Light Painting

Breaking Away From a Perfect World

By Stan Patz Back to

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 As a commercial photographer, my usual assignment involves photographing new merchandise fresh out of the box. My job is to make things look perfect: everything sharp, well lit, blemish-free and with accurate color.

When it comes to personal projects, I often break away from this perfect world and shoot heavily textured, dirty old things. My building’s sprawling fire sprinkler pump and meter, featured in this article, fits this funky category very well. Like many subjects I have chosen to photograph, this plumbing installation was never designed for visual aesthetics. My challenge was to isolate the elements I wanted, and present this confusing mess with the dignity and style of a SoHo gallery sculpture. Since this equipment covers so much floor space, I had to figure out a good way to include the whole subject in the frame. I could get everything with a 17mm lens on my full frame Canon 5D II, but I didn’t like the look. Instead, I used my 24mm tilt/shift lens, shot the subject twice with right then left shift, and merged the photographs in Photoshop. Through the postproduction tools of digital image processing, a lens with a 74° horizontal angle of view produced an image covering about 93°.

Six Inch Water Meter

This complex plumbing installation has water pipes, steam pipes, and electrical conduit running everywhere, all under an eight-foot ceiling. An industrial era fluorescent fixture, with four 8′ tubes, starkly illuminates everything including an unfinished cinder block wall that crowds the whole length of the subject. That is the raw material I had to work with. Lighting is the key to success in this photo. I wanted this old plumbing to have the look of a new car advertisement with bold lines on a dark ground. But there was no place to set lights, especially overhead lights, due to the low ceiling and all the obstructions. The solution I chose was “light painting,” my favorite method of simulating any type of lighting with simple, portable equipment.

It may be hard to guess, but this whole subject was illuminated with a highly modified “flashlight” featuring a 20 watt tungsten-halogen bulb (ESX), wired to a rechargeable 12 VDC gel-cell battery which I wear on my belt. I have made a number of snoots for this light which modify the beam size and allow me to aim the light fairly close to the camera without light spilling into the lens. For washing the floor with light, I used a simple cord and socket set with a standard 100-watt bulb and a modified 6″ “bullet” reflector.

How do I turn these little pea-shooters into mighty lights? The secret is time. I set my camera on a tripod in a dark room and open the shutter. Then I walk into the picture and literally paint light onto the subject. The beautiful part of this method is that I can selectively choose what gets illuminated, how bright it will be and from what angle the light hits the subject. A conventional light is like a cannon blast, blowing light at everything in front of it from a fixed position. With light painting, I carefully use my small light source to target an area; I move it around a lot or a little to simulate a soft or hard light source.

In theory, it sounds easy. In practice, it takes a lot of…practice. Even with over twenty years of light painting experience, I still find it challenging. In light painting, the exposures are like performance art, where I rehearse and refine all the moves with the light and my body positions. When I figure out all the lighting problems, I run the final routine a few times to get a collection of variations from which I take my final pick.

Before Shots
These scouting photos show what two of the scenes look like under available light.

Years ago, I was afraid I would not be able to move this fine art lighting technique into the digital era. But the transition from negatives and chromes to bits and bytes was painless; it resulted in tremendous savings in time and materials. Now that I shoot digitally, I send camera images to a notebook computer with a 17″ screen and I see full size images in seconds. No more delays for film processing, no more expensive Polaroids! The big, backlit computer screen displays what I just shot and preserves a running history of my progress.

In the large photo of the building’s sprinkler system, you can see how I simulated a twenty foot overhead bank light. But the lighting effect is not exactly like a big top light because I worked so selectively. The long cinder block background wall goes all black; the strong lines of pipes fade to black well before they crack any outside frame; the competitive clutter above the big alarm valve (11 o’clock in the photo) goes unlit. By illuminating only what I wanted, I extracted the subject from the distractions of its busy setting and created a beautiful, contained composition.

After seeing the amazing results of the main sprinkler system photo, I moved in and captured a number of smaller details. Using the same lighting technique, I isolated my subjects and explored the wonderful shapes and textures.

Two OS&Y Valves

So much of today’s photography is point-and-shoot easy. This light painting technique is the polar opposite, lacking any hint of camera automation. As you can see here, proper lighting can elevate the most mundane subject to high art−and sometimes, you don’t even have to leave home to find your “raw material.”

Particular Iron Works, Drill Bit Storage and Blue Window
Particular Iron Works, Wire Coils

NOTES ON EQUIPMENT:

The camera I used on Particular Iron is my “old” Canon 1Ds. The sprinkler photos were all done on my Canon 5D Mark II. Exposure time does not apply to these photos. I use the native ISO for best image quality—100 ISO. I usually use a small aperture, say f22 (if available) so I have time to “paint.” On the sprinkler series, I used the 24mm T/S for the overall shot, a 50mm f1.4 for the 6″ water meter and my 24-105 f4 zoom for the others.

My preferred lens for light painting is the 100mm f2.8 Macro due to its fine image quality and good camera to subject working distance. This is the first time I have used a zoom for stills, because I was able to size the images in restricted space.

The 24-105 “L” series lens does not seem to have any noticeable linear distortion, so the images easily fit with those of the primes.


About the Author

Stan Patz
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Stan Patz was born in Brookline/Boston MA, moved from Boston to New York in 1963 to learn the photography business. In 1971, he bought a floor in an almost abandoned loft building, fixed it up a bit and raised a family. He lives in the back and has a studio, darkroom, computer room and workshop in the front. You can see more of his work at patzimaging.com