How To Make Killer Light Painting Photos Today!

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M-Class Planet

Light Painting
First, let’s get this out of the way.  I love light painting.  It’s a creative, active, experimental sort of photography.  And a lot of fun.  The hours melt away.  But what is it?  It’s a long exposure photographic technique in which the photographer moves a light source, – or sometimes the camera itself – to create the exposure. I like to use light painting to illuminate objects at night, lighting from outside the frame, although I also sometimes like to “paint” light into the lens as well.  Since we’re just gonna show you one photo, I’ll select one that shows both!

Stuff We Need
– We need a camera.  But you knew that, didn’t you?  And ideally, one that allows you to determine how long to keep the shutter open, and preferably, one with Bulb Mode, and accepts a remote shutter release.  I use a DSLR, but I’ve had friends use a compact digital camera or film cameras to do this.  What matters is that you can determine the length you wish to keep the shutter open.

– A remote shutter release.  Why?  To avoid any movement of the camera.  Even minuscule movement can ruin your photo.

– A stable surface.   If you’re gonna leave your shutter open for several minutes, you’re need a rock solid surface.  Out in the field, ideally, you’ll want to use a good tripod.  Giotto, Manfrotto, Gitzo, and others make good tripods.  I use a Feisol.  I like lightweight carbon fiber tripods because I do a lot of walking around and hiking.  As always, your mileage may vary, yes it may.  Now, if you’re gonna move the camera around, that’s a ‘nother thing, but today, I’m discussing techniques involving keeping the camera perfectly still.  If it’s windy and your tripod has a center hook, hang your camera bag or some such thing in the middle to further stabilize it so that camera that someone purchased for your previous birthday doesn’t fall on the ground and shatter.  That would suck.

– A light source or three.  Flashlights, headlamps, car headlights, glow sticks, matches, candles, LED lights, stuff like that.

One of my flashlights is an absurdly bright flashlight, a Dorcy spotlight.  I can light paint stuff from 10, 20 meters away. The Dorcy is almost like holding a car headlight in your hand.  Whazaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!  Fun!!  And another thing I like to use is El Wire.  El Wire?  Yeah, El Wire.  This is not Spanish for wire, no it isn’t.  It’s short for electroluminescent wire.  El wire is a copper wire coated in a phosphor, you see, and when you add juice from batteries, voila, it starts to glow!  And in different colors!  If you don’t get one for light painting, you could go to a rave or tie it around as part of a costume!!  Oh, the fun!  And this stuff is easily available online, including  And it’s cheap. Cheap.  Fun. Artistic.  Whaddaya waitin’ for?

Camera Settings:  
As mentioned, I use a DSLR.  You’ll want to use Manual Mode so you can control the exposure time.  Flip that to whatever you want.  For this particular photo, I used Bulb Mode.  This means that if I lock my remote shutter release, my shutter will stay open until I unlock the remote shutter release.  Cool, eh?  But you can also set your camera to 15, 20, 25, 30 seconds, whatever it has.

 How The Heck Do You Focus In The Dark?
Well, look, if you’re one of those persnickety photographers who actually wishes to have their subject in focus, then read on!!  The easiest way to do this is to use your camera’s auto focus.  I know you’re thinking, “Buh-buh-but it’s dark!  And my camera’s gonna hunt!  It can’t focus when it’s really dark!!!”  And you’d be right!  But no worries.  Since you’re all ready to light paint anyway, take one of those really bright lights you have, shine it at the subject, and let your camera’s AF do its thing.  When it has focused, carefully carefully switch your camera’s auto focus off, switching it instead to Manual Focus, so that it’s pre-focused.  Voila.  Done.  See, wasn’t that easy?

Look how much you’ve learned already!  You know how to set your camera, how to focus, you know how to light up your subject in the dark!!  So next, let’s check out a photo that shows both light painting outside the frame – illuminating the subject – as well as shining not one but two kinds of light into the lens directly.  I used several light sources.  Let’s discuss how I used each one!

1.  Rings Around The Stone:  You can see three red rings around the stone, yes you can.  These are from my Energizer headlamp.  I set it to the red light setting, held it up high, and walked around the stone three times!  Wheeee!!  Why three?  Uh, why not?  For representing past, present, and future?

2.  Illuminating The Stone:  I took that big yellow Dorcy spotlight, ran up to some rocks some 10 meters away and to the left, and pointed it at the rock, waving it around to illuminate it evenly.  I think about how I want the stone and so forth to be illuminated, and in this case, since it was a full moon, I wanted to emulate how the moonlight was falling on the rock so it would look very natural.  This giant flashlight is bright, so it doesn’t take much to light up the rock, even from 10 meters away.

3.  Blue Mist:  That’s where the El Wire comes in.  My El Wire 2.75 meters of glowing blue goodness. I activated it at the battery pack, then waved it around the base of the stone, almost as if I were sweeping the sand, waving it up and down.  If you kept the wire still for a while, the shape of the wire would “imprint” on your image.  I wanted more of an otherworldly mist, so I moved it around.

