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Automotive Lighting 8: Painting with Light


John Jovic

What is Painting with Light?

The term 'painting with light' or 'light painting' describes a range of techniques used to light a subject during a long exposures and is an excellent lighting technique for car photography. Painting with light doesn't describe any specific look or even equipment, it's just a technique. However cars are reflective by nature so the reflection of the light source can be a give away that lightpainting was used. The basic concept of painting with light is that you photograph a subject in a dark environment and you apply light to various parts of the subject as if you where applying it with a paint brush, hence the term 'Painting with Light'. It's often done in a single exposure long enough to be able to gradually light the entire subject however it's also common to shoot a series of exposures lighting various parts of the subject which are later combined into a single image.

This is a typical example of Painting with Light. This is a single exposure where the car was lit with a continuous light source during an exposure long enough to light the background with the ambient light.  

In this example the car was lightpainted whilst walking around the car to create the highlights on the windscreen and roof. This is a composite image.

The term painting with light is also used to describe a technique where patterns are created, drawn or painted in a dark environment, using flames, torches, sparklers etc. This is not a lighting technique as such because the light itself is the actual subject in the form of shapes, words, symbols etc left as trails of light. This is not the same as the technique used to light a car because it's end purpose is the light itself rather than a source of illumination for a subject (a car).

How do you paint with light?

The examples below will hopefully show how the technique is employed for car photography. As with most car photography it all starts with finding a suitable location. The location for light painting needs to be one where there is minimal stray light falling on the car itself, but one where the background itself is interesting and can be exposed in a period long enough to allow you to paint the car with light. Extremely bright or dark locations are not very useful. A very bright location (background) may force you to use a short exposure which may not allow you enough time to light paint the subject. Such a location may still work but might force you to combine several exposures, with various parts of the car having been lit, into one final image. A location which is too dark may simply force you to use a very long exposure for the background itself. Opening the lens to shorten an exposure is not always a good solution because it reduces depth of field which may render parts of the car slightly out of focus.

The strip of light reflected in the panels of the car below are typical of the light painting technique when applied to cars. Painting with light can be done with a range of light sources from candles, tungsten or LED (Light Emitting Diode) torches, fluorescent lights to flashes/strobes. The size, shape, colour and intensity of the light are all factors which can be used to alter the lighting effect so conscious choices need to be made by the photographer to achieve the desired or previsualised effect.

The above image was lit with an LED based continuous light fitted with a small soft box. The technique described here shows light painting in it's most basic form and does not require any Photoshop or composite images. The above image is a single shot, just a straight RAW conversion. The car was carefully light painted making sure not to walk inside the shot during the exposure. The strip of light in the side of the car is the reflection of the light source itself. The size of the strip is affected by the size of the light source itself but also by the shape of the cars panels, distance from the car and even the height of the light itself.  

This image was exposed for the background and shows how the car would have appeared without any additional lighting/light painting. This is the kind of environment that suits light painting because there is very little extraneous light on the car itself to affect the exposure. Light painting is best done when there is virtually no extraneous light on the car itself so that the lighting on the car is that created by the light painting technique rather than any nearby lights. It's also important to consider the possibility of shadows created by any nearby lights.

The illustration above shows how the car was lit. The exposure was long enough to allow the front and side of the car to be light painted in a single exposure. The points A-B show the approximate position of the light to create the highlight along the side of the car. The points C-D show the approximate position of the light to create the highlight in the front grille of the car. In each case the light painting was started from next to the camera but continued until points A and C respectively. This ensures a continuous highlight from one end of the car to the other end. Staying outside the shot ensures that the light source is not visible in the shot so there is no need to composite another shot for the background but you might still want to do that if a different exposure was required for the background or possibly for any other part of the car.  

This LED based light was used to light paint the car above left. Just about any continuous light source could be used depending on the colour balance and light output required at the time. The soft box used here gives the same effect as using a simple fluorescent tube of the same length. If you want to create a taller light strip reflection then just use a longer fluorescent tube or larger light modifier or soft box.

When you are light painting during an exposure, in an otherwise dark environment, light builds up in the image (on the cameras digital sensor or film) where ever you light the subject and the subject stays dark where none is added. If you are using a continuous light source to paint with then you will need a relatively long exposure to give you enough time to paint the subject with light, either by walking around the subject within the image or from outside the shot as seen by the camera. If there is too much ambient light then you might be forced to use a short exposure to reduce the ambient lights effect on the image. It's usually best to use these techniques where it's relatively dark so that you can achieve a long exposure. This is also a good reason to use a relatively powerful light because it allows you to use a smaller aperture on your lens which in turn allows you to use a longer exposure. Very weak lights are potentially fine too but need a dark environment, possibly a workshop, warehouse, studio etc. and longer exposures.

