Light Painting 101: Imagination, light and a vintage red bus

Light Painting 101: Imagination, light and a vintage red bus

How can you paint such a long vehicle with light? Let’s take a look at this vintage red bus for some answers.

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.

This is how I lit up this beautiful bus from yesteryear.

Three steps to lightly paint the bus

Step One: Lightly paint the front

I started by standing in front of the bus. I wanted to lighten the front to give it definition. See how there are shadows from the bus coming from the front? This gives extra definition and adds a sense of mystery.

Step Two: Lighten the side of the bus

Continuing with the idea that I wanted to create some shadows to bring out details on the side of the bus, I kept shining the light down the side of the bus.

However, being at the front of the bus, I understood that the side of the bus closer to the front would be significantly brighter. I wanted the side of the bus to be lit more evenly. I achieved this by slowly stepping further away to change the angle so I could illuminate the back of the bus, using my hand to keep some of the light from illuminating the front of the bus much. I also kept my light moving to increase the chance of a nice even “layer of light”. If you think this is a complicated sequence of moves, that’s not too bad. However, it does require practice.

Step Three: Light the interior

I couldn’t access the inside of the bus. However, I am tall. I was able to put my arm between two or three of the open bus windows. I also kept the light lower than the windows so it wouldn’t shine directly into the lens. Then I moved the light around and bounced it off the sides and ceiling. This created the appearance that an unseen bus driver had mysteriously turned on the lights!

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 would you have gone about painting the bus with light at night? What about these techniques that you can apply to other subjects you paint with light? How can these techniques help you paint with light?