“This shot just looks flat.” Even an image shot during dramatic lighting can look dull after global adjustments. But with some inspiration from light painting, you can bring the image to life in post-production.
Light painting traditionally refers to a night photography technique for lighting up parts of the scene during a long exposure, usually with a flashlight. Before light painting, the scene starts out underexposed and cool, and during the exposure, the photographer carefully lights different elements in the scene.
In post-processing, we can mimic this technique by lightening and darkening parts of the image. Although this is usually referred to as “dodge and burn,” it doesn’t capture the spirit of its long exposure counterpart. When dodging and burning, you start from an image that’s close to completion. With light painting, you intentionally start out with the image too dark and cool.
I tend to light paint in five phases:
- Identify the composition, shapes, and lighting in the scene. Light painting can potentially make an image worse if it enhances the wrong areas, so it’s crucial to first identify the important subjects and relationships between them.
- Darken and cool the image globally, then repeat on smaller details that scream for too much attention. It’s easier to downplay unimportant regions rather than force the primary subjects into a shouting match. If you’re having trouble identifying distracting regions, turn the image upside down.
- Dodge large regions with neutral density and radial filters. Don’t use detailed brushes too early: large shapes and gradients are much more forgiving. Exposure isn’t the only way to light paint: different hues tend to pop forward or recede, so paint with a warmer temperature to bring one forward or a cooler temperature to make it recede.
- Identify and exaggerate the light’s natural direction and shape. If it’s a cloudy day, you may have some creative liberty, but make sure to be consistent throughout the image.
- Paint in smaller details. It’s easy to go overboard and ruin the image’s believability, so stick with forgiving adjustments like whites, shadows, and contrast instead of exposure or saturation.
Although I use light painting most in landscapes and architecture, it isn’t limited to a particular genre. Light painting is a general but powerful technique to guide your viewer’s eye to the important subjects in an image.