Lightpainting 101: Transforming a wooden church with light

Lightpainting 101: Transforming a wooden church with light

How can we transform a dark scene with a wooden church into something magical and enchanting with just a hand lamp?

In the photo above I used a Pentax K-1 with a 28-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. I wanted a fair amount of time to lightly paint everything with my hand lamp. That’s why my settings were 3 minutes at f/8 ISO 200. It would drop to 36 degrees because it was at 2200 meters, so running up and down hills kept me nice and warm.

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.

It was twilight in the mountains and night was almost upon us. And there were no street lights or moon. In other words, it was very dark. But with a long exposure photo and flashlight in hand, there’s always a way. Here’s how I painted with light a beautiful wooden church nestled in the mountains of Nye County, Nevada.

Four steps to painting a wooden mountain church

Step 1: Lighten the ground

I ran around and “sweeped” the ground with my portable ProtoMachines LED2 light. I did this by shining my lamp very low to the ground. This was not just to create some texture on the ground, but to light it up so it could be seen! If I hadn’t done this, it would have gone almost completely dark except for a tiny bit of illumination from the illuminated cross on top.

Step 2: Light up the side of the church

This was quite tricky. I lit the side of the church closest to the camera. How did I do this without the light shining into the camera and creating light trails? I blocked it with my body as I walked around the scene. Easier said than done. Sometimes you shine it on your hand or accidentally shine it into the lens. But this time I didn’t.

Step 3: Illuminate the Front of the Church

This too was a bit tricky. I stood on the right side of the church and painted the front with light from an angle to pick up all the wonderful details of the beautiful church. As with step 2, I had to use my body to prevent the light from shining into the lens. Mike Cooper blocks the light by using cardboard light modifiers, which are extremely effective.

Step 4: Lighting the Interior of the Church

I entered the church, closed the door and used a yellow light to illuminate the interior. Here I wanted to make sure I didn’t “blow out” the details by letting too much light shine. I chose a yellow light to make the church look warm and inviting (which wasn’t difficult considering its beauty and how nice the people in town are).

Behind the scenes decisions to paint the church with light

I could have just turned on the interior lighting. However, I chose not to do this because one of the lights was shining directly into the camera. When I turned on all the lights, one of the outside lights in the front also came on, which I didn’t really want. One of the lights was burnt out so I would have only gotten one anyway.

Many people prefer to use LED panels to do their lighting at night. These can be very effective and even preferable in circumstances where you want to maintain a constant light during, say, a time-lapse video. However, I feel they take too long to set up. I can walk around the scene and paint from many angles, which I couldn’t do even with a multi-LED panel setup. That’s why almost all of my light-painted pictures are with a hand lamp.