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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Light Painting


Using small LED lights, you can create some impressive backcountry night photographs


Jordan Webster on the Agamemnon route of Mount Arapiles in Australia, illuminated by a Petzl headlamp.

If I can name one thing in photography that really brings the kid out in me, it has to be light painting. Lately, I've been using light painting to expand on my nighttime photography. I recently used it, while on assignment, to illuminate the environment of scientists doing night work with tree kangaroos. In the photo here, I used the technique to light a climber ascending the ultra-classic chimney route Agamemnon in Mount Arapiles in Australia.

The basic concept of light painting is pretty easy to master; you need a dark space that allows you to set a long exposure of at least several seconds with your camera fixed on a tripod. Light painting simply involves exposing the scene by moving a light around, like a flashlight, while the exposure is being made. The light will create streaks and light signatures in the image. The next step I've taken in light painting is bringing the evermore powerful off-the-shelf headlamps on my backcountry trips. I can use these lights at night like a brush to illuminate large objects and spaces. I've light-painted 60-foot trees, the floor of a desert lakebed and even an entire expedition basecamp.

What has gotten me excited again about light painting are the small and powerful portable headlamps made by Black Diamond, Petzl and Princeton Tec. These manufacturers make headlamps that kick out a bright 200 lumens of light; the brightest is the Petzl Ultra Rush headlamp that burns at 700 lumens with a 140-meter reach. All of them have power controls and light beam adjustments that enable me to control the light coverage and intensity.

The intention in most of my light painting is to naturally light surfaces around a light-emitting object, like the scene around a tent or the surroundings of a person wearing a headlamp. The effect is to enhance and reveal the area around the subject that would otherwise appear as an expanse of darkness.

The longest preset time exposure on my pro-level Nikon is 30 seconds. Using a timer-release accessory, I can make much longer exposures, but because I often include people in my night images, 30 seconds or less helps to reduce the nearly unavoidable blurring due to their movement. This half-minute constraint makes it a race against time to paint and illuminate as much as possible in my camera frame. If I have a big space to light, I bring in assistants to help light the scene.

If I'm light painting a big space, as I did when photographing Jordan Webster climbing Agamemnon, I have others help with the lighting. The person with the main light was attached to a safety rope 30 feet above the climber. Adam Tishler, the belayer, directed the second light from below. Jordan was wearing the third light, his headlamp, that lit the route above him. These little headlamps are LEDs that throw a cool white light. I'll usually warm my main lights by taping a CTO warming gel to the front of the light. This light throws a warm natural glow on the scene. I left Webster's light unfiltered so it would contrast with the main light used to paint the walls.

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