If you are in a dark environment, with relatively dark clothes and without lights upon you then you can walk through the shot as it is being exposed without actually appearing in the image. As long as you don't spend too much time in one spot and keep light from spilling onto yourself then you won't appear in the image. You do need to be careful when walking between the subject and camera as any light spilling from the back of the light source will be visible in the image. You can use your body as a shield between the light source and the camera and try to shield the light from the lens whenever possible to reduce the chance of flare.
This image is a composite of the 2 images below. Compositing images is not necessarily integral to light painting but it's some times the only way to achieve a desired effect, such as the lighting on the bonnet, windscreen, roof and boot of the car.  


This images was the basis of the composited image above. It was exposed for the background and light painted so that it was fully lit from it's side and grille during the exposure. This is a straight RAW conversion and a complete and finished image in itself.  

Here the car was light painted with a continuous light source during a relatively long exposure. The white streak above the car is the trail left by the light whilst walking completely around the car during the exposure. Walking behind the car leaves the reflections of the light in the windscreen, bonnet, boot and roof but also leaves the light trail which needs to be removed. The reflections of the light in the cars panels were not as clean in this image as in the previous image (because the light was held much higher so the reflections were in a different part of the cars panels) so they were not used in the final image.

Light painting is a variable technique where 5 different exposures can give you 5 different results because you may not have walked in the exact same place, held the light at the same height or at the same speed. Variations in the effect are easily achieved by varying any of these or the light source itself. A small or point light source is easier to hide in a cars reflection than a large light source (because you don't necessarily want to see the lights reflection in a cars panels). Conversely a large light source, such as a large soft box or fluorescent tube, will create a larger strip of light reflected in a cars panels so this would be a better choice if that is the effect that's desired. You also might want a very weak reflection in a car so a larger but weaker light source might deliver the desired result.

You can also composite several images where only parts of the subject are lit. This is something you might do if you were lighting the subject with flash in bright sunlight (or in the dark) and you lit different parts of the subject in different images. These could then be composited into a single final image.

This is an example using a 36W battery operated fluorescent light:

This is image is a composite of the images below.  


The background image (without any light painting) was processed at the same colour temperature as the light painted image.  

In this example a 6500K fluorescent tube was used with the intention to make the Sodium (yellow/amber) street lights as yellow/amber as possible for maximum contrast with the white car.

This is another example with an 18W battery operated fluorescent light.

This image is a composite of the two images to the right.  

This background image was processed at the same colour temperature as the light painted image.


In this example a 4000K tube was used and it seemed to balance quite well with the Sodium (yellow/amber) street lights.

Light sources

As mentioned previously, any number of light sources could be used for light painting. A few are described below.

The advantage of using a powerful and controllable light whilst light painting is that you can use a smaller f stop on the lens which then allows you to extend the exposure time without over powering the image by any ambient light sources. If the light used for light painting was relatively weak then you might have to use a wider aperture which would force you to use much shorter exposures before the ambient light adversely affected the light painting.

This LED (Light Emitting Diode) based light source was custom built and intended for use with a soft box fitted to the front of the unit (from 50 to 100cm) so is quite adaptable. This light source is quite powerful and adjustable, has a relatively neutral colour balance (but not perfect) and is light weight and portable. The black box at the rear is a 24 volt battery however the unit can be powered from any 12-30 volt power source so is quite flexible.   Most hand held flashes can also be used to paint with light. They are better suited to interiors, engine bays or backgrounds and less well suited to lighting the exterior of the car because their specular reflections in panels are much less predictable so can lead to many unwanted flash highlights. This can result in lots of time and effort to remove them in Photoshop.
The trusty 'Eveready Dolphin'. No car photographer should be without one. They're cheap as chips and tough as nails but it's amber tungsten colour balance isn't always desirable. It's quite easy to tape a 'Tungsten to Daylight' (3200/3400K to 5000K) conversion gel to the front, problem solved.  

Fluorescent light sources are often used for painting with light but some operate on high voltages so can be cumbersome and dangerous. The unit above is a portable 12 volt light which drives an 18W tube. The lights construction is described in detail here: Battery powered 18 Watt fluorescent light for light painting cars.

Further examples

The Light Painting technique can be applied to many lighting problems and is particularly useful for lighting interiors, engine bays and details at night or in dark environments.

Here light painting was combined with stationary tungsten lights behind the car to create a dramatic lighting effect.  

The light painting in this image is very subtle and was used to supplement the ambient light rather than to dominate it. The light painting brought out details, such as in the wheels, which where not otherwise visible. A strobe was also used to light the radiator.

This interior was light painted with a combination of stationary strobe and a handheld strobe used in stroboscopic mode.  

Mainly lit with a handheld flash whilst walking around the car during an exposure of around 2 minutes.

The white line in the side and rear of the car is the continuous specular reflection of the small light source used to light the car during a long exposure.  

Painted with light using strobes. The side of the car was lit with carefully positioned strobes, to prevent specular reflections, whilst the rest of the car was painted with light by walking around the car and popping the strobe as needed.

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