The personal blog of M. Scott Smith

Painting a Scene with Light 🔗

While taking photography classes in college, I often tried out different lighting effects by either "painting" a scene with a flashlight during a long exposure (typically 10 seconds or longer), or photographing patterns of light directly, such as the motion of a lighting source. Some cool effects could be achieved, but since this was in the days of film photography, it took awhile to see the results or know if a certain effect was a hit or a dud.

On my most recent hiking trip, I brought along some light sources because (a) I knew I would be hiking after dark and didn't want to walk off a cliff or into a bear (or worse, get pushed off a cliff by a bear angry that I had just walked into it), and (b) I thought they might be useful in some photos. For example, consider the following photo, which I took near the base of Dark Hollow Falls:



It may look like this photo was taken in the mid-day sun, but it was nearing dusk, and there wasn't much ambient light available. The mushrooms growing in the bark of the tree were completely in the shade, and would have been underexposed if the camera was left to its own devices. If I used a flash, the entire tree would have been blown out with flat lighting, and there would have been poor contrast across the scene. (Plus, this was a macro shot, with the camera mere inches away from the tree, and I don't own a macro flash.) I wanted the photo to have depth and a wide tonal range.

So, during the exposure, I "pulsed" the tree from several directions with a white-LED flashlight. I had to stop down the lens a bit to extend the shutter speed. I have a handy SureFire LED flashlight that is capable of displaying white, red, or blue light in varying brightness levels. In some shots, I used more than one color to achieve the effect I wanted.

The result was pretty good -- certainly better than what I could have achieved with or without the camera's flash. My only complaint would be slight overexposure on the bottom right side of the tree, although I think that lends to the effect. The photo reminds me of looking into the depths of a cave.

This technique takes a bit of practice, a bit of dumb luck, and lots of tries to make sure the right amount of light is evenly applied at exactly the locations you want. But with digital cameras, it's easy to immediately see whether you pulled the effect off.

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