Painting With Light

Painting with Light

You can never see this scene captured in this image, no matter how hard you search for it. It doesn't exist, because the church is not floodlit. And no, it it's not created in photo editing software. So how has it been produced?

This is St Andrews Church, Swavesey, in Cambridgeshire. One winter night twenty members of Swavesey Camera Club met outside in total darkness, armed with torches. With a tripod mounted camera set to a long exposure, the director asked each club member to illuminate a specific part of the church with a torch for a set amount of time. Everyone needed to remain out of sight. With trial and error and a lot of previous experience, this image was produced. A large print was presented to a very grateful vicar, who placed it on permanent display in the church.

Our first attempts to light subjects can be disappointing. Flash settings are complicated, and your camera's built in flash may produce images where the subject looks over-exposed and desaturated, an effect sometimes referred to as "caught in the headlights."

Here's an alternative approach. With Painting with Light, you can create a photograph which has been transformed by its atmospheric lighting. Make a start by placing a bottle of wine and some glasses on a table; highly reflective subjects produce dramatic results. You need to prevent camera shake by using a tripod or by setting your camera on a stable surface. With the shutter open you move the beam of the torch around the subject, lighting it as evenly as you can, until the shutter closes. And don't block your camera's view of the subject.

You can also produce striking images by pointing your torch directly at the camera while moving your arm through broad arcs. You need to wear dark clothing to avoid being captured on your camera's sensor. With practice you will find you can predict the patterns and shapes that you will produce. You can also change the colour of the light trail by adjusting your camera's white balance. These images can be enhanced with multiple exposures, and by superimposing your light trail on top of a conventional photograph.

Here are some camera settings which can be used for both of these two approaches. With your camera on a solid surface, select a ten second exposure. It's best to use your camera's auto timer control to manage your exposure automatically if you have one, if you don't you can use your B exposure setting (B for bulb). Select your lowest ISO setting, e.g. ISO 200. Switch the camera's focusing mode to manual and focus on your subject. Now turn out the lights, trigger the shutter and start painting! With some experimentation you'll improve your technique, to the point that you quickly start being able to predict how your image will look.

This is a wonderful technique to share with children. Get them to turn off the lights and to use the torch. You may produce a convert and you will have a photographic buddy to share your hobby with!

Adrian Stone

Curator – The Photographic Angle