Painting with Flash

Finished Composite

Finished Composite

The Flash-Painting process is identical to the method described in ‘Speedlight Interior’, but there are a few things to take into consideration when shooting outside. I also want to make it clear that while at times my results mimic sunlight, my true intention is to explore sculpting the subject with light in such a way to reveal color, texture, and depth within the scene.

The step that makes this layering approach work is changing the blend mode to ‘lighten’. In doing so, only pixels that are lighter than those in the underlying layer will be retained. This makes it fairly easy to paint in the flash lit elements. One word of caution; The shutter speed must be kept high enough so that all of the ambient lit areas drop away, otherwise you’ll be painting in unwanted highlights. Of course the other consideration when working outside is movement. Any breeze will cause foliage to be out of registration from one layer to the next. If there is a breeze you simply have to wait for things to settle down and then shoot.

I begin by making a series of bracketed exposures which I then combine them to create an greatly underexposed base layer that still holds detail in the shadow areas. When all of the layers are complied, if I want more detail in the shadows, I’ll go back to one of the ambient source images, bring it in to the bottom of the stack, just above the base layer, and paint some detail back into those shadows.

Base layer

Base layer

The image below is but one of about 15 that were used to create the composite. The shooting process itself goes something like this: I make the ambient brackets and then shoot a few flash exposures to get a feel for my flash to subject working distance and the power setting necessary to get a good exposure. I have to walk back to the camera, (or laptop), to evaluate things each time, so those parts of the scene closes to the camera are fairly easy. As I get deeper into the scene, in this case the furthermost elements that I lit were well over 100′, I tend to do 4 or 5 frames before walking back to see how things went. This of course results in quite a few unusable frames … but they’re pixels, not film. With an image of this scope I generally shoot about 100 frames.

Flash example

Flash example

So I go through my 100 frames and a mile of walking, then head back home. I can’t begin to describe the frustration of compiling the image only to find that a crucial area was missed … yet another reason to shoot lots of frames from different angles. I do find it important to pre-visualize how I want the final image to come together. Below, the compositing begins with the underexposed ambient base layer and the first lit element on top of it.

Ambient base layer with first lit exposure

Ambient base layer with first lit exposure

The images from my Canon 1Ds Mk III are fairly large and working in 16 bit with 20 or so layers can result in a file between 1 and 2 GB. My mac will certainly handle it, but things do tend to slow down, so I generally select the portion of the image that I want to work with and delete the rest. I’ve created an action to invert my selection, cut the unwanted area, change the blend mode to lighten, and add a black layer mask. Make the selection, click once, and the mask is ready to paint

Area selected, blend mode changed and ready to paint

Area selected, blend mode changed and ready to paint

From here it’s just a matter of using a soft edged brush, set to white, to reveal the lit area as desired as seen below.

Painted mask

Painted mask

Once all of the layers are complied and I have a good look at how things will come together, I usually go back to each layer and apply a curve adjustment layer to fine tune things. Save the layered version, make a copy, flatten and fine tune the final image.

A typical image usually take from 30 to 60 minutes to shoot and processing usually an hour or so. As I’ve mentioned before, painting with flash doesn’t provide nearly the control and quality of light that can be attained with hot lights. Harold Ross is the master of light-painting, so if you haven’t already done so, check out his work at: http://www.haroldrossfineart.com/.

In a future post I’ll show the equipment I use.

One thought on “Painting with Flash

  1. Wonderful tutorial Larry! Thanks so much! I lost most of my Canon camera gear to a flood and as a stopgap measure picked up a Panasonic G6 outfit. An unexpected side benefit is the wireless remote control. It makes light painting much easier as one can use a smartphone to both control the camera and preview the images. It saves a lot of walking back and forth. I look forward to more of your posts.
    Paul

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