Let there be light – Illumination of the Light Painting scene
Without targeted illumination of the ruins on Oybin, there wouldn’t be much to see here. Given the size of the site, it wasn’t that easy, to say the least. Alone, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get it on the camera sensor. The ruins were illuminated simultaneously by Marla, Gunnar and me.
In this article I will describe which light sources and working methods we use in our light painting pictures and what else is possible.
Many light painters either do not light their scene at all or obviously do not have a good plan on how to specifically bring beautiful light into their scene.
I have often had this experience in our workshops. Many participants know how to shoot an orb or create other light figures, but they have difficulties with the clean illumination of the surroundings. I hope this article will be helpful for one or the other to paint better light paintings on the sensor in the future, where the place they drove 300 kilometres to is adequately represented.
As with almost all other techniques in light painting, no master has fallen from the sky, especially in this area. Without a lot of practice, it won’t work! Even if you read this article twenty times, you will not become a better light painter. You will only become a better light painter if you take lots of light painting pictures, look at your results critically and learn from your mistakes.
Strictly speaking, this doesn’t have much to do with light painting, of course, but sometimes you can’t avoid the moon or other sunlight illuminating the scene. So you can also consciously incorporate this into your light painting. Some esteemed and successful colleagues work almost exclusively with residual sunlight in the blue hour or with the light of the bright full moon. For me, that would be nothing, but their pictures are not less “worthy” because they didn’t walk through the forest with a torch.
This is one of my few pictures which was illuminated exclusively by the moon. This picture has nothing to do with light painting. I just pressed the shutter release of the camera and waited until the moon had illuminated the pyramid sufficiently. However, in the exposure time of 180 seconds I could have painted an orb or another light figure into the picture.
Since with this method you are dependent on the moon and the cloud cover, I don’t find it very interesting. The limitations are simply too great.
This picture doesn’t look that different from the one of the pyramid, does it? However, the moon had long since set here. The orange light in the sky is residual sunlight and light pollution. It was not visible to the naked eye. But the sensor of the Nikon D750 “saw” it very well. The white light behind the trees comes from the lighthouse on Cape Arkona. The light in the foreground was painted into the picture by me with two torches. Otherwise everything there would be black like the trees in the background.
Looks simple at first glance, doesn’t it? It would have been quite easy if I had been able to get right up to the two dead trees. Unfortunately that was not possible, I would have sunk into the mud. Here is a picture from above:
The camera was about 15 metres away. Any closer and the tripod would have sunk. So I was forced to illuminate the two trees from this distance. A normal torch would have been unsuitable for this because I would not have hit only the two trees with the light. I used a LEP lamp* here. Due to the very narrow cone of light, I could only emit the white light exactly on the trees.
I illuminated the foreground with an Emisar D18**. I set this to about 3000 lumens and then shone it relatively flat on the reeds from both the left and right sides. On the camera I had set ISO 100, the aperture ring of the Nikkor 17-35 was set to 8.
It took about 1 minute to illuminate the trees with the LEP lamp, and about 2.5 minutes to illuminate the foreground. The total exposure time was 257 seconds. For this picture I needed an unusually large number of attempts until it more or less corresponded to my idea. This illumination was anything but easy, even though I have gained a lot of experience in the meantime. Either it was too bright, too dark, blotchy or uneven. Most less experienced light painters would probably have given up in frustration or accepted a not so good, “clean” result.
*LEP – Laser Excited Phosphor. In simple terms, a phosphor layer is excited to glow with a laser. This layer then emits white light which is strongly bundled and emitted through a lens. Despite the relatively low luminous flux of 500 to 800 lumens, these lamps have a long range of 1000 to 1500 metres. Occasionally, these lamps are called white lasers, although this is technically incorrect. There is (so far) no real white laser.
** The Emisar D18 is a lamp the size of a 300 millilitre beverage can with 18 LEDs. The lamp is available in various configurations with a maximum luminous flux of 14000 lumens directly from the “manufacturer” Hank Wang in China. This lamp is not a normal torch! You should only buy this lamp if you already have experience with high power torches. In addition to the purchase price, 19% import VAT will be added when you pick up the lamp at the main customs office of your choice.
Under “normal” conditions, however, a halfway decent illumination is also possible with normal torches. Here, I used a normal 1000 lumen torch. First I attached red colour filter foil to the lamp head and illuminated the stairs flat from the front. After removing the colour filter foil, I then illuminated the trees from below and held the lamp behind Erik for a few seconds. Basically, it is easier to illuminate a small scene that you can walk on completely than the big bog in the picture above.
Lightpainting means movement
Illumination from a single position, preferably standing behind the camera, usually looks flat and boring. And because light decreases quadratically with distance, this method will hardly succeed in illuminating parts of the picture at a greater distance. Basically, it is better to walk through the entire scene with the lamp and illuminate all parts from the same distance. Then the light only diminishes quadratically on the way to the camera and not on the way there. The further the Light Painter moves away from the camera, the weaker the light that the camera sensor records.
