Using Light Painting with Very Long Exposures!


Bringing Out Foreground Details..

A few months ago Jamie Davidson and I led a photo workshop and excursion to Charleston, SC. The workshop was in both Infrared and Color photography and we had several sunrise shoots in various locations.  One of my favorites was on Foley Beach looking out at the Morris Island Lighthouse.  There was a groin  (rock break wall) there as well as a boneyard (driftwood forest).

Morris Island Lighthouse Sunrise

My Vision:

What I had in mind was to photograph the  Morris Island lighthouse in silhouette  with the sun rising behind it with driftwood in the foreground as a very long exposure to flatten the ocean surf.  I also wanted to have some surface detail in the driftwood and beach in front of the camera so I knew that I would have to use a very high power flashlight to paint those items during the exposure. Long exposure photography will generate very etherial images that will draw the viewer into the image.  Learning how to generate these types of images is a very worth while endeavor and I hope that you are interested enough to experiment with it as well!

My Equipment:

  • I wanted to shoot this with my Fuji X Pro 1, but at that point I was still waiting for its delivery.
  • Canon 7d camera body.
  • Canon 17-40L lens.
  • Remote shutter release cable.
  • A very stable carbon fiber tripod!
  • Sure Fire U2 variable LED tactical 100 lumen flashlight.
  • Fortitude to get up very early and drive/walk out to the beach (no small task!).

Singh Ray Variable ND

After arriving on site, I looked  for a suitable piece of driftwood to place in the foreground and have it frame the lighthouse.  I setup back about 20 feet so that I could get enough depth of field to have both the tree and the lighthouse both in focus. Setting up the tripod well back from the surf to keep the water from under cutting its legs I framed the shot above.  It looks bright enough but it was so dark that I could not even see the tree!  Please keep in mind here that I also wanted to slow down the movement of the water, so I have installed a variable 8 stop neutral density filter from Singh Ray on the lens.  Even at its minimum setting there is still a 2 stop darkening of the image throughout he viewfinder.  What I am looking for is an exposure time of at least 30 seconds  but longer if possible. What I do is to set the ND at 2 stops then use the flashlight to provide a bright spot for focus. After focusing, I setup the camera in manual mode by adjusting the aperture to f/11 to f/16 and the shutter speed to a starting point of 30 seconds.  I then adjust the variable ND filter to give me a 0 ev exposure in the metering system!

It is this special filter that allows me to really slow down the shutter speed  enough to smooth out the ocean surface!  You do not have to use a variable ND, a set filter like a 6 or 10 stop ND from B+W filters will work fine, but you have to setup the composition and focus before you attach the filter because you will not be able to see through the viewfinder once it is installed.  All of these ND filters are expensive, the B+W ND’s will be over $100 and the Singh Ray will be just at $400!  But EVERY photographer needs some sort of ND filter in order to slow down the shutter speed to smooth out water or cloud movement for a soft etherial image.

The viewfinder must also be covered up once everything is set and before the exposure is made in order to not effect the camera meter.

Ultra Bright Tactical Light

Trip the shutter and step away from the camera/tripod.  Now taking the ultra high power flashlight I use it to paint the surface of the tree and sand around it.  This is a continuous movement of the flashlight over the tree and sand again and again.  I do not want them brightly lit, rather I am looking for just enough light to ensure that the tree is  not a silhouette and that the sand has some detail and structure in its surface.  This can be difficult and you might have to walk closer to the tree in order to have more light from the flashlight fall on it.  But being digital we can take several images before the sky becomes too bright to work!

You can use any light source but you do need to be careful not to use a light that is yellow in color.  The tactical lights are expensive but do not fail due to the bulb and will last a lifetime.  At high power the batteries will only last for an hour or two, but most of these lights have several power levels and can stretch the battery life up to 20 hours!  They are great for photography but they can also save your life in an emergency as well.

Here is a Black & White version of the image above.  This was converted in Photoshop CS6 with Nik Filters Silver EFX Pro 2.

Morris Island Lighthouse Sunrise

If you look up at the very TOP of this page you will see my Blog Banner Image, which was also taken at this location within moments of the Lighthouse image!  This type of photography (long exposure can be very pleasing in it process and is certainly easy on the eyes!

Below is one further image, this time taken by the Fuji X Pro 1 without light painting in the mid morning.  For this image I did use a 52mm B+W 10 stop ND filter, but no light painting as it was already too bright out and was not necessary.

Ultra Long Exposure with the Fuji X Pro 1

Please let me know what you think!

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