Light painting adds an element of uncertainty, a touch of the experimental. It demands creativity, is short on predictability. It's an adventure, and it's fun.
Light painting results when a hand-held light source—usually a flashlight of some type—is used in a dark room or outdoors at night to illuminate a subject. When you make a light painting, your camera's on a tripod with its shutter open for a timed exposure while you walk around and illuminate parts of the scene or subject with the light.
Dave Black, who began his career as a sports shooter and then branched out into practically everything, has been creating light painting photographs for over 10 years. "No two light paintings will ever look the same," he says. "How you move the flashlight across the subject, how close you bring it to the subject, the amount of time the light is on—all of that's going to change the picture every single time. There's always experimentation involved; that's what makes it so exciting." What's also involved is dedication. "I tell students that it might take 10, 15 or 20 tries to get one image that they'll really like, where all the pieces of the puzzle work the way they want them to work."
In effect, light painting negates automation and all the guarantees that technology provides; it turns the results over to you. "You're in charge, and what you physically do will determine the picture," Dave says. "How fast you walk, how much you paint..."
Feeling adventurous? Here are some guidelines, suggestions and starting points gleaned from Dave's experience.
A tripod, first and foremost. Dave uses a Gitzo carbon fiber model—"substantial," he says, "but still quite light. Strong and sturdy are important, but if I'm doing landscapes I don't want to be hauling a heavy steel tripod all over the place. And I'm not supporting a large lens, either; most of my light painting is done with relatively short zooms like the 24-70mm." Camera choice? Dave strongly recommends a D-SLR rather than a compact point-and-shoot for light painting.
Then there are the lights. The smallest of Dave's trio of flashlights is the Stylus Penlight from Streamlight. Next is the larger, brighter INova Bolt. The third is the big gun, the two-million candlepower Brinkmann Max Million II.
Dave always activates Long Exposure Noise Reduction on his tripod-mounted Nikon D-SLRs. He'll use autofocus to get his subject sharp, then turn it off before he begins light painting (otherwise the AF system will likely be hunting for a point of focus throughout the exposure).
He'll most often set 30 seconds as his shutter speed. "If I need to go longer, I'll use the accessory Nikon MC-36 multi-function remote cord, but most of what I do is done in 30 seconds or less. Here's a good starting point for your experiments: 30 seconds, f/8, ISO 400. Not a rule, just a guideline."
Dave advises against metering for a light painting photograph.
"It'll fool you," he says. "I use the LCD to see how the light is working and how the exposure looks." There are exceptions, though: if there's ambient light in the scene, Dave will sometimes meter for that light and use the reading as a starting point, then check his results. How do you know whether to meter for ambient light or not? It all comes down to the experience that comes with experimentation.
You're going to see some pretty large scale light paintings among the examples of Dave's work, but his advice is not to try for the big stuff in the beginning. A dark room, an interesting subject on a table and a small flashlight is your best bet at the start. Check out Jenny's Boots and Fly Hooks (below) to see what can be done with imagination and a flashlight.