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Wieviel Arbeit steckt im Light Painting?

Light Painting means work, patience and costs

When you look at the pictures of the old hands in light painting, you usually find only “perfect” pictures. The beginner is often frustrated after the first attempts because his own light painting does not look nearly as good as the pictures by Denis Smith, Tim Gamble or Pala Teth. Some contemporaries suspect that the masterpieces of the “greats” are not real photographs and that the guys manipulate the pictures on the computer. Tim Gamble’s account on 500px was blocked some time ago because of this suspicion. 
Most light painters do without the layer work on the computer, they usually leave it at denoising, sharpening and changing the cut. In rare cases, they change the white balance or brighten the image a little. Under no circumstances is anything retouched or an image made up of several layers.

And it is precisely for this reason that the effort required for many light paintings is enormous. The picture above is the 23rd attempt. I did not make a mistake, I repeated this picture twenty-three times. I worked on this painting for several weeks in total. Usually nobody sees the 22 failed attempts. You can find an article about exactly this picture here. Without years of experience and a lot of practice, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get such a picture on the sensor at all. But you don’t see all that in the final light painting. You don’t see that I have shot at least 500 orbs since I started light painting 8 years ago. And even after so much practice, the thing is not really shot cleanly, it can be done better. What do you think my first orb looked like? Certainly much worse than your first orb.


Light Painting Equipment

In the meantime, a large number of different light painting tools have accumulated in our warehouse. Some of them I have only used for one single painting. Some of them broke after a few adventures, some of them are now lying somewhere in the forest or lost place because the scatterbrained light painter lost or forgot them. I have discarded some lamps because there are better ones available now. Many self-developed and self-built tools are permanently optimised, some I have built twice as a fallback.

I can’t say how much money has gone into our equipment in the meantime, but it’s definitely in the five-digit euro range. If I had known beforehand what I would “need” and how much it would cost, I probably would never have thought of becoming a light painter. Especially in view of the fact that it is not particularly easy to earn money with light painting. The popularity is simply too small for that. Light painting is still a small niche at the moment, even though the popularity of this particular art form has risen sharply in recent years and there are more and more great light painting artists.  

LiGHT

There are some legendary light painting tools that almost every old hand owns and sometimes still uses, such as the Led Lenser X21R.2, Led Lenser V24 or the Universal Connector. Unfortunately, the Led Lenser company no longer has any interest in light painting after it was sold.

The X21R.2 can still be used well in light painting, but newer models like the MT18 are hardly usable any more. The MT18 reduces from the advertised 3000 lumens to a meagre 1200 lumens within one minute. Nowadays, every cheap Chinese lamp offers this light output. 

The V24, actually designed as a garden lamp, was one of the most important tools of the light painters. The colour change was unique at that time. With the acral glass rod, the light painter had a good tool to paint clean light traces into the picture. This lamp has not been produced for many years. Occasionally examples of the V24 turn up on ebay, usually at outrageous prices. 

The first torches I used in light painting were two Fenix LD10, a Nitcore P12, several Led Lenser V24 and a Led Lenser X21. Later, many more torches were added quite quickly. For many years now, I have only used the acrylic rods of the V24s, the actual lamps, especially the switch, are absolute rubbish. 

Currently I mainly use a Fenix FD65 to illuminate the surroundings, a Fenix PD36R on tools and to illuminate smaller areas, the focusable Fenix FD30 on longer tools such as tubes or acrylic rods. I also use homemade lamps with coloured, UV and IR leds. One of the best Light Painting lamps was built for me by Dennis Berka, soon this lamp will be available in the shop of Light Painting Paradise. Thank you Dennis, thank you Ivan for making this lamp available to all Light Painters. Last but not least, the scanner usually comes with the luggage.

BRUSHES

The Light Painter has built most of the tools himself. On the one hand, because the exclusivity of one’s own tools is important for the Light Painter and because building one’s own tools is somehow part of Light Painting. Besides, there were no tools that were made explicitly for light painting. Mostly things were misused for other purposes. Bicycle lamps, luminous toys, sparklers, glow-in-the-dark lights and many other things that glow were swung through the painting by the light painter.

For some years now, the most diverse light painting tools have been available ready-to-use in the light painting shops. You can buy almost all brushes ready-made. For many old hands this is not particularly interesting because they already have almost all the brushes. 

For beginners, however, this is a good way to get started with light painting, even if you are not particularly talented. You can find good tools in the shop of Light Painting Paradise.

