Sunday 6 December 2020

Painting With Light

Covid-19 has curtailed the photographic opportunities of most photographers, as movement has been restricted, venues have been closed to the public and events have been cancelled. Luckily here in the UK we were blessed with an unusually dry and sunny Spring followed by a long, warm Summer to ease the pain of lock down and I've enjoyed my time spent working and relaxing in my garden with much of the time spent photographing flowers. 

Autumn came along with the prospect of shorter, wetter days as the night's drew in and here we are still in lock down as we come into Winter. To cope with the gloom of Covid and Winter together I was looking to improve my still life skills at home by viewing some Youtube tutorials on photographing flowers and I stumbled across a video on light painting some orchids with a simple torch. The result was really beautiful and I'd found myself a new project for the long dark Winter months.

Now I must admit that I'm not entirely new to painting with light. In 2017 I was on a photo club long weekend in Blencathra in the Lake District during October when we were given a light painting tutorial by a member of the club. 

Hoylake Photographic Society - Light Painting Tutorial

As you can imagine, trying to get everyone on the same page with camera setting and the technique when using different camera brands and menus in total darkness wasn't easy. People shining a torch at crucial moments because they'd either lost their remote cable release or had accidently kicked their tripod in the darkness resulted in some chaos. Still we managed to get a few shots of the burning wire wool twirled around on a rope with our brave host peppered with burning embers inside the light sphere. Don't try this at home without the proper precautions. At the time I marked it down as something else in photography that I'd tried and which I probably wouldn't do again.

Burning wire wool on a rope

Back now to the present and the light painting of flowers in the warmth of my dining room. By chance we had an arrangement of plastic orchids that were gifted to us which were perfect for me to practice the Youtube single torch technique, but first I invested in a portable clothes rail from Ikea for £7 to use as a background stand to hang some black cloth. The clothes rail is the perfect size for still life or head and shoulder portraits.

Plastic Orchids - torch lit, f16, 15 sec, ISO 100

With the camera set on a tripod, pre focused then switched over to manual focus in a dark room it was a simple case of keeping the small torch moving on the subject where you wanted the most light to fall taking care to keep the light source of the torch pointing away from the lens. Trial and error with the total time spent lighting the flowers and vase gave me this photograph which I'm pleased with.

I started searching Youtube for more light painting tutorials and it opened up a whole new World of fibre optic brushes, perspex blades, light swords, Katas, electroluminescent string, coloured gels, strobing torches and empty plastic drinks bottles that I never knew existed. Starting with a few cheap torches bought in supermarkets, some rescued plastic drink bottles and battery operated Christmas lights, I soon discovered that there were certain specialist tools available on the internet to make the art of light painting much easier.

My basic light painting kit

Torch, rubber universal connector and black fibre optic brush

Torch, rubber universal connector and perspex blade

Torch, rubber universal connector and plastic drinks bottle

You can use the cheapest torch available from a supermarket for light painting but a piece of kit that I'd highly recommend buying is a rubber universal connector to connect your torch to your chosen tool. Push a piece of coloured gel inside the universal connector and you change the colour of the light emitted from the torch. It also makes changing tools very quick as they just push on and it's cleverly designed to fit a standard plastic drinks bottle. A clear plastic bottle can either be filled with coloured gels or lightly spray painted in different colours. 

Torches with the on/off button on the base are most useful and a strobe effect makes things interesting. My basic supermarket torches costing £3 are 80 lumens in power which is good enough for close work and portraits. Grease proof paper makes a great light diffuser on the end of a torch. I've now purchased two specialist torches of 150 lumens and 300 lumens with variable power settings and strobe effect for outdoor use and more flexibility.

So what can you get up to indoors on a cold Winter evening of light painting. My first attempt was using a book, a glass sphere and a willing model.  A cheap torch was used to illuminate my granddaughter Bess and the book. I finished off using the black fibre optic brush and red gel on her hands and arms. 

Magic Hands

My second attempt was another concept. Southern Comfort, a glass of cold tea and a plastic firefighters helmet. A torch was used to quickly illuminate the bottle, glass and helmet for a few seconds. The black fibre optic brush with a red gel was then used to create the hot sparks and a torch shone through some blue Christmas tinsel created the background. 

Hot Stuff

Balancing the brightness of your light sources is the most difficult task added to the fact that you're working in darkness. It's hard to remember where on your canvass you've already painted. With the shutter set to "Bulb" mode the best way of adjusting the brightness is to adjust the aperture. A good starting point is f8 at ISO 100, then open or close the aperture if your image is too dark or too bright. Once the shutter is open on Bulb mode you have plenty of time in the dark to paint your subject. If you're wearing black clothing and keep moving you won't be recorded in the final image. Trial and error and patience is the way, and it will take a few efforts to get the image that you want. 

I've lost count of the times I've lost a tool in the dark half way through a shot. Putting a tea light next to them on a small table is a help. I initially used an IR remote to start /stop the shot but I constantly lost it when I put it down so I've switched to a cable release with a single button taped to the tripod leg.

Crying Light

My next session used the black fibre optic brush on it's own without any colour. The black fibre optic brush only emits light at the tips of the fibres and you can create some interesting portraits using that tool alone. Both portraits of my granddaughter were taken at f8 for 6 seconds. That was just enough time for one pass of the brush across the face and body. The results are very unpredictable, hence the tears of light which were unplanned. A white light was used below but the torch used was made of blue plastic and the fibre optics have picked up the blue light pollution. Something to consider. 

Black Fibre Optic Brush.

My most recent light painting session was another concept and far more adventurous. I found a toy Darth Vader mask in the loft and placed it on a hair styling head which was clamped to the dining table. Two rolled up bath towels made up the shoulders with black cloth used as a makeshift cloak. Two torches, one blue, the other red were used to illuminate either side of the head. The black fibre optic brush with a red gel was used to create the background and blue electroluminescent string moved quickly in the foreground to create a blue mist.

"May the light be with you"

As I became more confident with the results I switched the red fibre optic brush for the perspex blade and red gel with the torch set to strobe mode. This is my favourite photograph from the session.

Darth Vader

I've viewed a lot of Youtube videos from excellent light painters between these sessions. There's a lot of resources on the platform about light painting. My recommendation is to watch Patrick Rochon's 8hrs of free tutorials where he will take you from the basics through to light painting portraits. Denis Smith has his "School of Light" channel on Youtube with dozens of tutorials and interviews with professional light painters. Twenty Cent Light has the most amazing artwork for inspiration and it's hard to believe he's only been light painting for two years. 

I've only been light painting for two months this Winter and it will get harder to find the time as the days lighten into Summer but you don't need 100% darkness to paint with light. You can use the blue hour before dusk and include the landscape and the stars in your images. Eric Pare' is an expert in this type of painting and his work is also on Youtube to view. 

The only limits to your creativity are in your mind. There are countless ways to use light sources indoors and out. Have fun.