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How to Paint a Photograph – Light Painting at its Best

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One of the most creative photography techniques I have ever come across is light painting. No, I don’t mean those images where are take a torch and write a word in the air or the images where somebody spins burning steel wool. These are also called ‘light paintings’, but they’re relatively simple to create.

What I mean is a technique where every piece of the subject is carefully illuminated with a ‘light brush’ (a special flashlight) to give it the dimensionality, the shadows and the highlights exactly how you envision it. You take several photos of the subject in complete darkness, brushing light on different areas, and in post-production, you composite those images together to get the final image.

Harold Ross is a master of this fusion of photography and painting. His images have a sublime light quality and a fascinating surreal touch to them. When you first see them, they tickle your brain since you’re not quite sure whether they’re paintings or photographs.

In this article, I will shed some light (pun intended) on the techniques that Harold Ross uses to create his masterpiece photographs. To do so, I am featuring some of Howard’s tutorial videos below and put them into context so that you get an overview.

Overview of the process

Here’s a rough animation of the process Harold uses to paint his light onto a landscape. He uses a large portable LED panel and moves through the scene illuminating the different parts while the camera takes a series of long exposures.

This next animation is for a photo by Wendy Belkin, one of Howard’s students. It shows the different photos taken for the final image and the end result after the compositing in Photoshop.

The tools and how to use them

Here, you see how Harold uses a small flashlight with a special light modifier to apply a highlight to an object.

In this video, he shows you how the light can be shaped by varying the distance to the subject.

You need different types of light sources to create different effects. In the video below, Harold shows you how he uses a ‘light wand’ to create smooth and directions light.

The Post-Processing

You can get equally creative in post-production. None of these images would exist without Photoshop, the essential tool for combining all the different exposures into a single final image. As long as all the photos have the exact same framing, the basic compositing can be as simple as loading all the images as layers into a single Photoshop file and setting the blending mode for all but the bottom layer to ‘Lighten’. You can get much more fancy, but that’s a valid approach.

You can add even more dimension, light and shadows in post-processing, as the videos below show.

Some of the sublime quality of Howard’s images comes from the way he controls highlights, both while creating the original photos and in post-processing. Here’s a simple tip for taking control of highlights through blending multiple exposures.

And here, Harold shows you how to blend in a highlight selectively and gradually.

Special layer masking techniques

By using special masking techniques (resembling the techniques used by painters) you can enhance the shape and roundness of the objects in your scene even more.

Harold takes full control of the way the lighting of the different areas interacts by using double masking techniques similar to the one demonstrated here.

Summary

This article really only shows the tip of the iceberg. Applying this light painting technique to perfection really requires the right tools, dedication and experience. So, it is not an easy-to-replicate style of photography. But it can teach you a great deal about how light actually works and how to use it deliberately in your photographs.

Maybe you got inspired and want to try this yourself. I highly recommend that you go to Howard’s website and check out more of his images and his tutorials.

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