The “Tools” case currently contains about 60 different light shapers made of acrylic glass, glass fibre and other materials. In a large box there are countless other brushes such as bubble swords and other miscellaneous items. 

CAMERAS AND LENSES

I have been working with Nikon cameras for 30 years. Currently I use a D750, a D300s and a D300 converted to full light spectrum. The next camera will most likely be the new D780, when the price has come down a bit.

All the above cameras are really good for long exposures. The image noise is low, the dynamic range is large and the battery life is good. There are hundreds of different lenses for the Nikon F mount, which has not been changed since 1969.

Short focal lengths are better for light painting because the distance between light and camera remains short. And you don’t have to walk so much. On the D750 I usually use the Nikkor 17-35/2.8, Laowa 12/2.8 or Meyer Optik Görlitz 35/2. All three lenses have an aperture ring, so I can adjust the aperture during exposure. 

tripod, head, Rotation Tool

My “main tripod” is a Benro TMA48CXL. I also use Manfrotto 055 and a few other smaller tripods. However, I don’t mount the camera on these but lamps or shooting aids.

On the Benro tripod I usually use the Benro geared head shown in the picture, one of the very few geared heads with an Arca Swiss mount. Manfrotto’s geared heads are not bad either, but you have to convert them to Arca Swiss because Manfrotto only uses their own quick-release system. With this, however, it is not possible to use an L-angle or longer rails. Alternatively, you could use a 3-way panhead. With ball heads, precise alignment of the camera quickly becomes a game of patience because you have to adjust all directions at the same time.

To be able to rotate the camera around the optical axis during the exposure I use a self-made rotation tool. You can find a separate article here: Camera Rotation Light Painting

Tools, fastening materials, aids, cases, bags …

When I pack the materials I need for the next light painting trip, the first thing I always put in my backpack is a roll of matte black gaffa tape. While we’re on the subject, I use one or two of these backpacks for most trips. I stow the big cutlery in five of these cases. Long tools I pack in a rod case from the tackle shop. I usually carry costumes, masks and the like in a travel case with wheels. 

I always carry a Leatherman with the matching bit set on my belt. I don’t usually take more tools with me on short trips. For our workshops or multi-day tours, I take a toolbox with a gas soldering iron, digital multimeter, side cutters and other tools. In addition, there are always various cable ties in the suitcase to attach tools to the rotating rods or to be able to quickly attach other things somewhere. 

What’s in your bag?

(Almost) always with you:

– Nikon D750 + 1 spare battery

– Nikkor 17-35/2.8

– Laowa 12/2.8

– Benro TMA48CXL incl. Benro GD3WH

– Camera Rotation Tool

– Fenix HM65R

– Fenix FD65 + matching colour filters

– Fenix PD36R (always on the belt) 

– Fenix FD30

– Ruys Edition Flashlight V1 and V2 

– Adapters and colour filters from Light Painting Paradise

– Plexy Shapes, Rods and Tubes from Light Painting Paradise

– Batteries, Gaffa Tape, Leathterman

Often in the bag:

– Nikon D300 full spectrum + spare battery + remote release.

– Meyer Optics Görlitz 35/2

– Helios 44/2

– Macro rings

– prisms

– glass fibres

– UV Flashlight

– IR Flashlight

– Tool for turning orbs

– Costumes, masks

– Laser and smoke cartridges

– Fireworks

– Molton

I always carry a Leatherman with the matching bit set on my belt. I don’t usually take more tools with me on short trips. For our workshops or multi-day tours, I take a toolbox with a gas soldering iron, digital multimeter, side cutters and other tools. In addition, there are always various cable ties in the suitcase to attach tools to the rotating rods or to be able to quickly attach other things somewhere. 


Small interim conclusion

It has taken a few years for the equipment to be as it is now. It is certainly never complete, new tools and lamps are constantly being added. Since I don’t have a money printing machine in my basement, I couldn’t buy all of the above at once. Many light painting pictures could also be realised with smaller equipment. Since I want to permanently realise new, different ideas, new tools are also permanently necessary. Many things are not “standard tools”. Some of my tools could hardly be used by a second light painter. Every light painter has to put together his own individual toolbox, and that costs time and money. But the beginner has it easier today than the old hands 8, 10 or 12 years ago. Torches are becoming more and more powerful. Good tools can be bought ready-made. So you can get started right away, without a lot of tinkering. 