This whole process took 199 seconds.  If you’re bad at math, that’s three minutes and 19 seconds.  And it went by quickly!!!  I ran and moved around a bit.  Active, creative, fun photography.  And moving around was doubly good because this was taken in the high California desert in winter, and the temperature was at about freezing.  But moving around kept me warm.

I hope this inspires you to try your own light painting and long exposure photos.  Take night sky photos, light paint, do long exposures.  Do all three.  Experiment.  Have fun!

Note:  I originally wrote this for Better Photographs!

Title: M- Class Planet
Info: Nikon D7000, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens, Feisol tripod. Exposure time 199 seconds at f/11, ISO 200. Combination of natural lighting from the full moon and light painting with a flashlight, a red headlamp held high, and blue electroluminescent wire.
Photographer: Ken Lee
Location: Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA.

This is Ken Lee’s photography website:  http://www.kenleephotography

This is Ken Lee’s Photography Facebook Page:

This is Ken Lee’s Photography Blog, featuring long exposure, night sky, star trails, light painting photographs:

This is a link Ken Lee’s Virtual Photo Album, featuring more night sky, long exposure, and light painting photos from his trip to Joshua Tree National Park in California in December 2012:

Note:  I originally wrote this for someone across the pond.  They use this system that we Americans call the metric system.  Instead of odd arbitrary things like “12 inches to a foot” and “three feet in a yard”, their system is logically based on ten.  Ten millimeters in a centimeter.  A hundred centimeters in a meter.  See?  Easy!

But anyway, I used the term “meters” here.  Divide by three and you’ll have the approximate amount of feet for the distances discussed.  See?  Easy.  Now you can show off and impress your American, and who knows, maybe impress that friendly European that sits across from you in in your classroom or cubicle.




Save Marine Wildlife, Vote For Mendocino Bowling Ball Beach Coast Photo!

Vote for my photo, and save marine wildlife!  Win-win!!  Yippeee!!!!

Bowling Ball Beach 2

Ocean Conservancy is having a contest to raise money to save marine wildlife.  My photo is in the contest.  Please vote today and save our friends in the sea.

Along Came A Spider – Night Photo of Spider in Web

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Title: Along Came A Spider
Info: Nikon D7000, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens. 1/40s, f/3.2, ISO 1250. Lit with porch light and backlit with my Energizer headlamp.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: my backyard

For the past two years, a spider has created a very large circular web from our orange tree to the bird house.  This time, I thought I’d photograph it.  This was no easy feat, of course. It was dark.  And the web kept swaying, making it almost impossible to focus.


Photo Tip of the Month: Avoid These Four Mistakes If Your Camera Gets Wet!

My loss is your gain.  Hopefully.  We’re going to discuss keeping your camera dry while photographing around splashing water this month.  I want to be up front here:  I am not an expert at this, as you shall quickly read!  But if I can help people by having them avoid the mistakes that I made, that would be great.

Please click on the photo to see it.  The algorithms for making the photo smaller seem to also make it appear blurry.  Thanks!

Title: Bowling Ball Beach 2
Info: Nikon D90, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens, Feisol tripod, f/14, ISO 200, 10-second exposure, which makes the movement of the water look mystical. This was possibly the last photo that I took with my D90, although it looks good that a camera technician can resurrect it now.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Bowling Ball Beach, Mendocino County, California, USA

Shortly after I took this photo, I was splashed with water.  These large round rocks in a row create odd, unexpected, and surprisingly high splashes, and even though I had a Ralph’s paper bag around my Nikon D90 camera, it still got wet.

Mistake 1:  A Ralph’s plastic bag is not enough.  Use something more like a Op-Tech rain-sleeve. If you don’t get one of these, you can also use a shower cap in a pinch.  Save those shower caps if you stay at a hotel.  There are more expensive albeit more effective options, but since we’re discussing occasional splashing water from waves, I’ll stay with these suggestions.

I wiped off the camera with a towel.  It didn’t seem like that much water, so I fired up the camera again and kept shooting for another half an hour.

Mistake 2:  You can’t fry your camera’s circuits if there’s no juice. Turning on the camera, in other words, can fry your circuit-board or other parts if the salt water has entered the camera.

After half an hour of shooting, my camera began failing.  The shutter wouldn’t close.  Or wouldn’t shoot.  Then, the LED monitor began failing.  I left the beach and headed back to the hotel room, realizing that I had made a mistake, and opened up the camera, taking the battery and SD card out, took the lens off, and put it in front of a heater while I called a camera store to find out what to do and began scouring the internet for tips on drying a camera.

Mistake 3:  The camera salesman said that I shouldn’t put the camera in front of a heater. I never found out why.  Maybe you know.  I don’t.  But I saw one reference on the internet for getting dirt in the camera.  Now, to be fair, I had placed the camera in front of a fake fireplace, so it wasn’t blowing air.  But the best way to dry a digital camera, according to the salesperson and some articles I’ve found on the internet, is to submerge it in dry (duh!) rice and keep it there for 3-7 days.  Other people recommend placing the camera in a zip-loc bag with silica packets, which will also draw the moisture out.  I store my microphones in containers with these.

