Night photography: Light painting Joshua Tree’s ghosts

Night photography: Light painting Joshua Tree’s ghosts

I will describe how I light painted the Ryan Ranch ruins in Joshua Tree National Park. Hopefully it inspires you to try light painting yourself!

Ryan Ranch night photo with handheld light painting, Joshua Tree National Park, California.

What is light painting?

The term is often used loosely to describe any addition of light to a night photograph. Really, though, light painting is a technique that uses a handheld light source to illuminate a scene during a long exposure. Your flashlight is your paint brush, and you are quite literally painting the scene with light. Similar to a film director, you control what you illuminate, and what you keep in shadow using your handheld light. Night photographers have used this technique for many decades.

Let’s see how I went about light painting this iconic ranch.

Three steps to light painting Ryan Ranch in Joshua Tree National Park

One of the amazing creative aspects of light painting is that you can control what you illuminate, and what you keep in shadow. I wanted to leave much of the wall in shadow, in part to create a lot of negative space, but also to accentuate the curvy edge, which I found attractive. I also wanted to draw your eye through the frame. Therefore, it made more sense to light paint the wall in the back to make it brighter since the eye is naturally drawn to brighter scenes in the composition.

Step one: Accentuating the curvy edge

After opening the shutter for a two-minute exposure, I walked to the left of the camera. With my ProtoMachines LED2 handheld light, I illuminated the edge, making sure that I did not illuminate the wall in front. While doing this, I also held the light low to illuminate some of the ground to give it texture.

Step two: Illuminating the back wall

While illuminating some of the ground, I also angled my light to illuminate the wall. This would create some texture on the wall since I was close to a 90-degree angle to the wall. It also made this wall brighter, so our eyes would be drawn through the composition to the wall beyond.

Step three: Illuminating the edge of the U-shaped window in the back

I walked to the back of the building. From there, I illuminated the edge of the right side of the U-shaped window. I did this to pull the window more to the front, but also to create one more edge to match the curvy edge of the wall in the front.

Creating layers

The composition has three layers: the close curvy wall, the wall in the back, and the landscape beyond. I suppose you could say it has four layers since the sky is beyond that.

The technique that I chose to do supports the layers, making it more likely that your eye is drawn through the composition to the back. Ideally, light painting should be done with intention and thought toward the composition, and not just simply to “light up” something.

If you want to learn more about night photography and light painting…

Joshua Tree / Borrego Springs night photography workshop adventure June 2024
Joshua Tree / Borrego Springs night photography workshop adventure June 2024

…keep reading here. I’ve written numerous articles over the years on night photography and light painting, including “Stop your light painting from looking flat and dull right now” and “Light painting angles“.

Also, consider signing up for one of my workshops. Generally, you may find out more about my upcoming workshops on my Ken Lee Photography website. We do have a night photography workshop in Joshua Tree National Park and Borrego Springs in June 2024.

Joshua Tree / Borrego Springs night photography workshop adventure June 2024
Joshua Tree / Borrego Springs night photography workshop adventure June 2024