Simply put, the further away I am from the camera, the slower I move myself and the torch. In the example picture, I walked with the torch from the bottom to the top on both sides of the stairs and shone it to the left and right. I moved in serpentine lines and slowed down continuously. It is important to always cover the lamp with your own body so that the lamp itself is not visible in the picture. Since this technique would inevitably paint your own shadow in the picture, it is also important to light up these shadows by illuminating all the places you have walked over. At the lighthouse, orientation is quite easy because of the stairs and the lighthouse. In other places it is sometimes more difficult not to lose the overview, especially the position of the camera. In addition, you should briefly think about how strongly the respective parts in the picture reflect the light. The lighthouse painted white reflects the light more than the rest of the scene. So I lit the lighthouse for a shorter time than the lawn and the bushes.
Or would you prefer static light?
I like to use static light in the light painting pictures. It is usually quite difficult to find the right positions for the lamps, but once you have found them, the picture is very easy to reproduce. In this painting we had placed red Led spotlights on the upper floor. We controlled them with radio remote controls so that we didn’t have to run up and down all the time. In the room behind our model Lisa, two small RGB rod lamps were placed. These ran for the entire exposure time. We illuminated the lower floor with two Led Lenser X21s.
Especially for illuminating smaller areas that can only be reached with a lot of effort, it is very helpful to simply place lamps firmly. The windows in the driver’s cab of the excavator could only be reached by a long way. So we placed two small orange lamps in the driver’s cab and just let them shine until the picture was finally in the box. Since it took us several attempts, I would have had to climb up and down again several times. I would have quickly lost the desire to repeat the picture until it was good enough.
Small torches with diffusers or camping lamps such as the Fenix CL09 or CL26R are well suited for such illumination. These emit a very diffuse light and keep the brightness very stable. Led headlamps also work well in principle, but these are usually for 240V. To be able to use them mobile, a conversion and an external 12V power supply is necessary.
Painting the entire scene with static light in Light Painting is hardly sensible in most cases. The effort required to set up the light and the number of lamps needed would be far too great in most cases. However, in order to illuminate individual parts, this makes sense in many cases and can be used in a time-saving manner. Here are some example pictures:
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Lighting with the light figure
Just as with moonlight, which cannot be switched off, the lamp for the light figure often inevitably illuminates the surroundings as well. In the example picture, part of the light comes from the city lights, part from the green lamp on the Orb Tool and the rest from indirect lighting with another torch. Depending on the type of tool, the brightness of the torch used and the speed of movement, different amounts of light are emitted into the surroundings of the light figure. In any case, you should make sure that the different light sources match each other in terms of brightness and colours.
In smaller rooms or, as in the example picture, highly reflective surfaces, it is quite easy to achieve a clean, even illumination by lighting indirectly. Either you light against the wall opposite the scene or the ceiling, the floor or all at the same time. It depends on the nature of the room. There is no general procedure. It is always important to consider whether the wall or ceiling changes the colour of the light. A blank wall will also reflect yellow light if you shine a white torch against it.
Coloured light may also be altered by the colour of the reflecting surface. In most cases, it makes sense to move the torch in order to achieve a really uniform illumination. If no suitable surface is available as a reflector, we use an 80 cm folding reflector. This method has the advantage that you can move the reflector during illumination and thus control the light better. These reflectors are light and don’t cost a fortune. We usually use the (neutral) white side of the reflector. With the golden surface, you achieve a warmer lighting atmosphere, similar to a sunset.
Here the room was illuminated by indirect light and additionally by a street lamp. The latter created the shadows of the window frame on the switch cabinets.
In most cases, illumination only by indirect light would be relatively boring. In the example picture above, I had additionally illuminated directly on the right side in the direction of the camera. In addition, part of the scene was also illuminated here by the lights of the city through the window.
From which direction is the light coming?
As already mentioned above, it is generally not a good idea to shine light into the light painting scene from behind the camera. Every other direction is more exciting. The structures of the bridge would not have been exciting at all if I had only shone from front to back. Apart from that, hardly any light would have reached the rear part of the bridge. The bridge is over 60 metres long.
In the first step, I illuminated the bridge from back to front with the Fenix LR35R. I attached a blue colour filter and a back light scanner to the lamp head (more about this later).
I walked the entire bridge with it. Behind our model Jennifer I stopped for a moment, switched off the lamp, switched it on again in front of her and walked right up to the camera. The closer I got to the camera, the faster I ran. Those who know me know that I didn’t run, of course. I always walked from one threshold to the next. At the back I stopped for a few seconds at a time. The further forward I went, the shorter I stayed on the thresholds until I ran the last 10 metres without stopping. After the third attempt I had a slender foot. Running on the sleepers is no great pleasure.
In the second step I shone a red light flat on both sides from front to back. Again, I walked along the bridge with the light, once to the left and then again to the right. So for each attempt I walked about 360 metres. That’s about 1 kilometre of walking for 3 attempts. I won’t even talk about the way from and back to the car. The bridge is in the middle of nowhere.
But it can also be simpler. Here, the entire scene was illuminated with only one lamp. I stood behind the model with it and shone it towards the camera for a few seconds. The lamp itself was covered by our model Dominic. The pattern was created by a small grid plate that I held in front of the lamp. Beforehand, I had blown some fog into the tunnel so that a glow of light was visible behind the model.
