How to light paint without spending tons of money

How to light paint without spending tons of money

Light painting is incredibly creative and fun. And you can do it cheaply. But first, let’s briefly describe light painting.

What is light painting?

Light painting is a term often used loosely to describe any addition of light to a night photo. But really, light painting is a technique that uses a portable light source to illuminate a scene over a long exposure. You literally paint the scene with light. Night photographers have been using this technique for decades.

High quality flashlights for little money

Ordinary LED flashlights work. But what really works well are the ones that have details.

“CRI” stands for “Color Rendering Index”. It is a measurement of how natural colors appear under artificial white light compared to sunlight. It is measured on a scale of 0 to 100. The closer to 100, the more true-to-life colors should look under the light. In general, a CRI of 80 and above is considered good for a flashlight.

I have two suggestions. They are both under $30 and they are both over 90 CRI.

Just a hint of light to bring out the details of this Joshua Tree.
Wurkkos FC11 LED flashlight.

I bought the Wurkkos lamp a while ago after considering many options. You can read how I searched for this cheap but fantastic flashlight if you have the chance. In short, it has a pleasantly warm light that retains detail, is fully adjustable in brightness, is USB rechargeable, and is small. It often sells for less than $30 on Amazon.

I lightly painted the car with a Wurkkos FC11 LED flashlight.

Wurkkos FC11 LED flashlight

Above: I lightly painted the car with a Wurkkos FC11 LED flashlight.

ACEBEAM Pokelit AA EDC LED flashlight

Before I continue, I have never used this flashlight. However, it has three brightness modes and a CRI of 90+, is small and appears to have a warm white light. It requires AA batteries, so USB charging is not possible. But again, it is too well under $20 on Amazon as of this writing.

Milky Way, Trona Pinnacles, CA.  It didn't take much light to illuminate these large tuffs in the distance.
Milky Way, Trona Pinnacles, CA. It didn’t take much light to illuminate these large tuffs in the distance.

What about brightness?

You’ll notice I didn’t mention it. For some reason, people who are just starting to paint subjects with light want super bright flashlights. In my opinion, that’s one of the least important aspects of quality light painting (unless you’re trying to paint a distant mountain with light).

Even for these huge radio telescopes, only a dim light is needed to paint light.
Radio telescopes and Milky Way night photo.

Think about it. If you’re using a high ISO setting for your camera, absurdly bright light is the last thing you usually need. Your camera is already super sensitive to light, so bright light won’t get you anywhere.

Even for the full moon night photography with light painting that I show so often here, a bright light is not really crucial. I prefer to light paint for a longer period of time to get an “even coat of light”. In other words, I want the light to look nice and even, with no unwanted hot spots.

Light painting of the huge main frame.

The ProtoMachines LED2 is about 400 lumens. Usually I use it at about ⅔ of its full brightness. The Wurkkos can go up to 1300 lumens if you really want it, while the ACEBEAM is 550 lumens at its brightest. In other words, both are noticeably brighter than the ProtoMachines.

For this photo of a poorly parked bus, I used blue gels and a blue plastic bag to color the light from a Streamlight LED flashlight.

What if I want to add color?

Above: I used blue gels and a blue plastic bag to tint the light from a Streamlight LED flashlight for this photo of a poorly parked bus.

Use some $5 gels Roscolux Swatchbook sample booklet. Just put it in front of your flashlight. Bam. Finished. Yes, it’s a bit more finicky than being able to switch colors in an instant. These are some of the tradeoffs of painting light without spending tons of money. However, it does not prevent you from getting great results.

Night photo with light painting of vintage car.  Radiant photo by Radiant Imaging Labs.
Night photo with light painting of vintage car.

Are there LED flashlights that produce color that are inexpensive?

Yes. And because I’m incredibly nice, I’ll name one or two. I have not used any of these, but believe they can produce high quality results.

Colorshine 10 Color Changing RGB LED Flashlight 3W RGB LED

Tim Little used this Colored light before getting a ProtoMachines lamp. He says it produces really good results. Best of all, the light usually retails for less than $33. It produces “10 different LED colors with flash and smooth color-changing modes,” which they describe as “red, green, blue, orange, turquoise, purple, yellow, cyan, violet, and white.” They have been selling this light on eBay for many years. There is no CRI listed, but as I said Tim has had good results with it.

Wurrkos WK40 RGBW LED flashlight

Like the Colorshine flashlight, I didn’t use it. I’ve had a lot of luck with the Wurkkos FC11 though, so I thought I’d report this. This produces red, green, blue and white colors, as the name suggests. I don’t see CRI listed anywhere. You can charge it via USB and it comes with a diffuser. It’s also compatible with a variety of lightweight paintbrushes, meaning you can screw them on if that’s important to you. I don’t know anyone who has this lamp.

Color Gels vs. RGBW LED Flashlights

Color gels are more hassle to use, fly off in the wind and get bent and broken. However, they also offer much more flexibility with colors and are very inexpensive.

RGBW flashlights only produce red, green, blue, and white colors. However, that may be enough. You can also try mixing colors by painting lightly with one color after another to produce other colors. You can of course also do this with gels, creating an even greater variety of colors.

Illuminate an abandoned prison with ProtoMachines LED2.
Illuminate an abandoned prison with ProtoMachines LED2.

What’s so great about expensive RGB LED flashlights?

The advantage of a ProtoMachines LED2 or LED8 is that it produces every color in the RGB spectrum. It also allows you to control saturation and brightness from 0-100%. It also has presets and is specially designed for light painting subjects. You can slowly switch between the colors of the spectrum if you wish. The light is of very high quality. Also the brightness between colors matches much better as with most if not all RGBW lights there can be a huge difference in brightness from one color to another.

Even with Ants on a Melon’s RGB Critter 2.0, which costs $125, there’s a huge difference in brightness from one color to another.

When something is designed specifically for light painting subjects, there is an unbeatable quality and convenience factor.

However, it is comforting to know that you can create extremely high-quality images with items that are modest and inexpensive. There is no major barrier to entry here. I hope this inspires you to practice adding extra creativity, texture, color and lighting to your night photos.

Light painting of everything except the cross near the church.