Flash Gun and Torch Light Painting
In this image I used an LED torch on focused beam to light up the bird skeleton and my flashgun to light the interior of the other room. Because I was using a red gel over the LED torch we can't see the blue cast that my torch produced. If I tried to use a flashgun to light up the bird skeleton with a flashgun it would have most likely painted most of the floor red and not the detail I was after.
Light Painting isn't just about sticking two colours together, you have to think about contrasting colours and complimentary colours and what will work best with your surroundings. A simple colour wheel if you don't know it already will help teach you about contrasting and complimentary colours which should really help you in your light painting.
On the basic colour wheel, chose a colour, and the one directly across from it is the complimentary colour of the one you chose. Then contrasting colours are the colours that are very different from each other, Blue and Green are contrasting, Red and Green are complimenting. On location we look at our subject matter (lets say it is a car) and look at what the sky is like, if it is a clear night near no light pollution it will come out mainly Blue especially with a little white balance alteration. So we look on the wheel to see what is contrasting with Blue, Green is very contrasting with Blue so we would use this to light the exterior of the vehicle, then we look on the wheel to see what compliments Green, and Red does, so we would use the Red to light the interior or the vehicle. The final image will come out with a Blue sky, with a green car with red inside and it will be a very visually pleasing image.
This may all seem silly but aesthetics are very important when light painting. If we took that same image again of the car, but in a city area so the sky would come out Orange, and we lit the exterior or the car Yellow and the interior Green. None of these colours are contrasting or complimentary they are all in fact very similar and would all sort of blend together and not make a very visually pleasing image. So we have to take in to account, The sky, The light pollution, and the colours we are going to use. Just something else to consider when shooting.
I often get asked "Why do you not show up in the shot?" as is a valid quaestion. When shooting at night the camera will only pick up light sources, either very quickly or more slowly over time, the sky burns in slower over time, our flashes and lights burn in a lot quicker. As long as I am pysically not lit up bit my torch or flash I will not appear in the shot, sometimes a reflection of flash will hit me face or feet and it will show in the shot, so I try and keep my whole body out of the way when flashing or lighting.
In this image I used a powerful halogen torch on focused beam to light up this entire castle and two trees in the background. This would not have worked with a small torch, it gives a different effect to the flashgun and takes more accuracy as the lighting can be uneven as you are using the torch a bit like a paint brush. Because the castle is made of sandstone the yellow tone of the halogen torch complimented it quite well.
I don't use torch light as often because for what I do the flash is much more practical for lighting up large areas, the torch can help us to light up smaller areas with finer detail without over exposing the highlights or the light leaking on to another object. The torch can be used in the same way as a flash gun, on its own or with a gel held over the end to produce a colour.
There are two types of torches which both produce their own tones. A halogen torch produces a very yellow/orange tone which can also be found in street lights, most house hold lamps, and most car headlights. this is why the sky can be orange in some night pictures near cities, it's called light pollution. An LED torch produces quite a white/blue colour which can be found on some car headlights and in some household lights. The colour cast will also differ from torch to torch, just a slightly different tone of the colour, which can be good in some situations.
This is one of my most famous images and has been published several times. It has also beat 120,000 people to the final of photographer of the year 2008. I created it using a purple gel over my flash gun and flashing the whole inside of the building on full power. Because it was such a huge scale I had to light it for along time on full power or the colour would look faded.
Certain aspects can make light painting hard, like street lighting or even the moon. Sometimes light painting is near impossible. If you are shooting in pure street lighting you will need to light your subject matter enough so the street lights don't washout or paint over your light. If you are exposing for a long time while light painting in conditions involving the moon or close by street lighting can washout your lighting. You will find these things out by trial and error when you are out shooting and hopefully avoid it all together or find a way to combat it.
Coloured light is created by holding different coloured gels over the head of the flash gun while it is being fired. Like I just said using gels slightly diffuses the light, doubling over a gel will diffuse the light even further but the colour will be more intense but require more time lighting as it is not a powerful.
Using the flash gun on its own with no gels is not used very often but makes the most amazing images. Using a flashgun through a gel slightly diffuses the light where as the white light is pure and powerful. White light is usually used as a balance light on the exterior or something to balance out the interior light painting and help expose the rest of the image without colour.
Lets take this image for example. It was a clear night with a few small clouds with a full moon so I knew the sky would expose quickly and look nice. Taking note of wind direction I chose a left of centre composition so the clouds would come from behind the truck towards the camera. I was not planning to star trail because of the full moon so I did not get a lower composition or closer to the truck or even shoot portrait, I did want a relatively bottom heavy composition to show the cloud streaks and small star trails filling the negative space in the sky.
When there is a full moon the ground exposes very quickly also, because it was a clear night on a full moon I knew the sky would come out blue rather than orange, so I chose a contrasting colour for the outside of the truck, as we can see that was Yellow. I then chose a Red for the interior because it contrasted with the Yellow, and the Blue. Obviously I couldn't have a Blue sky with a Blue truck with a Blue interior, it just would not work. If there was no full moon the sky would have come out orange meaning I may have painted the truck blue with a green interior.
So you've got your composition, you've got your colours, before you start shooting you need to have a look inside to see how easy it to get a flashgun inside or get inside yourself. In this case the outside would be very easy to light, nothing in my way, and I can light it from a few angles. The inside of the truck was falling apart and a lot of stuff was in my way, there is no way I could have climbed in myself, so the plan was for me to go round the right hand side of the truck and lean in flashing my Red gel around covering as much as I could. Another thing I could have done in this situation was used wireless flash triggers and placed my flashgun in places I could not get.
