How I got the photo: Night selfie with an epic motel sign

A giant motel sign, a ghost town, a beautiful evening, and a camera. This is how I created this night selfie through light painting.

The above night selfie photo is a blend. The base photo is 2 minutes f/8 ISO 200. The selfie photo was 3 seconds f/3.5 ISO 3200. I almost used the selfie photo exclusively because it was so surprisingly clean. Ultimately, I decided to use the 2-minute photo because the colors on the motel sign were more vivid due to the light painting I added. I did this during our Nelson Night Photography Workshop earlier this month. I used a Pentax K-1 DSLR camera and a Feisol tripod to keep it all steady.

What is light painting?

Light painting is a term that is often used loosely to describe any addition of light to a night photograph. Really, though, light painting is a technique that uses a handheld light source to illuminate a scene during a long exposure. You are quite literally painting the scene with light. Night photographers have used this technique for many decades.

Three steps to creating the photo

Step one: Low-ISO photo

I took a two-minute low-ISO photo of the motel sign during a full moon. During this photo, I also light painted the enormous motel sign from camera right. Why that direction? The moon was shining from the right side, and I wanted to mimic the moonlight so it would look more natural.

Step two: High-ISO photo

I took a second photo. This one was a three-second high-ISO photo of the motel sign with me standing there. The moon was shining nicely in this area. I knew if I stood there, the moon would illuminate me nicely and in the same way as the natural moonlight and light painting that the previous photo had done.

Step three: Blending

On my computer, I simply layered the second photo on top of the first one in Photoshop CC. This was because it was taken at a higher ISO. After all, I wanted it to blend nicely with the first photo, which had less noise.

Then, using a black Layer Mask on the second photo, I simply brushed the image of myself into the photo. Done!

Bonus tips for making your night selfie look great

  • If you blend a second image with yourself in the photo, try to apply noise reduction to match the first image. You’re trying to make it look like you were actually standing perfectly still for the longer exposure. I used Lightroom Classic Denoise AI to do this before sending it to Photoshop. I could have just as easily used Topaz Labs Denoise AI, which is also very capable.
  • Always blend in your shadow. This gets overlooked a surprising amount. Unless you’re going for a vampire look, blending in your shadow makes the photo look natural.
  • I can’t seem to stand very still, and even three seconds sometimes seems challenging. To keep still so you come out nice and sharp in your image, sit or lean against something. If you cannot do this, I’ve found that having a wide stance often helps me to keep more still.
  • You don’t have to use Photoshop for this. GIMP or anything else that uses Layers and Layer Masks will work.
  • I’m hardly a Photoshop guru. If I can blend this, YOU can too. It’s just like painting. Relax and brush, brush, brush …


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!


Night photographers Tim Little, Mike Cooper and I all use Pentax gear. We discuss this, gear, adventures, light painting, lenses, night photography, creativity, and more in this ongoing YouTube podcast. Subscribe and watch to the Nightaxians today!

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



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s