This past Tuesday I did a demo for the lighting class at City College involving Painting With Light. There are several photo techniques that go by that name but the one used by product shooters and photo illustrators involves taking a (relatively) small light and carefully “painting” the subject/object with light from various angles, mostly the sides and back then combining those separate shots into a single one.
Light may spill over onto the front surfaces but it almost always comes from the side, raking across the front surface. this allows for the texture and surface detail to really stand out and not risk flattening it as would happen with normal lighting and a fill. The result is a unique look with loads of detail and contrast and often, lighting that could have only been accomplished with normal studio lights if there was actually a light in the shot.
By taking multiple shots, stacking them as layers, and only using the parts of each shot/layer needed, lights in the shot (and occasionally the photographer in the shot) can easily be eliminated. Over the past few years you’ve seen several examples I’ve posted here of both still life and even landscape images created and lit in this fashion. This time I used a small table top still life composed of two old Kodak cameras and an old Weston meter. It was set up in a studio. The composition is a little loose but I wanted to leave space so that during the demo I could show various ways of moving the light around to pick out specific areas
This first shot below is of the arrangement simply shot with the overhead lights. This lets you see what will be the item(s) to be rendered. To make sure the camera didn’t move it is mounted on a heavy camera stand. If you are using a normal tripod you must take special care to avoid moving the camera AT ALL or it will be an incredible pain to line up. Photoshops “Auto-Align” feature will be of little help when the visible parts of each file are in different places with very little overlap.
I used a small Cree-powered flashlight as the only light source. The shot is against a black backdrop. Moving around the set-up and taking exposures with the light covering individual spots on the cameras, I worked my way starting on camera left and ending on camera right. The shots were all taken with a Canon 5DSr and a 24mm Tilt Shift lens. Each frame was at f11 @ 5 seconds. I prefer to work with longer exposures to give me more time with the light but the flashlight was simply too bright.
I had intended to bring a normal AA cell flashlight from home but forgot and had to use the light I carry in my school briefcase. In the light plot below, the lights are there just to indicate the arc around the set up I generally followed in lighting it. I also took a couple of shots with the light spilling over from the top. In all I took about 24 separate frames.
I tend to over shoot when I’m doing this. I’d rather have frames I do not need instead of discovering a “hole” in the lighting after it is all broken down. And since this was a demo done in front of students I really did not want to risk not having every possibility covered. I shot a number of very small angle changes just to be sure. And because I was talking to them while shooting I lost track and ended up re-shooting some lighting positions I had already taken.
Of the 24 shots I took, I actually only needed 10 of them to assemble the final shot. The assembly procedure is easy: start with a shot and then layer each successive frame using the “lighten” layer blend mode and a layer mask to delete things undesired such as lights in the shot, light flare, etc. They almost build themselves. The issue with this particular shot was too much light, i.e. the width of the beam and the incredible brightness of the Cree LEDs actually worked against me. Even though I opened up the composition for some room, I could not get in tight without blowing out the exposure; I would have needed to shoot with a neutral density filter… Oh well, it was the technique I was demo-ing.
Here are a couple examples of the individual shots that were used in the final assembly.
However because of the beam of the flashlight and the small stage, there was a lot of light spill, especially on the wood I used as a base (an old, beat up bottom to an “apple box”) so once the frames were all assembled, I added a curves adjustment for a little more contrast and then took the flattened file and vignetted it to eliminate the too bright light on the base and simulate more of a pool of light. That resulted in this image…
But… it was clearly lacking something… and to me it was that boring black background. So I found a texture shot of an old wall to drop in behind the cameras to create some atmosphere. I blurred it a little to simulate depth of field since the back of the apple box top is starting to go out of focus and a sharp background would have been visually inexplicable. Here then is the final image with a new background…
In the old days, shooting film, there was no way to stack files as we now do digitally. So Painting With Light could be done but it was a chore. You had to plan it out and get it with one long exposure. You could meter for exposure but you had no way of knowing if your aim and timing was good until you saw the final and then it was too late to fix it. A device with the improbable name of “Hose Master” was often used for small product work. It was a fiber optic light source. Very cool… very frustrating at times though it would have been perfect for this shot and set up. Now, with digital editing making it practical, this technique is used for all manner of work. Here are some photographers to research/Google to see Painting with Light at its finest:
- Harold Ross: Beautiful still life and landscape work.
- Eric Curry: Incredible tableaus including a B24 Bomber!
- Nick Nacca: A San Diego pro shooter whose work is stunning, as is his website.