You usually can’t do much wrong with backlighting. It is almost always exciting. But you shouldn’t overdo it with such pictures.
When illuminating larger areas outdoors, it is recommended in most cases to illuminate at an angle of 100 to 120°. In the example picture, I walked once to the left of the camera in the direction of the tree and once on the right side. In each case, I shone the light inwards at the same angle and outwards on the way back. For this reason, the light in the middle is “double”, i.e. brighter. The idea behind this was to draw the viewer’s eye from the foreground to the tree. If areas to the left or right were brighter than the tree, the viewer’s gaze would wander.
Here again, the Emisar D18 mentioned above was used as the only light source. I also used it to illuminate the tree in the picture. I walked halfway around the tree at a distance of about 3 metres, slowly moving the lamp up and down. The tree is about 12 metres high.
Back Light Scanner
Based on the original Back Light Scanner from the esteemed Pala Teth, I printed several variations for different torches on the 3D printer some time ago. With the Back Light Scanner it is possible to create back light without the light source itself being visible in the image. And that without a model or an object covering the light source. You can see this very well in the picture of the fuel tank. I once walked the 60-metre-long tank from the back to the front with the Back Light Scanner and used it to illuminate the entire thing cleanly and evenly, highlighting the structures.
A very powerful torch like the Fenix LR35R with a maximum of 10,000 lumens is advantageous here. The rusty metal does not reflect much light, the diameter of the tank is about 7 metres. I had switched the Fenix to the “high” level with 3000 lumens and walked quite slowly. The aperture ring of the 12mm Laowa was set to 11, on the Nikon D750 I had chosen ISO 50.
This technique works best if you work with the Back Light Scanner in the middle of the room. Vertically, this is usually quite easy. At a height of 7 or 10 metres, however, it becomes difficult horizontally. I am only 1.89 metres tall, and with the arm extended, it stops at about 2.5 metres. In the picture with the two Gunnars I had tilted the scanner very slightly upwards. But you shouldn’t overdo it, otherwise you will see the light source in the picture.
In principle, you can also cover the light source with a piece of cardboard or something similar. However, it is difficult to illuminate all sides simultaneously and evenly.
What torches are suitable?
Basically, it makes illumination easier if the torch used has a high luminous flux. The larger the area to be illuminated, the more light I need, or the more time. In addition, a torch with a wide, uniform beam is advantageous for direct illumination. Besides the Emisar D18 mentioned above, focusable torches such as the Fenix FD65, which is unfortunately no longer available, are ideally suited for direct illumination. To make the light of torches with normal reflectors like the Sofirn SP36 more diffuse, I attach baking paper in front of the lamp head.
Other lamps such as the large, heavy and expensive Led Lenser X21R or MT18 are basically also suitable for illumination, but what bothers me about these lamps is that they very quickly reduce the brightness unnecessarily. This can be remedied by switching them off and on again. However, this annoys me. What also annoys me about these lamps is the permanently installed battery and the rather low colour rendering index of the LEDs used. With the Fenix or Emisar, I can simply change the batteries when they are empty. The CRI of the Emisar is 95, that of the Fenix probably around 90. You can find my article on this topic here.
From left to right:
- Led Lenser X21R – max. 5000 (with switch half-pressed) 3200 lumens in the “high” setting – 1440g – 399€.
- Fenix FD65 – 3800 lumens – 435g – 169€ – no longer available
- Fenix LR35 – 10000 lumen -380g – 199€
- Emisar D18 – 10000 to 14000 lumens, depending on LED’s used – 480g – from 99$ plus shipping and tax/duty
- Sofirn BLF SP36 – 5600 lumen – 430g – 70€
- Fenix FD30 – 1000 Lumen – 140g – 75€
- Emisar D4V2 Copper – 3000 to 4300 lumens, depending on LEDs used – 225g (aluminium version 112g) – from 89$ plus shipping and tax/customs
Weight incl. batteries
For indirect lighting, backlighting behind people or working with the Back Light Scanner, it doesn’t matter much whether the light cone is wide or narrow. Especially for working with the back light scanner, you can’t have enough lumens. The Fenix LR35R with its brutal 10000 lumens is usually in there. So I can work with low ISO values (low image noise) and small aperture (sharpness / depth of field) and still not have to walk for 20 minutes with the torch through the landscape or a large room.
Smaller torches such as the Fenix PD36R with 1600 lumens can also be used for illumination if the area is not too large. This has the advantage that you don’t have to lug heavy equipment to the location.
I also use smaller lamps like Emisar D4V2 or Noctigon KR4. These are small, light and brutally bright. The disadvantage is that they get very hot very quickly and therefore quickly turn down the brightness. It doesn’t help much to switch the lamp off briefly. It only returns to full brightness when the temperature has dropped. In addition, the operation of these lamps is quite special, to say the least. These lamps are not recommended for beginners.
With smaller focus lamps like the Fenix FD30, the targeted illumination of smaller areas is perfect. You can adjust the light cone exactly to the area you want to illuminate.
In this sense I wish you good light all the time.