I ran to the market and purchased some rice, emptied a bag, and completely submerged the camera, but only after I found that I had made yet another mistake, which were beginning to pile up in a relatively short period of time.

Mistake 4:  Don’t forget to take off the LED cover.  I had forgotten to do this, but right before I put the camera in, realized that there was moisture trapped underneath.  My camera had gotten doused worse than I thought.

Now, what was worse than getting the camera wet was getting it wet with salt water.  Salt water is extremely corrosive.  Some people recommend that you attempt to disassemble the camera, quickly rinse all of the parts, and even more quickly dry that.  Since I’m not even close to an expert, I cannot recommend this, nor have I ever done it.  But the point being that if you can try and get the salt water off, that would be best.

Upon getting home, I took my camera to the local camera store.  They have a reputation for good service and have a good technician.  Their technician said that I had fried a circuit board, which would cost US$71 dollars, and that there would be a labor charge of about US$95.  So for a little under US$170, it appears that my D90 will be resurrected.  And while that’s a lot of money, it’s still cheaper than replacing it.

And for the rest of the trip, I used the Op/Tech 18″ SLR Rainsleeve with another camera while photographing the coastline near Santa Cruz, which worked well, although I had difficulty viewing the LED monitor.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, Nikon 18-200mm VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens, Nikon SB-600 Speedlight, Sto-Fen Flash Diffuser.

Bowling Ball Beach Photo Featured in Los Angeles Times!

One of my photos of Bowling Ball Beach in Mendocino County has been featured in the LA Times as a Reader’s Summer Vacation Favorite!

Equipment:  Nikon D7000, Tokina AT-X 116


Mobius Arch Star Trails, Alabama Hills

Light painting and “stacked” multiple exposures during a hot night in the desert near Lone Pine, California.  The stacking was done in Photoshop CS4 to have a little more control over the light painting and to reduce noise.  This also marks the first time I used Noise Ninja to clean up the noise.  While it wasn’t bad at all, I felt that a little cleaning up was better, so I selectively “de-noised” parts of the photo via layer masking.

Title: Mobius Arch Polaris Star Trail
Info: Nikon D90, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens, Feisol tripod. 65 minutes total, composed of 130 30-second photos, all ISO 1600, f/4.5. Light painted with my handy head lamp.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California, USA.

A hot evening, especially when running around “light painting”. But I also had a chance to lay on my back and watch the stars. I actually began dozing off when a car pulled up. You can see some of the light from the head lights on the arch.

The swirling stars are magical, a result of the long exposure of the camera capturing the movement of the stars. Polaris, the North Star, is in the middle, and all the stars appear to rotate around it, this movement, of course, primarily a result of the rotation of the earth.

Bodie Ghost Town Wagon Wheel

On this post, I’m going to discuss Bodie, one of the most fantastic ghost towns I’ve ever seen, more than this photo specifically.  Bodie, north of Mono Lake, was a mining town, and one of the first towns to get alternating current electricity from Westinghouse, several years before the White House.

Bodie was infamous as a dangerous town, and the “badman from Bodie” was that era’s “bogey man”. Bad men, whiskey, whoring, gambling and more were endemic to Bodie. The Bodie brochure says that “by 1879, Bodie boasted a population of 10,000 and was second to none for wickedness, badmen, and ‘the worst climate out of doors’ One little girl, whose family was taking her to the remote and infamous town, wrote in her diary: ‘Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie.’ The phrase came to be known throughout the West.”

The brochure also states, “killings occurred with monotonous regularity, sometimes becoming almost daily events. The fire bell, which tolled the ages of the deceased when they were buried, rang often and long. Robberies, stage holdups and street fights provided variety, and the town’s 65 saloons offered many opportunities for relaxation after hard days of work in the mines. The Reverend F.M. Warrington saw it in 1881 as ‘a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.'”

A ranger at Bodie told two stories.

One was of two men who got in a fight outside a saloon. Standing only 6-8 feet apart, each drew six-shooters on the other, emptying their bullets…none of them striking their adversary.

Another was of theft. Trees do not grow near Bodie, and in the extremely cold, windy winters at 8600 feet, wood was a very scarce and expensive commodity. So one person was dismayed to find that his stash of firewood kept getting smaller and smaller. To address this, he placed some black powder in one hollowed out log, and placed it back on the pile. Later that evening, a neighbor’s house exploded furiously, so much so that it could be heard miles away. His wood was never stolen again.

Oh, and yes, this is a photography blog, so the photo.  I’ve been using the Tokina 11-16mm since April, and absolutely love it.  This one was simple.  I just got down on my stomach, focused on the wagon wheel, and went for it.  No processing except for a little sharpening and contrast, the usual things that you do with a RAW file.  There were no filters used.  I don’t have a circular polarizer for the wide-angle because it creates bands, so yes, the sky really was that blue.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, Tokina AT-X 116 Pro DX AF 11-16mm f/2.8 Lens For Nikon