Armed with nothing more than a tripod and a powerful torch, we show you how to capture a dramatic landscape image at night.
When we’re on a landscape shoot, most of us tend to call it a day once the sun has dropped below the horizon, but there is a way to carry on shooting long into the night, and that’s to light up the landscape yourself.
The basic idea is to literally paint your subject with a torch during a long exposure so that it stands out against the darker background. Without this extra helping of light, it would either get lost against the background, or it would just be completely silhouetted.
The light also helps pick out texture and detail, especially if you stand off to one side and ‘paint’ from an angle.
For our light-painting project we headed down to the south coast of England to photograph Pulpit Rock. We took along a million-candle-power torch to light up the rock stack, and a 14-24mm f/2.8 lens to enable us to fit everything in.
We also took along plenty of spare batteries, so that we wouldn’t run out of juice mid-shoot.
As with cityscapes, the best time to paint with light is when there’s still some light in the sky – that way you can expose for the sky and then use your torch to reveal your subject, and balance the exposure.
You don’t need to visit Pulpit Rock, of course; you can paint with light on any scene. Rocks, grass, buildings, trees… there really isn’t any limit to the subjects you can illuminate. Read on to find out how it’s done…
Get set up to paint with light
A landmark acts as a focal point, and helps to give your shot direction. Make sure your focal point is the brightest thing in the scene.
Steady does it
With exposure times of 30 seconds or more, a sturdy tripod is vital for capturing every texture and detail with pin-sharp clarity.
On the level
You may need to use a spirit level to ensure a level horizon. To avoid noise, keep your ISO low and extend your shutter speed.
Think of your torch – and its beam of light – as a giant brush that you can use to paint detail into the scene (see Step 05).
How to paint a landscape with light
01 Full beam ahead
The most important tool you’ll need for light painting (after your camera) is the torch itself. You’ll need one with a strong beam, able to reach the distant landscape. We used a 1,000,000-candle-power torch, and took extra batteries with us in case the ones in the torch ran out.
02 Make it quick
To speed things up, turn off long exposure noise reduction (found in the Shooting menu on most camera bodies). Long exposure noise reduction takes a second black frame with the shutter closed to record the noise generated by the image sensor, doubling the time each shot takes.
03 Lock the focus
Place your camera on your tripod. Autofocus is difficult in low light, and since the AF lamp built into your camera won’t be bright enough to reach the distant landscape, use your torch to light up your subject, autofocus a third of the way into the frame, and then switch to manual to lock it.
04 Slow things down
We set a narrow aperture of f/8 to ensure a decent depth of field, a low ISO (ISO100) to minimise noise and a very slow shutter speed (20 secs) to expose the photo correctly. Use the self-timer to trigger the shutter, to avoid camera shake, and begin painting your subject with the torch.
05 Paint with care
You may need a friend to make sure you paint evenly – it’s easy to leave the torch in one place and get hot spots. Standing back from your subject (up to 40 feet) and using long sweeping movements will help prevent this. Angling the torch to the side helps define the shape of the rocks.
06 Adjust and experiment
Check your shot. If light from your torch is flaring into the lens, put a lens hood on. Adjust your shutter speed if the exposure needs altering. We painted our scene from the left for the duration of our 20-second exposure, but you may not need to paint for that long.
If your autofocus is struggling, switch to manual focus, engage Live View and zoom in on the part of the image you want to be in focus. Adjust your focus ring until the scene is sharp, then zoom back out again