Light Painting 101: How to light the interior of a smokestack building

How do you go about light painting a building so it looks like the lights are on? How do you create texture in a reasonably natural way through the way you light paint? I’ll describe how to do this and more.

A night photo of a dual-smokestack cattle barn building, illuminated during the exposure.

Three steps to light painting

Step one: Illuminating the exterior naturally

I wanted to create some texture on the outside of the building so it wouldn’t be so dark. After all, some of it was in shadow. I thought I would brighten that a little while still making it look reasonably natural. 

Since the nearly full moon was illuminating the scene from the camera right, I used the same angle. Using a shallow 90-degree angle to create texture, I illuminated it for several seconds. I used a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device with warm white light.

Step two: Light painting the interior

I thought that a bright interior giving the appearance of someone turning the lights on the inside would look good. It would give the building some more pop and make it stand out as well. 

I walked inside and aimed the light up at the ceiling. By reflecting it off the ceiling, it gives the appearance of an overhead light. I did this in both rooms. I also aimed the light out the windows to give a little bit of edge lighting for added drama.

Step three: adding some light to the edges of the two smokestacks

The smokestacks on top of the building were intriguing. I wanted them to stand out while still looking natural. Again, because the moon was shining from the right side, I illuminated the right side of the two smokestacks while behind the building, almost backlighting them, but from an extreme angle. You can see the light painting on their right sides. This gives the smokestacks more definition while still looking natural.

Additional details

The road had occasional trucks zooming past. I made sure to begin the exposure when I saw that a truck was going to pass. I really liked how the red taillights looked, so I waited for a vehicle to be driving away to get those streaks. They seem to represent time passing the abandoned building by.

What is this building?

This building is the front part of a cattle barn. The back structure, where the cattle were housed, has mostly collapsed. This is located in the Mojave Desert between Big Bear Lake and Barstow in California.

Night photo of the collapsed cattle barn building in the back. Light painted during the exposure. This has it all: a Dutch angle with a fisheye lens!


Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review, thanks!

Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)

Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020


How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022


Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols



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