to use at your chosen aperture.

It is important to remember that this will not be the shutter speed you set on the camera, but rather it gives you an indication of how long you need to paint in a specific area to achieve correct exposure. For example, if the light meter said f11 at 2 seconds, you would need to paint over an area for around 2 seconds in order for it to be correctly exposed. Moving the torch backwards and forwards in a painting motion during the exposure ensures a smooth, even spread of light. Most importantly, as this is far from an accurate science, do not worry about being too precise.

Techniques and tips: To avoid flare and ghosting in your image, you need to shield the light source from the camera while you are painting. Try to keep the light pointed away from the camera, but you can also use a black cloth or your body to block the light. A fibre optic cable is ideal for painting smaller subjects and for fine control of the light. Use gels between the torch and the attachment to change the colour of the light. To ensure an even spread of light you gently brush the light over the subject. A laser pointer is really useful to create an aggressive outline of a subject or to add writing to your image. The trick is to get the laser positioned correctly and then start the exposure. The same applies to a sparkler. You would normally first light the sparkler, get it into position and then start the exposure. Once you’re happy with the composition you would drape a black cloth over the lens so you can remove the sparkler without leaving a trail.

Zippo fluid works really well to create a controlled fire, remember to use it on a non-flammable surface such as a piece of metal or on tiles, and always have a damp towel ready to smother any runaway flames. You would first ignite the fluid and then start the exposure when you are satisfied with the flames. The easiest way to extinguish the flames is to blow them out.

Zippo fluid was used for the flames and the entire head was painted in with a fibre optic cable using different coloured gels over the Maglite.  

The wonderful thing about painting with light is that you can express yourself using different colours. This allows you to set the tone or mood of an image. Contrasting colours such as blue and red, red and yellow, red and green, or blue and yellow ensure that you will achieve a striking image. The thicker the gel, the more intense the colour will be and the longer you will need to paint for. You do not always have to paint a stationary subject. Why not repeatedly flash or paint in a moving subject in a dark room? When photographing a subject with a graphic shape, you can also outline that shape by tracing or accentuating the edge of the subject. This is best done with a small concentrated light source and helps separate the subject from the background.

A Maglite was used to highlight the fish and make it stand out from the background. Note the naturally warm colour of the torch.

In summary, painting with light has to be one of the most creative techniques available in photography. It is an opportunity for self-expression and can turn mundane subjects into something really exciting. Used subtly it can improve many low-light photographs with the viewer being unaware of the added light. Most important is that it is great fun and very unpredictable, every time you take a shot you will be bursting with excitement to see your results.



COPD provides a range of part-time photography, video and editing courses, and is the place to discover or refine your photographic skills. They have campuses in Saxonwold and Fourways.