Painting with Light
Written by George S. Pearl, BCEP   



Documenting evidence with low (or no) ambient light presents an obvious problem to crime scene and accident photographers. Photography during the well-lit daytime hours is a snap considering that you are able to work under the world’s largest floodlight: the sun. The problem of lighting the scene comes, instead, inside a huge warehouse with no electricity… or on a dark stretch of roadway at night without any lights illuminating the area. A photographer may quickly become overwhelmed by the need to show the overall large area of the scene while darkness presses in from all sides. A simple point-and-shoot camera with a small built-in flash just won’t do this job.

Single flash exposure

Painting with Light

The “painting with light” technique, allows you to light and image a large area using a single electronic strobe light, a spotlight, or—in some cases—even a good flashlight. To accomplish this, the photographer moves the light throughout the scene, exposing one part at a time, while the camera lens and shutter remains open the entire time.

To paint a scene with light you will actually be walking all around in the same photo you are taking! Don’t worry about being seen, because if you do this procedure correctly, you will not be seen in the resulting picture. This is because your body walking about will be darker than the lighted areas being exposed by your portable light. So, any ghosting caused by your movement in the photo will be filled in with the brighter lighted scene from the strobe. One word of advice, though: always keep moving and do not stand around for an extended time in one spot.

The Tools

The correct tools of the trade are required if you want to properly document any scene. Painting with light requires a camera with a manual exposure setting for the aperture and the shutter speeds to be able to set the exposure on “B” for Bulb.

In the early days of photography, cameras had a shutter operated by a small piston driven by air pressure coming from a squeezed rubber bulb the photographer held in his hand. The shutter would be held open and the exposure made for as long as the photographer kept the rubber bulb pressed. Today we retain this “B” setting on our shutter speed dial to represent bulb and keep the shutter open for as long as we desire while it is depressed.

It is best to have a cable release connected to your camera to operate the shutter. Most of them will allow you to open the shutter and then lock it in the open position without touching the camera. Not being required to touch the camera after you start your light painting is crucial since you do not want to shake the camera during the long exposure. Doing so will blur your image and make all of your effort in painting the scene a waste.

You may find on your camera a shutter speed setting of “T”. This “T” setting is for time exposure. If you use the “T” setting, then the first time you press the shutter button, the shutter will open and remain open until you push it again when it will close and end the time exposure. This setting can be use for this technique as well.

A completely automatic camera will not work for this technique. The camera needs to be one that allows manual manipulation of the focus, lens aperture, and shutter speed. Digital cameras and film camera will both work—but today’s digital cameras are able to display the resultant photo instantly on their viewing screens, providing a huge advantage for one doing this type of photography.

Next in line is a good, sturdy tripod. The camera must be held absolutely still while painting with light because the total exposure time could easily run into several minutes. If the camera is moved during the exposure, it will blur the image and make it completely unusable. Sometimes, if no tripod is available, some solid object might be used to rest the camera on during the exposure—but a real tripod should already be a part of your scene shooting gear.

Your camera might have its own built-in strobe light, but such a small, weak light source is useless when you are attempting to photograph a huge, dark area. A hand-held and hand-operated portable electronic strobe light is next on our list of must-have painting-with-light supplies. The larger and more powerful the strobe light, the less total flashes and time will be required to cover the scene. A strobe that recycles fast is best, as well as one that will flash on full power a large number of times before the batteries go dead. The operation of changing batteries needs to be fast, and you need to make sure that you have fresh batteries handy. In most cases, many people will be waiting on you to do your thing and get out of the way. You will be holding up others working at the scene because you cannot have them walking all around and shining their flashlights in the scene while you are exposing your picture. You need to operate as quickly as possible—but don’t become intimidated by anyone who just wants you to take some “snapshots” and move on. You have to be in control in order to produce this high-quality evidence. If you do it right, then you will be a hero.

In some situations, a simple drop light on a long extension cord or even a powerful floodlight of flashlight can be used to paint an area. Even so, having a good portable strobe light that can be operated off the camera is a must in this business.

