The Art of Illumination
Updated: Jul 13
Whilst most light painters tend to create drawings or light trails, another popular genre of light painting photography is illumination. This involves adding artificial light to long exposure night scenes, or other dark locations.
Ideally you need an interchangeable lens camera (DSLR or Mirrorless) that is capable of Bulb (>30 second long) exposures. Modern M4/3 and APS-C cameras have sufficient image quality for the vast majority of low lighting conditions. However if you are adding artificial light to a high-ISO astro scenes then most Full Frame sensor cameras will provide a useful extra stop of high ISO ability and dynamic range. One of the more important camera features to me is either a Infra Red (IR) remote control, or ability to plug in a Radio Frequency (RF) remote control. Be careful, some entry level and even mid-range cameras do not have these options, relying on Bluetooth control from mobile phones which are more of an annoyance than assistance.
Whilst with light drawing, you can easily use kit lenses, with illumination there may be more of a requirement for faster apertures, particularly if you are combining illumination with astrophotography or portraits. Whilst I usually use f/5.6 to f/11, there have been a few times I've required f/2.8, or even f/1.8. I commonly use focal lengths between 13mm to 27mm (9mm to 18mm APS-C). Lens features that I do look for are good flare resistance, ability to produce sunstars/starbursts, and low distortion (or at least easily correctable in post processing).
Other bits of equipment you will need are a tripod (plus a second tripod if you are using backlighting), and remote control. Tripods should have good range of height and have adjustable legs to allow stability on sloping or un-even ground. You need either an IR or RF wireless remote control. I personally use an IR remote control, but you do need line of sight with the camera and range may be limited to around 10m. RF remote controls may allow for more distant control. Most remotes should be able to start a Bulb exposure with one press, and stop the exposure with the second press.
Once you have decided upon your location, composition, and lighting techniques, you need to set up your camera and tripod. Set the expected aperture, ISO, and exposure time settings. These will be considerably different depending on the illumination types explained later in this article.
Some light painters also recommend adding glow-in-the-dark tape to their tripod feet so that they don't trip over the legs or knock over the tripod. You will then need to focus the lens at, or close to the area that needs to be fully in focus. There are a few ways you can do this. Either temporarily illuminate the scene with a flashlight or headlamp, auto-focus on the required location, then switch to manual focus. Alternatively, if you have a mirrorless camera, illuminate the scene, switch to manual focus, and use focus peaking and/or focus magnification to assist with focusing. You may need to turn on a setting to active remote shutter control, and if you need to set a delay timer, you will need to set that as well.
Understanding the basic principles of white light is critical to good illumination. Colour temperature (CCT), tint, and colour rendering index (CRI) will all affect the outcome of your photo.
Colour temperature, also known as Correlated Colour Temperature (CCT) can vary between "orange like" warm white at 2000k through to a "blue like" very cool white at 7000k. Sunset sunlight is 2700k, and midday sunlight is 5700k. Most commercial grade flashlights are 6500k, as cool white LEDs are more efficient. Thankfully companies such as Convoy, and Emisar/Noctigon make flashlights with multiple CCT options between 1800k and 6500k. Most LED panel lights have adjustable CCT. Many light painters, including myself, like to contrast warm white 2700k and cool white 5700-6500k light in photos. I've seen some night landscape photographers recommending the use of warm filters on low CRI 6500k flashlights, but you will get significantly higher quality light by purchasing high-CRI lights at the desired colour temperature - there really should be minimal need for colour temperature filters in the 2020s! More on CRI later.
A "perfect" LED will have an emitter that sits on what is called the Black Body Line (BBL), and have minimal Green or Magenta tint. However in the land of reality, most LED emitters tend to be above the BBL and have a green tint (notably SST-20 LEDs at low brightness), or less likely, are below the BBL and have a magenta tint (such as the popular Nichia 219B 4500k or some LED panel lights when mixing different CCTs). Most tint related issues are usually minor for photography and can be eliminated by adjusting the tint slider in post-processing.
High colour rendering (CRI) LED lights were a rarity until the last few years, with commonly used <70 CRI flashlights resulting in "washed out" beams of light. Even most household LED light bulbs are a somewhat mediocre 80 CRI. Unless you need crazy lumens, then for illumination light painting you ideally want to use light sources with >90 CRI / R9050, or even better >95CRI / R9080. High CRI lights have a more even spectrum of white light, with all colours including reds (R9 index) rendered much better. Options for high CRI lights include some lights from Convoy, Emisar/Noctigon, Acebeam, Lumecube 2.0, and most LED Panel lights.
Coloured lighting for illumination should ideally be used in a subtle manner so as to avoid the photo looking like clown vomit. I prefer photos where a single colour is contrasted against cool white light, or good of use of colour theory is utilised when selecting colours. There are two options for creating coloured light - using a white light light source with colour filters, or using a light source with colour LEDs.
