Painting with Light

Today we’re going to cover a really interesting lighting technique called “Painting with Light”. It’s a form of using light that goes back to the early 1900s. I used to use it in the film days when photographing weddings. I used a technique that I learn from an amazing wedding photographer named David Ziser. Here’s what I did:

When it was dark outside, usually at the wedding reception, I would have the bride & groom each hold a sparkler together a little over their heads and in front of them. The camera, at that time we used Hasselblads, would of course be on a tripod. The camera would be set to bulb and time lock.

We would light the sparklers, press the shudder as it stayed open and slowly have the couple each make a half heart design starting at the top and ending at the bottom.

As soon as they got to the bottom of the heart, they were instructed to kiss and hold. Then we would also fire a strobe, making the exposure so as not to wash out the couple, release the shudder and since it was film, hope and pray it turned out well. With a little practice and patience, the results were usually what we expected.
The result would be an interesting sparkling effect surrounding the bride & groom as they kiss.

Today, I’d like to share with you a very simple and practical way to paint with light. And we’re going to be doing this with minimal equipment and in a very economical way. This technique works great for jewelry and product photography.


Main/Kicker light – I used a simple 3 and 24 LED work light as my paint light but you can use any LED light source and even a flashlight.

Fill Light – Our fill light was a 126 LED video light. But if you have enough light in the room, you can use the room light for a fill. Just be sure the room light is dark enough so it does not overpower the LED lights that you’ll be painting with. I even did a test using as a fill light the 24 LED section of the light which I softened by adding two sheet of plastic over the lights. By using the video light, it makes it easy to focus and can also be adjusted down low after focusing.

Camera – Any camera, even a pocket camera that is capable of a manual setting so that we can set the exposure to get the appropriate result. In this situation, I used my 11 year old and faithful Fuji S2 with a Nikkor 28-105mm lens. I set the lens speed to 20 seconds with the aperture at f19 and of course, the camera was on a tripod.

The item I photographed is a Nikon D300. I also chose a black background. Here’s the procedure I used:

As I mentioned, the camera was on a tripod. The exposure was set to 20 seconds at f19.

(Note on exposure – In this case we’re photographing a camera, a black object. Keep in mind when the exposure is made correctly, the item will appear black, just like it should. If it appears gray or brown you are likely overexposing. By painting highlights onto the camera, you are adding more dimension to your image.)

After I pressed the shudder, I walked over to the D300. I turned on the LED light unit and selected the 3 LED light source to get more of a spotlight effect. I held the light high enough so that it was out of sight and moved it around and from behind to give highlights to certain parts of the camera. Each time you do this you will get a different effect, so try different variations and choose your favorite.

In this tutorial, we used a simple straight ahead light source. You can even make the effect more dramatic by using a different color light source to paint with or even use gels.

To Learn how to use the Paint With Light technique watch the video below