Sunrise and sunset light—the color is warm, the quality is unsurpassed, and the angle is perfect for capturing shape, form and texture. While both are fantastic, once they’re over, serious shooting subsides. But some of the best light of the day awaits those who stay out after sunset. The color is more subtle and it imparts a quality unobtainable any other time of the day. I encourage you to give it a go. Yet once dusk turns to near black, there’s still another world of photography that awaits—the world of painting with light.
Without light, pictures can’t be made. If there’s no light, it must be added. Here’s where light painting with artificial sources comes in. You need to get far away from other light sources that may impact the image although I have benefitted from street lights that provided subtle fill. Plan out the time of the shoot as the time of day at which light painting looks best is critical. Prepare for a late night especially during the summer. Use a locking cable release as most camera’s auto exposure feature tops out at 30 seconds. Start with a fresh battery and have spares just in case. And by all means, set your camera to long exposure noise reduction. This translates to longer “processing time” so rapid fire is impossible. The rule of thumb is if the exposure is 45 seconds, it takes 45 seconds to process the photo. Be patient between exposures.
Light Source: I’ve used everything from car headlights to flash, but found my most reliable source is a two million candle power rechargeable utility light. I use it like a paint brush to impart light where I want. I work the “brush” in a smooth way so the light bathes all parts of the subject. This prevents hot spots. Use a light whose color temperature is close to incandescent. It creates a nice warm color with the camera’s white balance set to cloudy.
a) Remove all filters, especially those that cut down exposure: ie, a polarizer.
b) use manual focus - once it gets dark, your autofocus sensor may not be able to find a point with enough contrast.
c) calibrate your light to work with an aperture in the f8 range to to obtain some depth of field. Stopping down the aperture to f16 or f22 translates into long exposures.
d) check the calendar for moon phases. Light from a full moon vs no moon produces vastly different effects. Both work, but with different results.
Exposures: There are numerous variables that dictate this. You’ll have a window of time that starts about 30 minutes once the sun below drops below the horizon and continues for about an hour. Factors to contemplate are:
a) distance of the subject from the light source.
b) intensity of the light - for outdoor subjects, use nothing less than a million candle power.
c) size of the subject - the bigger it is, the more time you’ll need to light paint. It may also necessitate a more powerful light source.
d) how many lights you use and if you have an additional person painting with another.
e) the aperture needed to cover the depth of field.
f) the ISO setting you use - it’s better to use a longer exposure than to increase the ISO so the file will have less noise.
As you can interpret from the above, experimentation is necessary to get the best exposures. I guarantee you’ll get strange looks from passers by and be asked what you’re doing, but that’s what makes it even more fun.
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