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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, not a composite, 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 (which is not a problem anyway as long as any stray light streaks are not on the car itself). 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 lens 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 (4 foot) 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 (2 foot) 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 lights shown above are described in detail here Battery powered 18 Watt fluorescent light for light painting cars and here Battery powered 36 Watt fluorescent light for light painting cars.

Equipment, Tripods, Cable Releases and Filters

Image sharpness is affected by many factors including the movement of the camera during the exposure. Painting with light (at night) generally involves a long exposure, or several of them which are later combined. It's important to use rigid tripod during long exposures as this will keep the camera and lens as still as possible which will help in at least 2 ways. Firstly it will improve image sharpness by minimising or eliminating any camera shake. Secondly it will help to keep multiple images as similar as possible which helps to combine the images, if desired. A flimsy tripod will potentially shake in the wind and can cause unsharp images, especially if extended fully as this is always the time a tripod is at it's weakest.

Touching the camera during the exposure should be avoided. A Remote Shutter or Cable Release will improve image sharpness by preventing the camera moving during the start or end of an exposure. If you don't have this functionality then try to use the self timer to minimise touching the camera.

The flare in this image has ruined it. It could have been avoided by better lens choice, possibly by using a lens hood, or possibly by using a 'cutter' (a piece of card) held in such a way so as to shade the lens itself. In some cases the only solution is a slight change in camera position or composition.  

A cutter is shown in use in daylight. In this case it is shielding the lens whilst shooting towards the sun. The same principal applies when shooting into bright lights at night and can be useful to shield a lens from stray light.

If you normally use a protective filter on your lenses then this is probably a good time to remove them, regardless of the quality of the filter. Painting with light involves pointing a light source into the lens so any additional glass surfaces, such as those on any filter, will increase the likelihood of flare, including veiling flare which reduces contrast. Removing any unnecessary filters reduces the potential for flare to ruin an image. Remember to put them back on when finished as filters can certainly be useful aids in protecting your lenses.

Cameras and Lenses

You can use any camera or lens that you want but at a minimum you have to be able to manually set the cameras aperture, shutter speed and focus. You can not use a cameras auto settings when painting with light.

A camera that allows you to shoot RAW files will allow you much greater flexibility than one that only shoots Jpegs. Do not shoot Jpegs (only) if you have the option to shoot RAW files. RAW files allow dramatically better control over white balance and almost all other settings during post processing.

Ideally the camera should have a B (Bulb) setting which allows you to open the shutter and keep it open as long as you want. Most cameras have a maximum shutter speed of around 30 seconds which might be enough if a B setting is not available.

The camera should preferably have a remote shutter or cable release facility so that the shutter can be opened and closed without actually touching (and moving) the camera.

You might not have much choice regarding which lens you use but if you do then try to use a modern lens with good quality multicoating to minimise the image degradation that can be caused by flare. Older lenses often have mediocre or even poor coatings so can suffer significant flare, especially if light sources are in the background, or even from the light painting light source itself. A very fast lens, ie. F1.4 or similar, is not needed as often a lens will be stopped down to around F5.6-F11 for the exposure. However a relatively fast lens, eg. F2.8, can be useful for focusing in dark conditions. Lens hoods should be used whenever possible to minimise the chance of flare. A 'cutter', which is simply a piece of dark coloured card or thin board, can be used to shield the lens from stray light that is striking it directly.

Camera and Lens Settings, a starting point

The exact settings that you will need will depend on your specific circumstances and on the effect you are trying to achieve.

A cameras ISO, aperture and shutter speed are all linked and determine the actual exposure. You can alter the combinations of ISO, shutter speed and aperture to achieve the same exposure but there is always a trade off of some kind. When painting with light there is a balancing act between the ambient light, the intensity of the light sources being used, the time you need to actually paint with light and the technical constraints of using poor ISO or aperture settings.

As a starting point, try to use the cameras lowest ISO setting that you can. This will give you the highest image quality (both image sharpness and dynamic range are best at the lowest ISO) with minimum noise. If you are forced to use a very high ISO then you will have a higher level of noise in the images which can be detrimental in many ways, typically reducing sharpness and dynamic range.

The shutter speed you use will depend on many factors, ie ambient light levels, aperture and ISO. Painting with light requires that you walk around various parts of the car and this takes time. A shutter speed that is very short, possibly only a few seconds, won't allow you the time to paint the car with light, ie to light it. So you need to use a long enough shutter speed that will enable you to paint with light. If you intend to combine multiple images then maybe you only need to light small parts of the car in each image and then combine them. Alternatively you might need enough time to walk around the entire car, possibly a minute or two (or even several minutes). A 30 second exposure is often a comfortable staring point which allows enough time to light two sides of a car but a 60 second exposure is often needed to be able to walk around the entire care. Another way of increasing the intensity of your light source is to simply walk slower, ie to light the car for longer, so a very long exposure might be used to make your light source brighter.

The aperture that you use will affect image quality in several ways however as a starting point an aperture in the range of F5.6 to about F11 will be a good staring point. An aperture in this range will offer substantial depth of field (ie more of the subject will be sharply focused) and most lenses perform better in this range than they do wide open. You can use any aperture you like depending on the effect you want to achieve.

How do you focus in the dark?

Use Manual Focus. Do not use Auto Focus at night.

The easiest way to focus at night is to use Live View or a similar focusing aid on the camera whilst a light source is pointed on the car itself, or held very close to it. In a typical front/rear three quarter shot (ie most front/rear car shots) it is best to focus on the tyre closest to the camera. Bring the light close to the tyre to focus, focus manually (Auto focus probably won't work anyway), then do not change the focus unless you accidentally move the camera or lens. As long as you are using an aperture of around F8 (depending on the camera and lens) then you will probably have enough depth of field for the entire car to be in focus from front to rear.

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.

Painting with light in a studio is typically very easy as long as any stray or ambient light can be controlled.  

Painting with light in a studio.

Lit with a small light source.   Mainly lit with a handheld flash whilst walking around the car during an exposure of around 2 minutes.
This interior was light painted with a combination of stationary strobe and a handheld strobe used in stroboscopic mode.  

Painted with light using strobes in stroboscopic mode, but with the emphasis on the background exposure to give the location and car context.

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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