Sunday, November 10, 2013

Creative IR Lighting - Infrared Light Painting

This is the third post about things you can do with your infrared camera during the “off season.” My previous posts about candlelight IR photography can be found here and here.

Antique oscillating GE fan circa 1940 or 1941.
Light painting is a technique where the photographer literally paints the object with light during a single long exposure. This technique is often used when the photographer cannot get the lighting they want with flashes, strobes, or natural light. The creative advantage of light painting is that it allows the photographer to selectively wrap light around the subject and enhance the image in ways that would not be otherwise possible. 

Light painting also adds a measure of creative uncertainty to the image and no two light paintings will look the same. The shape of the light beam, how you move it, and how close the light is to the subject have profound effects on the ultimate exposure. This will delight you or drive you nuts!  For the sake of full disclosure, I must also warn you that light painting is an experimental process that requires dedication, patience, and perseverance. The fan photo shown here took about 20 tries before I got the lighting the way I wanted it. 

How to Get Started

First off, start small.  Photographing small interesting subjects in a dark room gives you fewer things worry about at first.  This requires minimal or no additional investment in gear.  Basically, you need an infrared converted camera that has the ability to hold the shutter open for extended periods, a sturdy tripod, and a flashlight.  The flashlight must have an incandescent bulb because LED flashlights generate very little IR light. Light shapers can be made with gaffer’s tape, cardboard, and aluminum foil.
  • A dark room is important because you will be using long exposure times.  Even an LED light will make a noticeable contribution to the exposure with a 20 second exposure.
  • The movement of the light is extremely important.  You should not hold the light in one position because the light quality will be flat and harsh.  I generally try to keep the light moving even if I am painting a small area.  
  • Controlling the angle of the light is very important, both for creative purposes, but also because light spill onto the table or other objects can create undesired bright spots. 
Light painting is like learning a new dance. During the painting process, you are trying to reproduce the movements that produced the desired lighting and find correct movements to address the lighting that wasn’t quite right. When the shutter opens, I find myself counting as I move; i.e., two seconds on this area at this angle, three on the next, step back for 5 seconds to introduce background lighting.

Camera Settings
  •  ISO:  Base ISO
  • WB:  I use the LifePixel preset
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction:   ON
  • Exposure Delay:  ON*
  • Use a remote release cable or use the timer function to open the shutter*
  • Manual mode
  • Shutter speed:  10 or 20 seconds
  • Aperture:  f/22 or higher to allow time for painting – this will be determined empirically.
*These settings are not strictly necessary in this example because any initial vibrations will occur when the room is dark, but it is a good practice for tabletop work. 

  1. Set the camera up on a sturdy tripod or other support.
  2. Once your general settings (above) have been established, take a photo without turning on the flashlight.  You want to check for any unexpected light sources that will pollute the scene.  Examine the resulting photo on a real monitor (not the LCD on the back of the camera) to make sure everything is black.
  3. If you use autofocus, focus the camera then switch to manual focus.  Autofocus will hunt in the dark.  For critical focusing, use Live View (zoomed in on the area you want to be sharpest) and focus manually.  Be sure to switch back to manual focus.
  4. Click the shutter turn on the flashlight, and experiment.
Antique Underwood typewriter with sepia overlay.
Final Thoughts
Photography is all about the light.  While interesting subjects and colors help to make an outstanding photo, lighting can make those same subjects boring or exciting. With light painting, you control all the light and you can readily see how the direction, intensity, and character of the light affects the final image. Light painting is a great learning tool and a fun way to spend a winter evening. 

Shooting Information

Antique Fan.  The fan was placed on the edge of a table and photographed with an IR-converted Nikon D90 (590nm SuperColor conversion from LifePixel) and a Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 AF-D lens.  Lighting was provided by a small MagLight flashlight. I constructed a snoot with aluminum foil and gaffer tape to give a directional light beam with minimum light spill. The shutter was open for 20 seconds at f/22, -1EV, ISO 200. I had to use the smallest f/stop to keep the exposure at 20 seconds.  A sepia overlay was added in post-production to even out the tones.

Underwood Typewriter.  The typewriter was placed on the edge of the table and photographed with an IR-converted (720nm IR Standard Conversion from LifePixel) D90 and a Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 AF-D lens. Lighting was provided by a Mini MagLight.  I constructed a snoot for the flashlight using aluminum foil and gaffer tape.  I wanted the “brush” to be a thin line of light with minimum light spill. The shutter was open for 20 seconds at f/16, -3.3EV, ISO 200. A light sepia overlay was added in post-production to even out the tones.


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