Night photography: Step-by-step through a complex light painting setup

Don't let things rattle your chain -- by Joe Reifer

Don’t let things rattle your chain — by Joe Reifer

Technical details: 4 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. Canon 5D Mark II with a Zeiss Distagon 21mm f/2.8 ZE lens

The composition above was used as a light painting demonstration during last month’s night photography workshop. All the light you see on the foreground subjects was added with a flashlight while the shutter was open. Due to the number of different surfaces being lit, this setup took multiple attempts to get right. Let’s take a brief walk through the steps involved:

Light painting demo #1 -- by Joe Reifer
1. Daytime Scouting — blocking out your shots in the daytime will help you be more productive at night. Photographer Hunter Luisi surveys the scene before the sun goes down.

Light painting demo #2 -- by Joe Reifer
2. Test Exposure — checking focus, composition, and exposure before committing to a complicated shot will help you get more keepers. The test exposure was 8 seconds at f/8, ISO 6400. This equates to 8 minutes at f/8 ISO 100 — or 4 minutes at f/8 ISO 200. In the final exposure, I stopped the lens down to f/9.5 for depth of field, and also to underexpose the background by 1/2 stop in order to give the light painting more snap.

Light painting demo #3 -- by Joe Reifer
3. Base Exposure — I was shooting into the moon, which is just out of the frame at top left. Make sure to use a lens hood for night photography. The base exposure was not light painted at all, and underexposed by 1 full stop in order to have a version with a darker sky. A base exposure is useful for seeing the effect of your light painting, and for removing any unwanted lighting in post production. 2 minute exposure at f/8, ISO 200.

Light painting demo #4 -- by Joe Reifer
4. Light painting — I lit the red trailer from camera left, walked around and lit the white truck, and then lit the red trailer from camera right. The lighting on the trailer is a bit too bright. By reviewing the feedback on the camera’s LCD, I decided to also light the truck on the left, the yellow ramp on the right, and to skim a little bit of light across the box in the foreground.

Light painting demo #5 -- by Joe Reifer
5. Light painting — the trailer is just about right, and the side of the yellow ramp is getting there. I missed the back of the truck at left, and decided to light the top of the box in front more than the side directly facing the camera.

Light painting demo #6 -- by Joe Reifer
6. Light painting — Finally got a take I liked!

  • The truck on the left was lit at an oblique angle from camera left to bring out the shapes along the green part in the back.
  • The red trailer was lit on both sides from a 45 degree angle to bring out texture and prevent hot spots
  • The yellow ramp  was lit from camera left using a snoot to control the lighting, and also on the top from camera right.
  • The light skimming across the box in the foreground was also done with a snooted flashlight from camera left.
  • The white truck in the background was lit while hiding behind the red trailer

Technical note: a Streamlight Stinger flashlight was used, utilizing a 1.5 foot long cardboard tube as a snoot for lighting control. The Stinger is a high powered flashlight that is great for light painting dark surfaces from middle distances.

Post-Processing notes: While the light painting on the version above worked really well, there was a slight bit of lens flare. The darker, more simple sky from the base exposure looked better — so I replaced the sky from the earlier exposure using a layer mask in Photoshop. I will cover sky replacement in a future article.

A small amount of dodging and burning were also done on the foreground and right side of the red trailer to create the final image at the top of this post. I hope this extended look at the making of a complex light painted image is useful. Let me know if you’d like to get on the list for future night photography workshops — all that’s necessary is a camera, tripod, flashlight, and your imagination!

14 thoughts on “Night photography: Step-by-step through a complex light painting setup”

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve been struggling a little with some of the more advance aspects of post production simply because I haven’t tried them before. I learn “more better” when I see the steps as opposed to a dry read out of a manual. These are helpful.

  2. That. Is. How. It. Is. Done.

    The only thing I’ll add, if I may, is experiment with your lights even before you commit to step 4. Walk around, cast some light and assess shadows, colors and intensities, thinking about what your light/shadow looks like from the position of the camera. Take your time, noting the exact spot you need to light from to make the most interesting composition. THEN open the lens and take the shot, repeating your lighting positions.

    1. Walking around and trying out your lighting before the shot is indeed a time saver. Thanks for clarifying this important part of the process!

    1. Because the Stinger is very powerful, you don’t have to have it on very long. I can shoot a few nights on one charge. Also comes with a car charger just in case.

  3. Joe,

    I stumbled across your work about a year ago while cruising the internet at 3 am. I rushed to the bedroom (waking up my girlfriend) and started grabbing camera gear…I was out the door with a big grin on my face in search of something different and ready for total experimentation. I churned out a few cool shots but nothing to get excited about.

    Anyway, so now I live in Medellin, Colombia and I have been re-inspired to do some night photography. Medellin is almost always covered with clouds at night. Realizing that I might have to travel some distance to get away from 3.5 million people lighting up the sky…but, those damn clouds! Does this stop you from getting out and creating magic? I understand it is important to have faster shutter speeds so that the cloud don’t look flat and washed out. Will the moon be able to shine through okay?

    Also, if you don’t have a remote for the shutter…what problems will I be facing? Is this absolutely necessary? (note: I shoot with a Nikon D300 in BULB mode and use gaffers tape to hold down the shutter button…yes, a little ghetto)

    On another note. I have a website that teaches photography for free through silly videos. I’d love to do a post on you and all the night photographers out there. Would you be interested in doing a short interview with me?

    Thanks for the inspiration Joe!!!

    1. Hi Mikey,

      Thanks for your message — makes me happy to hear you were inspired to get out and shoot at night. A mix of moonlight and clouds is a great recipe for night photography. Exposure depends on how much moon is shining through and the speed of the clouds, but 2-3 minutes is a good starting point. Longer exposures can lose definition in the clouds. If the clouds are relatively still, sometimes longer exposures will work — this one was 10 minutes.

      If you’re completely socked in by clouds, diffuse moonlight can sometimes provide enough light to shoot during the full moon. Letting the background stay dark and using light painting to add contrast to your subject is an effective technique here. Clouds can be your friend for more urban shooting because they bounce and blend all of the city and street lights.

      Gaffers tape works — if you tape a small pebble to the shutter release it may stay down better. You might consider an inexpensive eBay remote for convenience — they can be had for $5-10 plus shipping.

      Your lighting site is fun. Feel free to contact me via email about doing an interview!

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