When we found out The Great Oaks Career Campuses wanted us to shoot a student project car to promote their Auto Collision Class, we thought it was great until we realized it would require a lot of light to do it right – (4) 800 watt-second studio flash heads to be exact – flash heads that we didn’t have at the time. Coming up with extra cash to buy a $400.00 studio flash head, or yet alone even rent one in Cincinnati, wasn’t an option. Sifting through the internet, we ran across a photographer who was using an arcane technique of long exposures to paint his subjects with light for better illumination, versus what a single light source can do, with an added touch of drama. So we decided to utilize the same technique on our car. Having a long exposure allowed us to spread the light in time, so-to-speak, using multiple flashes from a single head unit to effectively create a virtual bank of lights while providing a unique, defined look that hadn’t been achieved in any of Great Oaks’ previous images.
What is it?
In our image of the car, we shot the light facing away from the camera. If you were to shoot the light facing the camera, the image would result in 1.)multiple rather brilliant light sources or 2.)streaks of light similar to the way a paintbrush streaks a canvas with paint. The type of result you get depends on the light source used. Speedlight flashes and studio strobes yield multiple light sources while fire and ordinary handheld flashlights (the kind you use on a campout) gives you the paintbrush effect.
Using a Neutral Density Filter, we stopped the light down by 4 f-stops (designated as ND4), then we set the camera’s f-stop to 10 which allowed for a 15 second exposure on the shutter. Using such a high f-stop value achieved several things: it allowed for a longer exposure, which would have been around 7 or 8 seconds otherwise, it provided a larger depth-of-field (DOF) – ultimately this means the image is sharper throughout – and it allowed us to perform our biggest trick yet – Melissa was able to walk in front of the camera with the studio flash head unit without showing up in our photo!
On a sharper note (pun intended), one would think the higher the f-stop used, the sharper the image will be throughout; however, this is not the case. As a rule of thumb, one should never go above f/16. Above this number, the image you are trying to take gets soft again due to light being scattered internally by the lens: a prism affect that results in Chromatic Aberration or CA for short. Also, knowing the sweet spot for most lenses occurs between f/8 and f/11 helps.
Another secret to such a quality shot is the lens itself; we were using a Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8, which happens to be among Tamron’s sharpest of zoom lenses. It was a workhorse lens when shooting with the Canon 40D at that time.
On to Painting with Light…with fifteen seconds on the clock, Melissa was able to walk one 800 watt-second studio flash head around the car, setting off the flash at prescribed intervals. Looking closely near the driver’s side turn lamp, one can see the multiple umbrellas indicating the number of times the flash was actually triggered. We also used a large Super White 107” wide paper background roll off the right hand side of the car, held up by a Promaster Background Kit, as a giant reflector. Both of these items are readily available at Cord Camera.
The image was shot in .RAW, a whole other topic, to give us further control over the final look – custom white balance, saturated colors, image lightening to specific areas – and in this untouched version one can see the minimal ghosting by Melissa that was cloned and blurred out using Adobe Photoshop.
Using the same technique; an ND4, a higher f-stop value and a long shutter exposure, we have painted several subjects and created various painted images using studio flash heads, off camera speed lights, flashlights, fire…almost anything bright. And sometimes, we just capture ourselves in front of the camera for the duration doing fun and goofy stuff like painting smiley faces, lighting sparklers and spinning fire poi – just a few ideas.
A painted street lamp - I was standing in this photograph using multiple speedlight flashes on the column, the long exposure allowed me to enter and exit the scene without being captured:
Existing street lighting combined with painted flash via long exposure: Photo 1.) Existing Light, Photo 2.) Painted tree with a bus passing by as indicated by the high light traces, Photo 3.) Painted tree with car traffic going by.
Practical Tips & Tricks
Can you capture a night time shot of the city this way? Sure, but be aware, the longer the exposure, the more individual street lights will flare out into star patterns. You may like the creative look, but then again, maybe you need a cleaner image in which case, a longer exposure such as 10 or 15 seconds wouldn’t do.
If you don’t have a flash to paint with light, look for street lamps illuminating things such as this tree in a downtown parking lot. Against the darker sunset, it really stands out. In such a case, you don’t need a long exposure either. Just a tripod and a low ISO if you want to capture it in the best way possible.
Here are three various looks we achieved when painting with an off camera speedlight aka flash; Photo 1. is simply the shot with existing light (without any flash). Need more flashes in your shot? Increase the exposure time!
Photo 2. was painted with the speedlight turned away from the camera. Photo 3. was painted with the speedlight facing the camera. Photo 4. A painted photo with a very still Melissa…
This brings us to the last tip: this technique is excellent for still subjects, but for people it poses a challenge. Have fun with it though; take your time as people can be photographed when painted with light – they have to be extremely still. More than likely, you will have to shoot them multiple times unless you are fortunate and get lucky at the start. Enjoy!
The first thing a photographer should have in mind is what type of look they’re trying to achieve. Should it be soft or should it be hard-edged? For portraits, it depends on the textures and colors involved; whether they’re high or low contrast. It depends on the background – is it a farm or is it a city? Is the background in tune with the clothing? Is the subject a male or female? In other words, there are guidelines, as to all kinds of subject matter, and guidelines are just that: they should be followed most of the time with the understanding they can also be bent.
In general, portraits generally take advantage of a shallow depth-of-field or DOF for short. A shallow depth of field is a narrow plane of focus where blurring can be found a short distance both in front of and behind the subject. A shallow DOF is obtained by using a fast lens and by that we mean the aperture value of the lens is either f/2.8 or lower. Setting a camera to this low aperture value is what allows us to achieve the look below:
For landscapes, or for high-contrast textures and colors, it is a general rule that a large DOF be used where the entire image appears to be sharp throughout. A large DOF is used by setting the aperture value of the lens to f/7.1 and above.
Getting the correct, or better handle, on DOF also depends on how close you are to your subject and whether the lens is zoomed in or at a wider angle. The final shot below could have been taken either way – a large or shallow DOF We choose a shallow DOF to seperate our subject from the background and to blur out some distracting telephone lines and some undesired city elements. We also used a touch of flash to further enhance our subject.