How Do You Light Paint In A Starry Night Photograph?

Light Painting Super Tutorial
Having recently taken a look at my favorite "Paint Brush" for night photography (the Brinkmann Dual Xenon Spotlight), I wanted to share some of the techniques I've developed for creating great nightscape images with light painting.  That's right, there's a lot more to it than just turning the light on and pointing at your subject...  so read on and see what approaches I was able to figure out work best.  If you missed the review on the Brinkmann Spotlight, see it here.

In the image shown to the right titled "Fingers In The Fire", I captured a vertical panorama showing the Milky Way stretching all the way from one horizon to another.  I used an indirect Light Paint Spike™ with my hand to illuminate the big tree in the bottom of the image and a direct Light Paint Stroke™ on the trees that appear in the top.  Both of these techniques are described below.

Why I Hesitated To Use Light Painting For So Long
It's not easy to tell by looking at my portfolio today, but I stalled for quite some time before actually starting to use light painting in my night photography - mostly because I wasn't impressed with a lot of light painting efforts I'd seen.  Many of them used light painting that was so strong that it overwhelmed the image and didn't look natural.  And since I really wanted my images to look natural, I was turned off by this approach.  But with an opportunity to illuminate some of the great foregrounds I'd been using, I decided to start pursuing some gentle approaches to light painting that would look more natural - with a key goal of keeping my light painting very subtle.

Mike's Goals In Light Painting

  • Give starry night images a sense of place by illuminating a foreground subject
  • Make sure the added light is subtle and low intensity
  • Make sure the added light has lots of depth & shadows

Initial Suggestions

Keep The Brush Moving
Just like in real painting, you typically keep your brush moving.  In light painting, if you were to suddenly stop moving, you'd overexpose that portion of the image.  So to get a balanced scene, I typically keep my light paint brush moving across the scene.  If I need more light, I'll typically move my light paint brush slower or just apply the light multiple times.

Painting Time And Distance
Most people understand that it takes more light to illuminate the objects that are further away.  If you have a composition that includes objects that are both close and far away, you'll need to account for that.  In this case, if you were to light paint with the same intensity across the entire scene, the closer objects would appear much brighter.  So in order to get a balanced exposure, I often will slow the movement of my light painting when applying light to the further subjects and then speed back up when painting the closer objects.

Paint Off-Camera
In order to get a lot of shadows and depth on your light painting, I highly recommend painting off-camera.  This means that you'll need to walk away from your camera to apply light to your subject in a way that adds visible shadows and depth to your image.  To coordinate the timing of the light painting with the triggering of your camera's shutter by bringing an assistant or using a wireless remote trigger.  This extra step may sound like something that would make the picture-taking more difficult but it does wonders in getting your image to look more natural.  Just get your camera ready to shoot, walk off to the side, trigger your camera with a remote (or an assistant) and start painting.  I typically try light painting from both the left and the right side if possible.

Don't Move Around Too Much
Directional light tends to have more definition in the shadow edges than ambient light.  So I generally light paint from a single location/position to keep this edge sharp.  If I wanted the light to appear more general (with less obvious shadows), I'd move the light around more when painting.  Don't misunderstand what I'm saying here...  when I start light painting, I often mix up the kind of light I'm painting with to make sure I'm getting a gentle, even cast of light.  What I don't typically do is walk around while light painting as that tends to blur the edges of my shadows.

Vary The Approaches & Intensity
Regardless of which approach seems to work best out in-the-field, I like to have exposures that show different approaches and levels of intensity.  This approach helps to keep my options open when it comes time to bring the exposures to life in post-processing and ensures that I'll have the frames I need to produce a quality image without compromise.  So make sure you have enough variation before you pick up your tripod.

Painting Techniques

One of the first decisions you have to make is whether you want to apply your light directly or indirectly.  This means that you have a choice of either shining your light directly at the foreground subject or using another object to diffuse and reflect the light.  In general, I've found that the direct light works better for the subjects that are further away while the indirect approach works better for the up-close foreground subjects.  I say this because the distant subjects tend to need all the light I can get from my light source without any need for diffusion and reflection.

Direct Lighting
This is where I shine my light directly on the foreground subject.  It tends to work best for the foreground objects that are further away as you'll need all the light you can get to be effective.  The two approaches shown here are very similar but use a different painting motion.

Light Paint Stroke
Apply the light in a smooth motion from one side to the other.  Turn the light on before you enter the frame from one side and turn it off after you exit the frame on the other side.  If there are multiple foreground subjects with varied distances, I may need to move the light faster for the closer subjects and slower for the ones that are farther away.

