Light painting 101: How to make illuminated art with a bottle house

Light painting 101: How to make illuminated art with a bottle house

I had a rare opportunity to paint a house made of bottles with light. Here’s how I made the most of it. Best of all, you can use these light painting techniques for anything.

What is light painting?

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

Here I had the opportunity to photograph a house of more than 50,000 bottles in a safe environment. I made the best of it.

Can I make it glow from the inside?

My first instinct was to shine the light from the bottle house. I wanted the bottles to light up from the inside out. I had been to a few bottle houses and structures in the Andean landscape of Ecuador, and loved the way sunshine made the bottles glow.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that for two reasons. One is that the interior walls are plastered. No light would shine through these bottles. And the second is that I had no access to the interior of the house.

Shadows create depth, detail and interest

However, there were plenty of opportunities to create shadows. This can be used with almost any subject. Here’s how I painted the porch of this amazing house with light.

Three steps to lightly paint the porch of the bottle house

Step one: Illuminate the back wall

The bottle house has a great texture because it is made from bottles. I shaved a warm white light from the ProtoMachines against the wall, just watching it from the surface. Doing this allowed me to pick up a lot of detail from the uneven surface. I kept the back wall slightly darker than the rest of the house to add depth and keep the focus on the front of the porch.

Light painting of a bottle house, Rhyolite Nevada.
Above: An example from further back to give you an idea of ​​what the house looks like. The main window to the antechamber is on the left, just outside the frame.

Step two: Create the shadows from the porch railing

A wooden porch railing can be seen to the right of the camera. Since the porch is made of wood and takes up a lot of space in the composition, I thought it would be nice to create some shade from the railing. I moved to the right of the banister and held the ProtoMachines light still for a moment so that the lines would be strong and well defined.

Step three: Blue light from within

The house still looked a little empty. I decided to shine a blue light from the inside of the room. I did this by walking up to the windshield and shining a blue hand light through it. This lit up the whole room coming from the side window and the door window at the back.

You are the director

When you light paint during night photography, you make creative decisions. You decide what you highlight and what you keep in the shadows. You decide what angle, what kind of texture, what kind of feeling and what kind of colors you want in your photo. It’s the most actively creative form of photography I know. You wander around the scene, controlling the angles, colors, and brightness. Each “brushstroke of light” builds up the photo.

If you do this, you’ll be one of the few photographers to try. Stay with it much less. Hopefully articles like this will inspire you to keep doing it. I can’t possibly overstate how addictive, fun and rewarding it is.

How can some techniques – including those that create shadow, depth and detail – help you paint your subjects with light? How could you apply this to abandoned cars, cacti, trees, mountains or people? What about other subjects that are not night photography?