Filters are more practical for use with moving lighting (discussed later). Either colour LEE or Rosco filters/gels can be placed in front of the light source, or as I prefer to use, acrylic colour filters and filter holders from Light Painting Paradise. Don't use coloured cellophane, as your flashlight will most likely burn a hole through it!
For static lighting, using light sources with coloured LEDs is usually more practical. The downside is that most coloured LEDs are monochromatic, which can quickly saturate the illuminated area in photos. There are a few exceptions such as the full spectrum green and orange-yellow CSLNM1 emitters, and Azure E17A emitters available from either Convoy or Emisar/Noctigon (Azure only from the latter). Some RGB LED panel lights such as the Weeylite RB9 and Lumecube Panel Pro, as well as the Protomachines LED8 flashlight can smoothly colour mix to create a wide range of colours. The Ants on a melon RGB Critter has 39 colour options.
Whilst any flashlight/torch or light source can illuminate a scene. Some do it much better than others. I would recommending having a look at the illumination section in my Best Flashlights for Light Painting Photography article. Things to look out for are good sustained brightness, high colour rendering (high-CRI), tripod mount options, diffuser compatibility, lots of brightness steps, and last mode memory.
It is important to remember that most flashlights automatically step-down from their maximum advertised brightness over time due to heat, sometimes in just 10 seconds! Thus you need to the use the flashlight at a brightness where it will remain stable during your exposure and any possible subsequent exposures. Unfortunately, some flashlight manufacturers are less than transparent with this data. Flashlight enthusiast reviews are the best source of this information. Non-flashlight light sources tend to not rapidly step down in brightness.
As well as flashlights / torches, other light source options include cube lights, LED panels, LED scanners/light bars, headlamps, candles, LED tea lights, flash / strobe, or camping lanterns.
Types of Illumination
Static Light Source
Static illumination is where the lighting does not move throughout the photographic exposure. In most cases the lighting is on throughout the entire exposure, though if the light can be controlled remotely (such as a Lumecube 2.0 or off-camera flash) it may be possible to turn it on and off during the exposure. Static lighting is often used for night landscape illumination, low level landscape lighting, and urbex photography. You can use a headlamp for safety as you move around the scene setting up the lighting (just remember to turn it off before you start the exposure).
There are three different types of light beam that can be used for illumination - hard-edge beam, floody 180 degree beam, or omni-directional beam, though some light sources may be in-between these types.
If you want to create a hard-edged light beam (such as a "creepy" beam of light coming through a slightly open door) you are best using a flashlight / torch with a single LED. The flashlight may need to be mounted on a tripod, or mini-tripod.
If you want to create a softer and floodier 180 degree light beam with no hotspot then I would recommend using something like a Lumecube 2.0 or LED panel light. For low level landscape lighting (illuminating a night landscape with astrophotography background), the light source will need to be capable of very low brightness settings.
If you are requiring omni-directional light (like a lightbulb), I would recommend a flashlight and diffuser. My preferred combination for Urbex photography is the Convoy S2+ as it is cheap, has lots of LED emitter options (including warm to cool white, 519A 95CRI, and CSLNM1 colour options), plus well spaced brightness modes from 1lm to 1000lm (ish). If I need more lumens, then I use a more powerful light such as a Convoy M3-C XHP70.2 (which can sustain 1,440 lumens), Convoy S21D 519A, or Emisar D4SV2 519A with compatible diffusers. Flashlights with diffusers are a much better option than using camping lanterns, which seem to be recommended by some night landscape photographers. LED Tea Lights also make a useful addition to some scenes, and they can be purchased in large multi-packs very cheaply.
As previously mentioned, for static lighting you need to the use the flashlight at a brightness where it will remain stable during your exposure and any possible subsequent exposures. For example, I use the Convoy S2+ on 35% mode or less for static lighting where I know it will be stable. If you intend to use coloured light for static illumination it is usually more practical to use colour LED emitters.
Camera exposure will depend on the scene, choice of light source, and light source brightness. I will typically try and use the optimal aperture for sharpness (unless I need to render a starburst/sunstar from a light source), as low ISO as possible, and a exposure time long enough for adequate, but not over-exposed illumination (usually this is a set time <30secs and not Bulb). If you are illuminating a night landscape as part of an astrophotography scene, then you need to expose the night sky correctly, and lower your light source brightness to avoid any over-exposure of the foreground.
Backlighting is commonly used by light painting photographers, and involves a model (usually the light painter or friend) blocking the light beam from a flashlight/torch or off-camera flash, creating a shadow towards the camera. This is also known as a still-houette as the model has to keep perfectly still for a second or longer. This is best performed with a flashlight or off-camera flash mounted on a tripod, though it can be handheld if you have an extra person. As per the previous section, the flashlight needs to be at a brightness setting where it will have stable sustained brightness. Some experimentation of light to camera distance, and light to model distance can be useful. I personally try and keep exposure times short so prefer to use 1-2secs, f/5.6-8, and ISO400 (which is my camera's second noise floor). If I'm on my own, I will use a 10 second timer to run into position. Flashlight brightness may vary between 150lm in a narrow tunnel to 2,000lm in a forest.