Theory – How does light work?

Many beginners just start out ambitiously and wave the lamps around in front of the camera, as I did back then. After a while, the high number of failed attempts bothered me. I began to study light, wavelengths, colours, reflection, transmission, refraction, etc. I wanted to understand how light works. I wanted to understand how light works. I wanted to master light. I wanted the light to do exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want any more surprises. I wanted the plan I had in my head to work, without endless failed attempts. I wanted to analyse each failed attempt immediately in order to avoid the mistakes the next time. An important prerequisite for this is to change only one parameter at a time. If a light trace is too dark, I either use a brighter lamp, reduce the movement speed of the tool or adjust the aperture or the ISO on the camera. If I change several parameters at the same time, it is much more difficult to classify the effect correctly. Which had the greater effect? The brighter lamp or the smaller aperture? This is the only way to gain clean experience. This is the only way to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again and having to start all over again with every new light painting. Orb with Fenix FD30 at the brightest level – distance to the camera 5 metres – colour filter yellow with a transmission of 85% – same movement speed as with the last orb – 12mm focal length – aperture 11 – ISO 50. If the light traces of the orb are now too dark, I either change the aperture to 8 or the ISO to 100. This is much easier than changing something in the tool, the image composition or the performance. If the orb is supposed to be blue, I will fade it down even more or increase the ISO even more because the blue colour filter only has a transmission of 20 or 25%. Alternatively, in this case, you could compensate with a torch with many brightness levels. With the new lamp from Light Painting Paradise this works well, each level corresponds to 10% more brightness. Unfortunately, this is not possible with most conventional torches, which usually only have 2 or 3 levels.

At some point you (hopefully) get to the point where you can read the light and think in light. In most of the light paintings I now manage to think in light levels while working. However, the path to this point was long and sometimes marked by many setbacks. Only through a lot of experience and permanent, precise error analysis did I get to this point, and the journey is far from over.


Testing new light painting tools

In my early days, I tested every new tool completely haphazardly. I just wanted to know what the light trace looked like. I then had hundreds of useless test shots on the computer. At some point I asked myself what the point was. In the meantime I hardly take any test shots at all. I plan a picture with the new tool. If the tool doesn’t work as planned, I have wasted more time than if I had fiddled with it in front of the camera, but if the tool works, I don’t have another useless test shot on my computer, but a new picture. Whether the new acrylic blade is round or square hardly matters. With the new shape, the picture is just as “simple” and “quick” as with the tried and tested shape. So I don’t have to test it separately.

But of course there are still situations in which I test the new lighting tool. If I build something completely new and want to use this tool in an elaborate performance in a lost place two hundred kilometres away, I naturally do some test shots beforehand. It would be more than annoying if the tool didn’t work as expected on site. But I don’t usually publish these test shots, even if some of the pictures look good. 


From the idea to the result

Inspiration

For the example image, the inspiration is clear and simple – the transformation of Maria from the 1927 film Metropolis. For most of the other images, I cannot name the inspiration so simply and clearly. It is usually a mixture of many different influences, visual, aural and emotional.

the Plan

The planning for this painting was quite difficult, both in terms of building the android and the light. Except for the laser, it was necessary to develop new tools and then build them later.

The location was a dark room, so at least I didn’t have to look for a suitable location.

The image idea and the image composition were also simple. We only built and implemented this one variant. In my opinion, a different perspective or a different composition would have been pointless here. Originally, I had only planned to take a black-and-white picture, but for a short time I thought about taking the picture consistently on analogue film. 

lightpainting light art photography

The preparation

First of all, a model had to be found who was capable of suffering and who halfway resembled Maria from the film. Lying motionless naked in the cold for a long time; you have to want to do that. Surprisingly, the lady immediately agreed to take part in the nonsense. Thanks again for that.

Then I started to build the electroid. I searched the internet for suitable material to give Uschi, our mannequin, the right outfit. I ordered a golden full-body suit. Unfortunately, it was a bit too big for the emaciated Uschi. I made the suit a little tighter on Uschi’s back with gaffatape. 

I ordered the helmet and a set of protectors. These are actually meant for the motorcyclist. I painted the helmet and protectors with gold paint. And then put that on our Uschi too. Fortunately, Uschi can stand motionless in this outfit for several days without complaint. 

Next I mounted 6 blue EL-Wires on Uschi and the bench on which the model was to lie later, whereby the fastening on the bench can be easily removed and reattached.