I checked my settings to make sure they would work in this situation.
F/5.6 - standard aperture I use for everything at night, not too shallow depth of field and letting in enough light to still give me a short exposure time.
ISO 500 - My camera handles noise quite well so I bumped the ISO to bring out a few more stars/detail in the sky.
BULB - You can never time an exposure like this and you don't want any unforseen happenings and the camera shutter closing before you've finished.
So once I set my camera off on the exposure I lit the exterior first, I put on my Yellow gel over my flashgun and I believe I used about 10-15 flashes on a standard ETTL power whilst walking around the truck from left to right but remaining out of my cameras view. Then I switched to my Red gel and walked around the side of the truck and stuck my arm inside the cab and started flashing, I think I used about 10 flashes because it's a smaller enclosed area it will need less lighting. It is important not to get your flashgun head in the shot, if your flashgun can see your camera your camera can see your flashgun, and you will get horrible squares of light in your image if not large amounts of lens flare, if this does happen you can always clone them out in photoshop or just do it again. I personally like to get it perfect in camera rather than altar the image.
The only problem with light painting inside things, is you have to reach all areas with your light, it will take much more lighting to reach areas further away from your flashgun than those nearest to your flashgun, so when lighting those furthest areas you may get a bit of wash out on the areas closet to you because it has had a bit too much lighting. In some situations there will be 10 different places you can light paint your subject from meaning that burning out should not happen, where as in this case there is only one place I can light from so it will happen slightly. By the time I had done my lighting about 2 minutes had passed and I knew that the sky would have exposed nicely by now so I stopped my exposure and it came out wonderfully.
When you have finished your picture do make sure you zoom in and make sure everything is in focus, no burn out, and flash head in shot, another mistake that can be made is when lighting something at close range the light can reflect off the subject and hit your face which can sometimes be painted in to the image. It's all about trial and error and what works best for you,
The flashgun is what I do most of my light painting with. The flashgun I use is the Canon Speedlite 580ex and it has all the settings that I need to light paint in any situation. This is a top of the range flashgun and not one everyone can afford. I have a back up flashgun which is about 30 years old and still does the same job, the older flashgun settings are a little more tricky than those on a modern flashgun but the job is done the same. The advantage of my modern Canon flashgun is the infrared cell on the front of the flashgun because it can help focusing at night.
My flashgun has 3 settings with many alterations of each setting.
ETTL - This setting produces a small flash of light and is not very powerful, it can be used repeatedly by pressing the pilot button over and over to light paint. Recycling time is fast in this mode providing the batteries have good life left in them, the less life in your batteries the longer your flashgun will take to recharge.
M - I call this manual mode and you can choose either full power, half power, quarter power and so on. Using full power helps to light paint large areas inside buildings but does drain more battery power. Recycling time in this mode is time consuming and the lower your battery power the longer the recycling time.
Multi - This is the strobe setting and can be useful for light painting smaller objects that do not need a lot of lighting, a stronger light would lose detail because of over exposing. To use this you just hold down the pilot button and the flash fires until you stop or the charge runs out. You can choose how bright and how fast you would like the strobe. Recycling time can be slower than ETTL because the strobe will go until it has run out of charge then will recycle, depending on how long the strobe is the recycling will take longer shorter. This is not an essential setting as some flashguns will not have it, you can always just use a normal low powered setting and hit the pilot button repeatedly.
I would suggest rechargeable batteries for any flashgun or torch because you will soon notice the amount of money you have to spend on AA batteries to feed your light painting tools. Always carry spares also and I would charge up my batteries every time I go out. I also carry a pack of 10 non-rechargeable batteries that I can buy for £1 a pack, these are incase i've not charged my rechargeables or lost any, forgot some or any other circumstances. They are cheap so don't last as long as the expensive or rechargeable ones but they are good for lighting for a few hours then throwing away.
Using Your Flashgun For Light Painting
It's not just as simple as strolling in to your frame and start popping flashes everywhere, it has to be carefully considered before you even start your exposure.
Light painting is a technique that can be done in many ways and forms and is completely experimental with no rules so don't be afraid to try something new to light your images.
There are several different types of light painting.
Earlier I spoke about tricking the camera to make some great images. This above is an example, yes this image could easily be created in photoshop but it's cheating and involves no skill. It can be acicved SOOC with no editing what so ever. What I did in this camera is use a custom white balence, something really blue which in general circumstances would make the entire image blue and does not look too pleasing. Once custom white balence is set, I set off my exposure and flashed the building yellow, the custom white balence neutralized the yellow tones and made them white, to look like I had flashed the building white, it also turned the sky purple, all done in camera with no photoshop. This can work with a number of colours but for this particular image I wanted a natural look on the church with a purple sky. Alternately you could use a very yellow custom white balence and flash the church blue to also neutralize the tones giving the sky a different colour again. Other colours and white balences will do different things, it's all about trial and error and finding out what works best for you and your camera.
This is what I use to create all of my work with, all of the colours in the images are created using these lighting gels. I've spent years developing them and coming up with perfect complimentary and contrasting colour combinations perfect for light painting in any situations. The colours in the pack are Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Orange, Pink and Purple. These will give me a number of colour combinations depening on my surrounds and lighting situation. I will explain how they work and how to use them further on in this section.