Painting With Light
May 25th, 2019 by David LaBelle

Photos by David LaBelle

Ever thought about light as a beautiful, God-given paint to be gently applied to your pictures? We can learn much about light by standing quietly and watching nature’s artistry.

Think of light as a glaze carefully applied to a ceramic piece to enhance its color and shape—just as morning light crawls across an awakening valley, painting trees, rocks and grasses in fine gold.

I had a vivid dream where a photographer was showing how to create tone separation and depth by light painting grave markers in a Civil War cemetery. I have no idea what prompted this dream other than my subconscious working overtime while sleeping.

It reminded me I have not shared the technique of light painting—using a flashlight or cellphone light to illuminate the subject of a photograph during long exposures.

Beyond being a practical way to illuminate an object or subject, this seldom-used technique might be just the accent needed to turn an ordinary-looking photograph into something special, with mood or even attitude.

Because the concentration and application of light is different from what we see from flash or continuous broad light sources, light-painted pictures feel more like works of art than static documents.

Light painting also can be an effective technique to draw emphasis to a portion of your subject. How does one do this?

  • Determine exposure before adding illumination. Underexpose your subject by at least one, preferably two, stops at the lowest ISO possible.
  • Use a tripod.
  • Exposure needs to be at least 30 seconds to give you time to paint. Experiment. Two to three minutes might give you more time to paint.
  • If using a cellphone camera, download an app ( or to allow you to manipulate ISO and shutter speed manually.
  • Experiment with different light sources and strengths—from the LCD flashlight on your cellphone to a more powerful flashlight with a directional beam.
  • Put a colored gel over your light source to give your subject a different feeling.

Remember: Light from the side reveals texture. Light from behind shows shape.When painting with a small light, play with angles.

Photographer, teacher, author and lecturer David LaBelle has worked for newspapers and magazines across the U.S. Visit