In the image on the right titled "Lake Irene's Milky Way Mirror", I moved out of the frame to the far left side to prepare for some direct light painting.  I started by turning the light on out of the frame on the left side, smoothly entered the frame from the side and move across the scene until I exited on the right side and then turned off the light.  And just like I described earlier, I had to run the light much slower for the trees on the right side to balance the illumination since they were so much further away.

Light Paint Swirl
This is where I apply the light in a smooth circular motion.  I turn the light on while it's pointed out of the frame, move the light so at the area of illumination moves into the frame and continues moving around the foreground subject in a swirling, circular motion.  When enough light has been applied, I typically either turn the light off while painting or just move the light so that the area of illumination exits the frame.  I find that this approach works best in cases where the area I need to illuminate is more in the center of the frame and not near the edges.

The image on the right titled "Moonlit Mountain Tram Station" was made using this swirled approach since there is more subject material in the center with little content in the corners and sides.

Indirect Lighting
This is where I shine my light on something other than the foreground subject to indirectly illuminate it with diffusion and or reflection.  In general, this approach works best when your foreground subject is relatively close.  I'll admit that it took me some time to develop these approaches but the results are very good in getting that subtle result I've been looking for - even if they are more advanced.  At their core, the indirect approaches require you to aim your light source away from the foreground subject and towards whatever diffuser / reflector object you choose to use.

Light Paint Spike
Since I tend to do my light painting from a single off-camera location, I make sure to avoid using the two approaches mentione above for indirect light painting - Light Paint Stroke™ and Light Paint Swirl™.  So for indirect light painting, I found the term spike to fit the approach best.  With the approach in-mind however, I still found a lot of variation in results attained by using different objects for diffusion and reflection.

A Tree - This is my favorite indirect light painting approach.  It's easy to do (when trees are available) and it looks great!  I say it's easy because I don't even have to leave the camera to do it.  I can just start the exposure and then shine the light (from the same position behind the camera) at an off-camera tree.  I find that this approach is not only easy but it often gives a great color balance - using the leaves and/or bark as the diffuser and reflector.

In the waterfall image on the right titled "Starry Night Waterfalls In Rocky Mountain National Park", I tried using other approaches but found that the tree on my right side provided the best alternative for diffusion and reflection.  It came from a better angle than I was able to reach myself and the color temperature was more neutral and natural looking than the rocks and my hand (see below).

This is a sneak peak image in that it hasn't yet been posted as an official image on my website or social media.

The Ground - This common approach is where I shine my light straight down to the ground or surface I'm standing on.  Whether this is dirt, grass, snow, or a big rock, it can give a good low intensity light from a low angle and is a very good approach to consider using.  I find this approach tends to work best when the foreground subject has horizontal lines that would have difficulty showing shadows when illuminated from the side.

The starry mountain cabin image on the right side (titled "Wonders Of The Night") uses light reflecting off of the snow I was standing on.  This indirect approach coming up from below added to the shadows and depth on the cabin - working especially well with the horizontal logs of the cabin.

A Rock Wall - Often times, I'm in a place where a rock wall presents itself as a good ability to diffuse and reflect the light.  And in places where the rocks are especially warm in color temperature, you may find this adds a hint of warm light to your image by using it for light painting.  And just like the tree or the ground, using a rock wall allows me as the photographer to stay positioned behind the camera where I can conveniently trigger the shot and evaluate the results.

In the image on the right titled "Milky Way Skies At False Kiva", I shined my light low on the left wall - providing an especially warm light with long shadows.

A Hand - I found this to be a good alternative that can be very handy at times (no pun intended).  Before I found so many good alternatives (mentioned here in this article), I used to carry a dedicated light diffuser for light painting out in-the-field.  One night though, I found myself needing to diffuse some light and I hadn't brought my diffuser so I improvised by trying the palm of my hand instead and found some really good results.  It was admittedly warmer than most light (in color temperature) but against an already warm colored sand, it worked pretty well.  There are times where I've used my whole arm and not just my hand to balance the temperature but in general, I've been impressed with how well this "lazy man's diffuser" works.  That said, this approach does need some coordination as the photographer has to trigger the camera while either already in the off-camera light painting position or has to get into position after triggering.  Either way, I find this to be a great place for a wireless remote (or an assistant).

In the sand dunes image on the right side titled "Hand Painted Mystery Under The Stars", I added some illumination to the foreground by using this technique (sometimes referred to as "hand painting").  I kept my hand low and steady to provide especially long shadows on the sandy ripples and patterns.