Having a black piece of art board that measures about 4x6 inches is also useful along with a strobe-light operator. Depending on the available light present, sometimes it will be best to cover up the lens with a black art board in between flashes. This is so that strong lights present in the scene do not bloom out and overexpose the darker areas being painted. Depending on the scene, you will quickly learn which scenes you can do by yourself (the totally dark ones) and which require the help of another to fire the strobe.

Try to keep your aperture set to a medium setting or smaller while doing these pictures. This will help keep other unwanted lights reduced and also give you a greater depth of field or sharpness throughout your shots.

The Process

Single flash

Painting with Light

The idea of how to do this painting with light is extremely simple:

  1. Place your camera on a tripod for stability.
  2. Adjust the lens to frame the entire scene, and adjust the focus manually.
  3. Open the shutter on the “Bulb” or “T” setting and lock it open until all flashes have been completed.
  4. Flash a strobe light—set to manual full-power output—in sweeps: Start at the most distant point of the scene and work your way back toward the camera, moving left to right. Overlap the light each time to create an even lighting appearance.

It is important to start at the most distant point in the scene and move back toward the camera in order to cover over or negate any ghosting trace of the person firing the strobe light within the bounds of the picture.

Another tip: Always direct the light of the strobe away from the camera.

If there are lights around the scene that could interfere with your production, then you will need to somehow reduce their exposure time to prevent overexposure and blooming of the light. The easiest way would be to turn them off—but if that cannot be done, you will need another person to help you paint the scene. This helper will walk around in the scene area firing the strobe light while you cover the camera lens with the black card in between strobe flashes. The strobe-light operator will watch the unit’s ready light until it comes on. When the light comes on, he will aim his strobe and yell out to you, “Ready!” When he calls out, you will remove the black card from in front of the lens. With the card removed, you will yell back, “Fire!” He will fire the strobe light and then you will quickly replace the black card over the lens and wait for his next “Ready!” signal. Doing this allows the controlled strobe exposures to make up the bulk of the photo instead of a very long time exposure of some light or lights in the area that will become overexposed and ruin your shot.

The correct exposure for these painted shots can be somewhat determined by the flash exposure guide for shooting on manual full-power output. I always like to shoot with the lens stopped down as much as possible to reduce exposure of light sources seen in the photo but not helpful to the illumination of the area of interest. Let’s say your strobe guide says the output for ISO 400 film with your strobe output set to full is f/16 at 20 feet away. If you are shooting outdoors, then there are no ceilings or walls to reflect the strobe light. I would try exposing at f/8—a two-stop increase in the amount of light that will get to your sensor or film.

Do some quick tests and look at the results on your camera’s viewing screen. If using a manual film camera, just open up two stops more than the strobe says and bracket your exposure with a couple of different runs to make sure you have it.

The procedure for painting with light indoors is the same, except the exposure may be different if there are ceilings and walls close enough for the strobe to bounce off from. Sometimes you will find that this technique is helpful to light up around an object or a body. Don’t always think that this is only for large-area scenes. Use painting with light whenever you desire showing something well—or even when you want to show light shining from behind or through an object.

Being prepared and planning ahead with the right equipment is useless unless you have the knowledge and experience to perform under pressure and time constraints. Practicing this type of photography with a friend or family member will seem game-like to them, but is imperative for you to do this before you need to do it on the job. This all may sound easy enough, but without prior practice and learning on your part it can become a total failure and waste of everyone’s time on a real scene call. It is quite frustrating for those involved working a crime or accident scene to be told that you need all of them to stop what they are doing and not walk around or shine any lights in the area where you are photographing. All they see is you or your helper dancing all around for minutes at a time doing some stupid psychedelic strobe thing. You need to not let someone intimidate you into just taking some snap shots and move on. You won’t have good pictures documenting the scene you came there to document if you get pushed around.

Painting with light is in fact a time-eater of sorts, but when done properly, the payoff is high.

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is an Evidence Photographers International Council Board Certified Evidence Photographer and life member of EPIC. He has taught crime scene and evidence photography and has lectured broadly to photographers as well as lawyers. His business, Atlanta Legal Photo Services, Inc., has been in operation for 34 years. Pearl was the recipient of the 2004 Nikon Evidence Photographer of the Year award, and has testified hundreds of times as an expert throughout his career.

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