“My quest, through the magic of light and shadow, is to isolate, to simplify and to give emphasis to form with the greatest clarity. To indicate the ideal proportion, to reveal sculptural mass and the dominating spirit is my goal.” – Ruth Bernhard
Light painting (I refer to it as Sculpting with Light) more than any other method of lighting, allows us to combine lighting concepts, or principles, in ways not available to us in “normal” methods of lighting. These concepts, taken separately, are simple and easy to understand, but when we are sculpting with light (using a long time exposure and “painting” the light onto the subject in a controlled way), these concepts overlap and affect each other to a greater degree than in ordinary studio lighting. This is compounded by the fact that we use the light at very close distances when sculpting with light. When using the light very close to the subject (almost always within the set, and very often just an inch or two from the subject), the effects of the properties of light are magnified.
What makes light painting unique and powerful? Most importantly, it allows us to realize the benefits of a small light (surgical placement, color saturation, ability to define texture) while realizing the benefits of a soft light (more beautiful light; soft highlight-to-shadow transitions) in the same capture.
In this article, I’ll deal with the basic concepts of how, in light painting, we soften the look of an otherwise “hard” (small) light source. The principles dealt with here (in still life work) relate directly to the lighting of larger subjects; we just need to use larger light sources.
Concept # 1: Bringing the light closer to the subject softens the light.
When a light of any given size is brought closer to the subject, it becomes “larger” relative to the subject. Imagine a 12” x 12” light source 50 feet away from you. How large does the light look to you? At 50 feet away, It would appear to be quite small in your vision. Now imagine that light source just 6” from you. The light would now look quite large. Since larger lights are softer lights, due to the fact that the rays of light are striking the subject from broader (and more) angles, the closer light results in softer lighting.
In light painting, we can bring the light in very close to the subject, and often, our 1” diameter light is only 1” away from the subject (and, by the way, it’s in the frame, but this is not a problem). Of course, when we move a light source closer, it also gets brighter (inverse square law). Do not confuse brightness with softness, however; they are two different qualities of light, and we control them independently.
Concept # 2: Moving the light has a softening effect.
In “normal” lighting, the softness (size) and distance (from the subject) of a light are fixed, because there is no motion of the light during the exposure. In light painting, we move the light during a time exposure, and in so doing, we greatly change the nature of the light, as moving the light makes it effectively larger and therefore softer (which is, in general, more beautiful).
Let’s look at the shadow from a fixed hard light. It is a hard shadow, with a sudden transition from light to dark. Now, let’s look at the image shot with a movement of the light during a time exposure. This shadow is softer, as the shadow is “blended”, and the transition from light to dark is smoother (and in my opinion, more beautiful). The greater the distance that we move the light, the softer the shadow becomes. And of course, the light “wraps” more toward the shadow side of the object, enhancing shape. Movement of the light, combined with closeness, produces a beautiful soft light; yet it allows us to light surgically, and light for texture and color saturation. The light source used in both images is the same, and is only 1” in diameter!
Concept # 3: When light is “skimmed” or “raked” across a surface at a shallow angle, it reveals texture.
The more shallow the angle, the more texture is revealed. When we have a flat subject, where the contour isn’t important, raking a hard light can reveal amazing amounts of texture and detail.
Skimming the light reveals detail and texture (Click on image to zoom in)
Concept # 4 The shape of an object can be enhanced by using placement and distribution of light.
We can make a round object look more round, a cylindrical object looks more cylindrical, and even a flat surface can be made to appear to have shape. Said another way, applying light in much the same way that a painter applies pigment, we can enhance and even create shape.
Now, how do we combine these concepts for great photographic results?
Imagine if we can utilize all four concepts at once:
1. Light from a close distance, making the light softer…
2. Move the light to make it softer…
3. Skim it across the surface of an object to reveal texture…and
4. Place the light in a way that creates a lot of dimensions.
These four principles are in my thinking every time I make an image. My goal is to use lighting to make an object beautiful (soft light), dimensional (distribution of light) and informative (skimming the light for texture).
Below are some images which I hope speak to the transformative nature of the process and vision.