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Take Your Night Photography to the Next Level with Light Painting

Updated: Apr 15, 2023

Written By Ryan Oswald

When I say light painting, I have a few certain techniques in mind. Light painting, done properly, can dramatically enhance your night images, but it can easily be overdone. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you nuance the light into your night photo to make it a seamless addition to the scene.

Night landscape scene of California with photographer on top rocks with milky way sky at Astrophotography Workshop

Nikon D850 with 14-24mm | 14mm - f/2.8 - ISO 100 - 5" (foreground)

Tip #1 - Use Your Phone Screen

I've always made the most of what's available to me and I found expensive lighting and panels aren't always necessary. I've used my iPhone to light countless night scenes! In fact, I absolutely love the soft cool blue light that comes rom just the screen. All you have to do is turn on your phone, face the screen towards the subject you want highlighted and wave your phone back and forth a few times to distribute the light evenly to avoid hot spots.

This technique is best used or subjects close in the foreground. Often times I'll use the iPhone light to help highlight and separate a subject from the rest of the foreground. I used this technique to help bring out certain elements of the foreground for the image above and all the images below.

Left Image: Nikon D850 with 14-24mm

In the image above, I focused the screen light on the top o the Red Indian Paintbrush to help it stand out in the field of bluebonnets.

Right Image: Nikon D850 with 14-24mm | 14mm - f/2.8 - 12800 ISO - 20”

I focused the screen light on the top of the raised salt lines to help it stand out and add depth to the entire scene.

Left Image: 14mm - f/2.8 - 200 ISO - 30”

I focused the screen light on the top of the flowers to help give depth to the whole scene since these little guys take up a third of the frame.

Right Image: 16mm - f/2.8 - 1250 ISO - 20”

Cholla Needles are incredible at catching light! I focused the screen light on the top of the needles to help give depth to the whole cactus.

Tip #2 - Use Your Headlamp

Your Headlamp can be used multiple ways to help light a night scene. One way I love utilizing the headlamp is putting it on a person and having that person stand in frame. Not only does this provide a light source and draws your eyes in, it really helps tell a story and show off scaling.

Most importantly, it can help light a scene that other techniques seem to come short on. Illuminating part of the foreground is often difficult since that usually requires a light source out of frame, lighting up the entire scene. A head lamp allows us to have the light source visible in the frame, which lets us pick any part of the foreground to light up.

Left Image: 20mm - f/2.8 - 800 ISO - 30”

Using the headlamp allows you to point the light source in a specific direction, creating a leading line from the corner to the center of the frame. (This image was taken prior to the light painting rules in Arches National Park, it's now unfortunately prohibited.)

Right Image: 14mm - f/2.8 - 6400 ISO - 13”

Using the headlamp is also a powerful tool to draw the eye in and convey the story of an adventure at a breathtaking location under the Milky Way.

"Make use of lighting sources that you have on hand, a headlamp and an iPhone can go a long way"

Tip #3 - Low Level Landscape Lighting

Anytime you are sharing a space with others, low level landscape lighting is your best friend. You can dial the light into the right settings and everyone can enjoy and work at their own pace.

This technique can be overdone very easily though. Most of the time while using a panel or LumeCube, I use a diffuser with the brighness setting set to 1%, and even then, if you find the light to be too bright, try angling the light backwardsand bounce the light off a rock to help diffuse it even firther. The number one thing to remember when using external light sources is to avoid bright hot spots. The goal is to evenly disperse the light and accentuate a certain part of the landscape.

Other than working with others in the same area, I prefer this method to light up subjects further away from the camera or to help create depth by showing off the inside of an arch.

Left Image:

Using a LumeCube, I was able to control the exact amount of light I needed to help show off he arch easier and draw the eye in.

Right Image: 14mm - f/2.8 - 6400 ISO - 13”

You can get creative! We lit the inside of the shack to add some depth, but also added a person in the frame for part of the exposure to give the illusion of a ghostly shadow haunting the ghost town.

Don't forget about others around you!

Lastly, while using any light painting, be mindful of others around you trying to enjoy the night skies or photograph the same area. If others are around, it's always best to ask if they mind or if light would be in their way. Also keep in mind some National Parks don't allow any light painting or artificial light at all and it is strictly prohibited. We all want to improve our photos, but most importantly we want everyone to be able to enjoy these incredicle areas and the night sky!

There are countless tools and techniques that can help you with light painting, these are just a few ways to light a night scene that I seem to use the most often.

If you are interested in learning more about light painting, check out our

Light Painting Photography Workshop in the Mojave Preserve!

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