Painting with Light: How to Add Interest to Landscapes

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Bethell's Beach, New Zealand: Canon 5D Mark II with Canon EF 85mm f1.8 lens. 30 seconds, f8, ISO 200.

I took this photo at Bethell’s Beach on the west coast of New Zealand near Auckland. After you leave the city the road winds up through the rainforest of the Waitakere Ranges and down to the wild beaches on the other side. The wind blows in off the Tasman Sea and huge waves pound against cliffs and rocks.

Bethell’s Beach is on the west coast so it’s ideally placed for sunset photos. There’s also a hut for lifeguards. I haven’t seen any lifeguards yet (maybe they are just there for the summer season?) but the ramshackle wooden building has pictorial potential.

A search for Bethell’s Beach on Flickr shows that (unsurprisingly) I’m not the only person who has recognised the photographic qualities of the hut. So how to make a photo that’s different? A good technique to use is painting with light.

Sunsets are beautiful, but the potential for taking landscape photos quickly fades along with the fading light levels after the sun dips below the horizon. That’s because there’s not enough light to make the subject interesting and the photo loses all contrast and sparkle.

But what if you provide the light yourself? That’s what I did. I used a one million candlepower spotlight to illuminate the hut during an exposure of thirty seconds.

The benefit of the painting with light technique is that it puts light back into the scene and lets you take photos at a time when the light levels are too low to get a reasonable photo using natural light alone.

It extends the period of useful light and you get some extra photos that look different to others that you’ve taken, all for minimal extra effort (the hard work of finding a good location and getting there at the right time has already been done).

Here’s a photo taken in just natural light so you can see the difference:

Bethell's Beach New Zealand

Painting with light technique

Here are some technique pointers for painting with light:


You need a sturdy tripod that will hold your camera completely steady during shutter speeds of ten seconds plus. A cheap or flimsy tripod won’t do that. You need a good quality aluminium or carbon fibre tripod from a manufacturer like Giottos or Manfrotto (I use Giottos) with a good quality ball and socket head. Otherwise, your photos won’t be sharp and your efforts will be wasted.

You also need a powerful spotlight. I have a one million candlepower spotlight – basically a powerful torch (they’re not expensive). One million candlepower is the minimum you need for a photo like this, a five million candlepower spotlight would be better (I’ll be buying one soon I’m sure).

Photographic technique

I used an 85mm lens to compress the perspective and get a narrow field-of-view. That’s on a full frame camera, if you have a camera with an APS-C sized sensor a 50mm lens will give you the same perspective.

Wide-angle lenses are also ideal for painting with light photos. They let you get close to the subject and include lots of background.

The technique itself is very simple. I always shoot in RAW. There are lots of benefits to RAW, but the main one when it comes to painting with light is that you can set the white balance in post-processing. As long as your monitor is calibrated, this lets you set the white balance according to the effect that you’re after.

If you must shoot in JPEG, set the white balance to daylight. This will preserve the balance between the blue natural light and the orange torch light.

I used manual mode to set the exposure settings. The most important setting is the shutter speed: 30 seconds in this case.

Thirty seconds is an interesting shutter speed. It’s the longest shutter speed available on most SLRs (you can get longer shutter speeds but you need to use the bulb mode).

It’s long enough to blur the sea and give you time to paint with light, and short enough to give you time to take several exposures during the narrow period of time that you have (it gets dark quickly here in New Zealand).

I set the aperture to f8 for good depth-of-field and the ISO to give the correct exposure. I used the histogram to ‘expose to the right’.

I also enabled mirror lock-up and used the self-timer to take the photos. Here’s the procedure, it’s pretty simple:

I stood near the hut with my torch and my girlfriend pressed the shutter release button on my camera. At this point the mirror locks up and the self-timer kicks in.

Ten seconds later the camera’s shutter opens to start the exposure. The ten second gap gives time for any vibrations to die away and the result is a sharp photo. A red flashing light on the front of the camera tells me when it’s going to fire, so I’m ready to use the torch throughout the whole thirty second exposure.

I walked around the hut during the exposure, but didn’t show up in the photo because I was constantly moving. I ended up with a couple of thin light trails from the torch, but they were easy enough to clone out in Photoshop.

So there you have it. Painting with light – it’s an easy technique to use, a lot of fun and a nice way to get some photos that are a little different.

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One Response to “Painting with Light: How to Add Interest to Landscapes”

  1. Jen C says:

    I like!

« The Vision Driven Photographer: A New Craft & Vision eBook by David DuChemin |  Light & Land: An eBook by Michael Frye »

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