Magazine Article


Painting With Light
Creative technique to sculpt your subjects

“Hot Summer Night,” photographed by Allison Earnest and Dave Black. This image was captured using a Nikon D200, in manual mode, 30-second exposure at f/5.6, ISO 200. The model was lit for about 8 seconds with a small flashlight. The rest of the scene was painted with light, using a spotlight, and a small continuous light was on, illuminating the cab of the truck.
“The Piano,” photographed by Allison Earnest. Model Irena Murphy was photographed in a completely dark studio. Captured on a Nikon D200, in manual mode, 30-second exposure at f/5.6, ISO 200. The candles were lit for two seconds only; the remaining 28 seconds were spent exposing select areas with short bursts of light from an INOVA flashlight.
“Shoes,” photographed by Allison Earnest. Captured with a Nikon D300, in manual mode, with a 20-second exposure at f/5.6, ISO 200. Like the other shots, prefocusing was done with lights on and then select areas were painted with the flashlight, in a completely dark studio.

With digital technology, amateurs and professionals are shooting with the same cameras, so it is imperative that pros stay one step ahead of the competition. One way to differentiate yourself and your photographs is through your creative use of light. Lighting and the manner in which you use it to shape, create depth, and add dimension to your images is what will set you apart in the competitive marketplace.

While researching and writing my book Sculpting People With Light, my friend and light-painting guru/instructor Dave Black reacquainted me with the lost art of light painting.

I'd played around with light painting 20 years ago, but I found it to be a bit tricky and frustrating, especially waiting till film was processed to see the images.

Fast-forward to the digital age; now you see your images immediately and can make necessary adjustments while shooting. Light painting can be used to create unique, one-of-a-kind photographs and may just offer you the creative edge you've been seeking.

Required Equipment:

  • A camera capable of long exposures (minimum of 8 seconds). Traditional film cameras can be used, though without the immediate results.
  • A sturdy tripod.
  • A flashlight and/or spotlight that can be quickly turned off and on with ease.
  • A completely dark room or area where no outside light will interfere with your exposure. When choosing an outside area, try to stay away from streetlights and areas where car headlights could inadvertently expose your image. (Hint: using car headlights intentionally works well on large outside scenes.)
  • When light painting, it is beneficial to wear dark clothing. Just as you would shoot in a dark location, wearing dark clothing allows you to freely move in and out of the compositional frame of your image without detection.

The concept of painting with light is just that-you use a flashlight as your main source of illumination to expose or "paint" select areas of a scene with light. Though ordinary household flashlights can be used, I prefer to use INOVA brand flashlights, as their color temperature is balanced to daylight (5500K), and the light beam is evenly distributed. For larger areas such as outdoor scenes, I use a 2-million-candle battery-operated spotlight. I found that a 1-million-candle spotlight doesn't produce sufficient light output for outdoor scenes, thus requiring a longer exposure of 60 to 90 seconds, as opposed to a 30-second exposure using a 2-million-candle spot. Most spotlights are tungsten-balanced (3200K); therefore, be sure to set your camera's white balance to tungsten. Let's get painting!

With your camera secure on a tripod and set to manual, adjust your exposure to 15 seconds at f/5.6­-that's a safe starting point. Next, set your Long Exposure Noise Reduction to the "on" position to minimize noise. I find it useful to just leave this function on whenever I shoot. There's nothing worse than creating the "perfect" light-painted image and finding it is filled with noise.

With your overhead lights on, pre-focus on your subject, then carefully turn off the camera's autofocus so your camera isn't tring to refocus in the dark. If you're indoors, you'll be moving about in total darkness; therefore, be familiar with your surroundings so you don't trip on something and hurt yourself. With the lights off, activate your camera's self-timer (5 seconds is adequate) by pressing the shutter. When your shutter opens, start painting select areas of your scene with your flashlight by turning it on and off in short bursts, continually keeping the light moving during the exposure. Keeping your light source moving and painting only on select areas will give your images a soft, painterly feel.

Examples and Technique

"The Piano"-I shot this image of model Irena Murphy. When incorporating people, be sure they're willing and able to hold still for the entire exposure; a mere blink of the eye will show up as movement and ruin the photo. An exposure of 30 seconds allowed enough time to move about and paint select areas. The candles were lit for about 2 seconds, then blown out to avoid overexposure.

"Hot Summer Night" was a collaborative effort-Dave Black and I shot this image at 10 p.m. Irena was positioned in the desired pose where she would remain extremely still for 30 seconds. Keep the light moving in a quick, fluid manner to reduce hot spots.

"Shoes" illustrates how light painting can be effectively used to create dramatic product shots. To create the dramatic shadows, black duct tape was wrapped around the end of the flashlight to act as a snoot.
The possibilities of incorporating light-painting techniques in your photography are endless. With patience and experimentation, you can create photographs that stand out from the competition, images that evoke mystery, depth, and dimension.

Allison Earnest ( has been a professional commercial/advertising photographer for more than 23 years. Specializing in fashion, beauty, advertising, executive portraits, and fine art, her clientele includes Boeing International, NASA, US Army, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Estes-Cox. Her book Sculpting People With Light is being published by Amherst Media and will be available in bookstores this fall.