Automotive Lighting 8:
Painting with Light
What is Painting
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 usually 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.
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
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.
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.
Another example of the same technique and
lights as used above.
This image is a composite of the 2 images below.
This images was exposed for the background and converted
to a cooler than normal colour balance. Exposing for the car would have
resulted in an overexposed and washed out background.
Again 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,
a small soft box with LED light source,
whilst walking around the car during the exposure.
Colour Temperature of the lights sources
to consider the colour temperature (read more about colour temperature
below) of your lighting when light painting otherwise the end result may
look unnatural. This can also work in your favor if you want to
exaggerate differences but it's always best to be aware rather than to
Here the light used to light paint
the car is white whilst the lighting behind the car
is a mix of orange and green. The mix makes the car
look fake or 'Photo shopped in'. Although this image
is a composite of several images almost the same image could have been achieved
without any Photoshop at all yet it would have suffered from
the same colour miss match and there fore also looked fake.
This is the exact same image except that the background has been colour corrected
to better match the lighting used on the car. Note how much more
realistic and natural it looks. It looks believable whilst the
original image possibly does not.
As mentioned previously,
any number of light sources could be used for light painting. A few are
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
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.
This was light painted with a handheld flash during a
relatively long exposure.
interior was light painted with a combination of
stationary strobe and a handheld strobe used in