I put a large cushion on the bench and black molleton over it. In the next step I built a tool to paint the cover over the model. For this I used a brass wire in the appropriate shape. I attached a fibre optic cable to it, and a small torch was attached to each end. 

Up to this point the preparation was quite simple. Now I had to build the device to turn the rings around the electroide. I could have painted the rings by hand, but I could never have done it with such accuracy, even after 100 attempts. First I put a tripod behind Uschi. This was about 30 cm above Uschi’s head. I attached a rotating device to the tripod and then a planting pole to it. To this I attached a second planting pole in a vertical direction. So I was able to rotate a long stick neatly around the electroid. Now I attached three small torches with light shapers to this rod. Finally, I wrapped the tripod with Molton so that it would not be visible in the picture later. Then I fixed the blue laser at the right height on another tripod.

After that I took several test shots of the scene without our model. That looked good so far. So we could get started and make an appointment with the model.

The implementation

First I illuminated the model with the scanner. In the second step, Marla and Erik painted the tube. We started with it because that was where something was most likely to go wrong. We could have stopped immediately and started again. In the next step, I painted the circles of light around the electroide and then cleared the tripod out of the picture. Then I placed the EL-Wire again and switched it on. At the same time, I used the scanner to illuminate the electroid. After switching off the EL-Wire and setting up the tripod with the laser, I started the fog machine and fogged Uschi. The last step was to switch on the laser. Between the individual steps we covered the camera. 
The exposure time was 440 seconds. In spite of the good preparation, the picture didn’t come out right until the third attempt. All in all we spent 2 hours on the realisation.

All in all, many hours of work went into this picture, I didn’t count exactly how many hours. Without the help of the other participants, especially the model, I would never have got the light painting onto the sensor. This kind of light painting only works in teamwork, even though only one person should be leading the performance at a time. 
I also use many of the tools in other light paintings. Some, like the mask and the protectors, I have (so far) only used in this one Light Painting. I also sometimes use the EL-Wire individually, but so far not all of them again in one painting. The price for the EL-Wire is not very high, though. I have dismantled the rotating device, I still use all the parts to build new tools, except for the fixing material (gaffa, cable ties). 

Computer

We do not edit most of our images. Sometimes we change the crop, sharpen and de-noise the image. In this case I converted the image to black and white on the computer as well as cropped the image to a square. That was it.


But it can also be simpler

For this light painting we only needed about 30 minutes in total. First I prepared two black glass fibre bundles, one with blue paint, one without a colour filter. 
After Erik had taken a seat on a chair, I set up and aligned the camera. I attached an optical glass prism in front of the lens. Then I switched on the Live View on the camera and focused and set the aperture and ISO. 

Lights off – camera on. I started with the blue optical fibres, then switched them off and switched to the other optical fibre bundle. From a short distance, I first shone the light on Erik and then placed the fibres in a few places for a few seconds each.  

The exposure time was 45 seconds. This is the first and only attempt. I could have changed the colour during the exposure, then I would even have needed only one fibre bundle. With the adapters from Light Painting Paradise it works easily, even in the dark. 

This kind of light painting does not require years of experience or a lot of equipment. A torch, a bundle of glass fibres, an adapter to connect the torch and the glass fibres, some colour filter foil and that’s it. You don’t really need the prism to take impressive light painting portraits this way. You don’t even need a model, you can do it as a self portrait.


Conclusion

The inclined viewer may like the fibreglass portrait much better than the elaborate Metropolis picture. The viewer usually doesn’t care about the effort. The result is always a photograph. In the minds of most people, a photograph is a snapshot, the capture of a brief moment, a product of chance. Either the snapshot is good or it is not. Light painting, however, is much closer to painting, except that the painting is presented digitally or on a film. For most people, however, this has a much lower value than a painting done with brush and paint on a canvas. The craftsmanship involved in light painting is basically rendered invisible by digitalisation. In addition, the suspicion of digital manipulation of light painting often arises, which is tantamount to devaluation; in the case of canvas, such a thing is rather unlikely. 

One should not even get the idea that a light painting with great effort must per se be better than a short, quick, simple portrait. The effort should only be made for oneself and not for the viewer. It’s about the fun, about the special experiences during the work, it’s about the satisfaction that the crazy plan works. Even if the result is not a masterpiece, no one can take away these special experiences.

In this sense, good light all the time
Sven

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