Technique: Painting with Light

Sometimes, it's good for a photographer (well, anyone, really), to stretch their creative muscles, step out of "the norm", away from their comfort zone and delve into something entirely new, just for fun.

The thing about a comfort zone is that it's comfortable. It's comfortable because it's predictable, controllable, understood, well-rehearsed. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this. Many, many photographers, since the first camera, have become quite famous for having a certain, recognizable style. However, breaking the chains of conformity can be fun and exciting and, at worse it's an opportunity to learn. Even if the results aren't what were expected or you completely hate them, you'll still LEARN. Paraphrasing what the great Thomas Edison once said, referencing mention of all his failures in developing the light bulb, that he hadn't failed 700 times, he merely discovered 700 ways not to make a light bulb. He added that once he eliminated all the ways that won't work, he would find the one that did. This easily translates to experimenting with photography, as well.

A few days ago, I was sitting in an office watching one of the gals working there as she ate. I don't know why the inspiration hit, as it's certainly an odd connection to have made, but as I sat there, I was inspired to try a technique that I'd heard of, nearly 15 years earlier. Only once did I ever try, back when I got my very first digital camera. The results were ok, I guess, but I had no clear goal in mind other than to see what happened. I also really had less than zero technical skill or even the most basic understanding of the camera. I only attempted the once and never explored it, further. It used a flashlight and a heart-shaped candy box with some roses that I'd gotten for Valentine's Day (from my husband and love of my life). The technique is called "painting with light".

Back then, I only knew it as "long exposure with a little light exposure, sweeping around the subject". Sadly, that's still all I know! I had obsessed about it all day and intended to "give it a try" in the next few weeks or so". As the day went on, I just kept thinking more and more about it and by 9:30, when I SHOULD be getting ready for bed, having to get up at 5am, I just had to try.

Without doing any research, I just wanted to see what would happen on my own. So, I basically just put a backdrop on the table and started gathering stuff that I thought might look good. They elements of my composition had absolutely no commonality and, having no real plan, yet again, I didn't really care. I only wanted to see what would happen.

In all, I took 20 different photos. I probably would have taken more, but I really did need to get to bed, so I stopped when I got the first one that I thought was close to what I was hoping for (which is a weird thought to have, when I didn't really know what I wanted, I realize). I wanted to emulate my original inspiration from nearly two decades, prior. It was a yellow-tinted, antique-looking still life. I assumed that I could get that rich, golden hue with candles, so I put two hand-dipped candles into the stuff on the table and lit them.

I set the camera on a tripod, focused at the middle of the items at f1.4, set to manual to lock focal point, then started with a one second exposure. The result was way underexposed with two little hot spots. I increased exposure time to 3 seconds and, while the rest of the items started showing up with a slight golden glow, the real details were still lost in blackness and the hot spots had become blinding. I kept it at 3 seconds and ran a penlight over the scene. Better, but still no significant details in enough of the composition to stop. I increased to 6 seconds and used more flashlight. Finally, I was starting to see the items on the table in the way I had hoped but the two sides of the frame now looked like fiery infernos. The middle third was pretty great and the outer third was grossly overexposed.

Next, I set for a 10-second exposure, lit the candles for 5 seconds, then blew them out and brushed light onto the scene with that little penlight. Still getting closer but the candlelight was still overpowering and the shadows were still too deep and dark in pertinent areas, preventing the necessary definition in the objects. The next to last shot I took was super close. I kept the 10-second exposure time, left the candles lit for only two seconds and had my husband blow them out (to save time) and immediately started brushing light onto the scene in a rapid motion, making tiny little controlled circles. There was one area near the side of the clock that I felt was still too dark but I knew it should only take one more before I could call it quits (and release my husband from candle duty...that poor man, who is always victimized by my inspiration). I did everything the same only added extra sweeps from the top, down into the shaded area near the clock.

The next time, I decided to change the objects in the composition and try, again. After setting the scene, I put the exposure time to 15 seconds. Blowing the candle out at the 2 second mark was kept the same but I used a second candle and a tiny flashlight to help paint in the light for the remaining 13 seconds. I only got to get three shots. 2 of them I had ruined by coming too close to the lens with the fill candle. The first I hadn't "painted" enough light and only the book and wine were lit. I feel the last one was too much fill but, sadly, I lost my assistant within 10 minutes of starting this last set, though, so was unable to continue. His forbearance of my inspiration at bedtime only goes so far.

Did the results turn out perfectly? Probably not. Can someone else do it better. Oh, I'm 100% sure that's a yes. However, it wasn't too darned bad for something just thrown together as an experiment before bedtime. It was decent enough a result for me to know that I'm excited to try, again, only with real planning and plenty of time to play.