If the model has a light source such as a headlamp in front of them, the light from the headlamp can fill in the shadows, as per the below example. Other lighting elements can also be added as required.
I also use a reverse backlight technique for when I don't want to bring a second tripod. This involved facing away from the camera, and holding at arms length two flashlights in front of me, one pointing away from the camera to illuminate the scene, and a second pointing towards the camera with a diffuser to backlight myself (and create the shadow from my legs).
It is also possible to backlight locations such as tunnels to create interesting contrast and textures. In this case, the light source will not be blocked and thus a starburst/sunstar will appear on the image if the light source has a single LED. It is thus best to use smaller apertures of around f/11-16, with resulting increase in either ISO or exposure time.
Backlight Scanners (BLS) were invented by Light Painter Pala Teth. These are used as a moving light source, where the light painter can walk towards the camera during a long exposure, illuminating the scene with a conical beam of light, which is invisible to the camera. This requires the light painter to cover all skin with black clothing to avoid being illuminated by back-scattered light. Care is required to watch where you are stepping whilst aiming the BLS at the camera. I place an LED Tea light on top of the camera so that I know where it is in the dark. It is possible to make a home-made BLS, and a few commercial options are also available. I use a BLS made by Lace Light Photos, combined with a 1,500lm high-CRI Convoy S12 219C torch (though the newer 2,000lm Convoy S21D 519A is better). I typically use an exposure of f/8, ISO400, and Bulb exposure time as required.
Moving Light Source
A popular way of illuminating dark scenes is to use a moving light source. Either the light painter can remain in the same location, but move around the flashlight's light beam, or the light painter may also need to be walking around whilst illuminating the scene. The light does not need to be on for the entire photographic exposure. LED Panel lights or even off-camera flashes can be used as well.
It is possible to do this by staying out of the camera's field of view. However in some instances, the light painter may need to be within the camera's field of view. Tips to avoid making yourself and the light source visible in the photo include always pointing the light source at more than a 90 degree angle away from the camera, using a black card to hide the flashlight if it needs to be at a less than 90 degree angle away from the camera, and making sure you are not in-between the camera and what you are illuminating at any point in time.
Flashlights/torches are usually the best option for moving light sources, though headlamps, LED panels, LED scanners/light bars. and cube lights may also be useful. You don't usually need crazy lumens, I've illuminated an entire castle with cool and warm white 800 lumen flashlights, at f/8, ISO200, and Bulb exposure. Again, you need to be aware of how quickly your flashlight steps-down from maximum brightness, and if the brightness is likely to reduce during your exposure, then use a lower brightness mode. It also helps to use a flashlight with mode memory so that it turns on in the previously used brightness setting. I would recommend using high-CRI lights, preferably with choice of colour temperatures, and options for adding colour filters. Again, the Convoy S2+ 519A range is my favourite light for this purpose. If you are trying to combine astrophotography with moving illumination, you will need to use a low brightness setting from the light source.
Some light painters prefer to use zoom lights, as there is more fine control over beam size. Ledlenser's latest generation of lights are excellent zoom lights, but they are also very expensive. A Light Painting Brushes Universal Connector, or Light Painting Paradise Round Adapter can also be used to collimate the light beam.
The angle of the lighting is very important. If you illuminate from behind, or close to the camera, the resulting photo will lack contrast and look quite flat. It is better to illuminate from the side, or more parallel (instead of perpendicular) to surfaces to create more contrast.
If you are using colours for moving illumination, then you will usually get better coloured illumination by using colour filters on a white light source, rather than colour LEDs which are usually monochromatic. This reduces the chance of over-saturation. However, in some cases coloured LEDs may still be more practical.
If you are moving around in the dark, please be aware of where you are stepping. I have fallen down many a rabbit hole, and a flight of steps, and that was just during one photographic exposure!
In the last few years aerial illumination from drone light painting has really taken off (no pun intended). In most cases the light trail is also visible during the exposure, unless the drone is higher than the camera's field of view. This aerial lighting creates midday like lighting angles, but with a night sky backdrop. As drones have a limited payload, then lumens to weight ratio is important, as are mounting options. Lumecube 2.0 is winning this market segment at the moment, though I have also seen some light painters use "pocket rocket" lights such as the Emisar D4V2 with custom 3D printed mountings.
There are many different types of illumination, for long exposure light painting, night landscape photography, astrophotography, low level landscape lighting, and urban exploring. These may have very different requirements for the most optimal light source. Multiple light painting techniques may be required to produce the desired photo. Hopefully this article has helped to demystify how to illuminate light painting scenes.