Assignment 2: Painting with Light


This assignment is a trial and error process in taking a photograph of a person. This can be a hard lesson for students who don’t see the many unsuccessful attempts that are behind the successful picture, the photos that almost expressed what the photographer had in mind, where the light was almost right, the subject almost in the right position, the timing just a bit off etc. Re-working, re-photographing and re-making are vital lessons in your photographic education, so make them working habits.

You will need to take care over your choice of model, their clothes, setting, objects and background.

  • Torch – You will need a small torch for this assignment. Tape a tube of black paper over the end of it to act as a ‘snoot’. You could use a candle or the light from a phone, but this will result in a lot of light leak.
  • Dark space – You will need to shoot at night or in a space you can black out completely. If possible, place a dark sheet behind your model – at least one meter away from them.
  • Long exposure – You are going to use the torch to ‘paint’ light onto the subject. For this, you’re shutter will need to be open for a long time, probably more than 30 seconds. Most cameras allow you to shoot a 30” second exposure. Some will have a ‘BULB’ setting, which lets you open the shutter for as long as you have the shutter button pressed (or a shutter release, which you’ll need).
  • Tripod – Clearly you will need a tripod to keep your camera still.
  • Technique – Use the torch to ‘brush’ light over the model, thereby exposing them to the camera. Use the aperture of the camera and the distance between the light and the subject to alter the quality and intensity of the effect.

Do some trial shots to make sure you understand the technique and that you are able to render a good image. You’re very unlikely to get this right first time and it may take a lot of honing and perfecting to get the technique working for you.

  • Make sure your model is in focus by focusing with the light on.
  • Start by photographing your model full-figure.
  • Try out different poses.
  • See what happens if your model moves slowly or changes position during the light painting.
  • Photograph the torso and then go closer for a head and shoulders portrait.
  • You may want to capture details in the environment or purposely leave it dark.
  • You may want to use light streaks caused by the light source, but make sure these are consistent with the mood of the pictures.

This is a trial and error process of applying what you learn from the results about exposure, light intensity, light leaks, model movement and dramatic effect. If the resultant image is too bright, try a small aperture or hold the torch further away from the model for a shorter time.

Making this assignment you will almost certainly find some attractive visual effects. Your task here is to hone your skills so that these visual effects have a polished and finished quality.

Post Processing – When you’re happy you have a strong, well executed selection of 5 – 10 portraits, use the techniques you learned about contrast, colour adjustments, dodging & burning to improve them. You may also try making the images monochrome to see if they work better.”


Initial reaction

I was very uncertain, every time I glanced ahead in the study manual, that I would be able to achieve anything worthwhile for this assignment. It seemed like an incredibly difficult task and I think this may have slowed me down as I approached it!

I’ve gradually come to understand how “painting with light” is what photography in essence is, and this helped me to be less fearful of the task and willing to just see what I was able to come up with.

Inspiration for Assignment 2 

My initial experimentation with “painting with light”  and using my daughter as a model brought to mind the slightly sinister effect of a living doll. I was inspired to use her recently worn halloween costume to make the images more interesting. Over subsequent sessions I tried to build on this to create a theatrical feeling. I did some research and the images in this link (Research for Assignment 2) show what I was seeing in my mind’s eye.


I used a Nikon D810 with AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm lens and tripod.  I used a room that already had a dark blue wall. I focused with the light on and often took an experimental shot to check composition.

I used a high ISO (1600), varied aperture throughout the session and used the “bulb” setting on my camera to control exposure.

I took photos over 2 different evenings. The first set of photos were using a torch with a piece of card taped over it – I found the light to be rather too blue in tint. In the second session I used an iPhone torch with a paper snoot. It was fiddly but worked adequately.

I edited the images using Photoshop – dodging and burning as I felt required, I changed the colour to create an effect of warmth and candlelight and I adjusted levels to try to make the images feel as much as part of a series as possible.


I have struggled with timing for the whole of this module – evenings,  when I have potential models at my disposal, are very busy, and until the clocks went back it was a challenge to find dark hours that were available to do this sort of work.

During the shoot – issues with the patience of the model – as ever! I felt quite rushed because each time I knew I only had about 45 minutes before my daughter’s patience worn thin – especially as she was spending a lot of time sitting in the dark.

In editing – I had some difficulty  and had to experiment to get the colour tone in the images matching sufficiently to make them look part of the same set.

Printing – the printed images were much more saturated and warmer in tone than what I saw on the monitor. I experimented with various Photoshop settings and paper types but did not ever manage to match exactly what I was seeing. 


I researched the work of Annette Messanger and Wolfgang Tillmans as instructed.  I really liked “My Vows” by Annette Messanger but I do feel that to reference it as a way of displaying photography is slightly misleading. To me it’s a sculpture that uses photographs as a medium, not a display technique for photography.

Annette Messenger: My vows

Anyway, I experimented with both a dark and light background. With the wide borders I had left on my images, felt that the dark background made them stand out a bit more. I also tried placing the images on a mantlepiece mirror and using the hat my daughter was wearing in the images as a prop. I think that was just started to get distracting.


Although I was nervous in anticipation and it was a challenge to find the right moment to undertake this project I really enjoyed it – both the taking the photos themselves and experimenting with Photoshop afterwards to fine tune. I think given another opportunity and more time I could do a better job.


Below are my final selected images as well as the contact sheets for all the images I took.

Final images

Display options


Contact sheets


Research for Assignment 2

Inspiration for Assignment 2

My initial experimentation with “painting with light”  and using my daughter as a model brought to mind the slightly sinister effect of a living doll. Over subsequent sessions I tried to build on this to create a theatrical feeling. I did some research and the images below show what I was imagining.


Danielle van Zadelhoff

I also stumbled across the photography of Danielle van Zadelhoff and was drawn to her use of lighting and minimal colour in her portraits. I think these are really beautiful and compelling with their Renaissance feel, dark backgrounds and precise lighting. Although  I failed to achieve anything quite like this in my Assignment and ended up with colours that were much more vibrant,  I would like to try again to achieve this effect.  To me, I think that what she does, really is “painting with light”.



Exercise 2.11 Split Contrast

I did this exercise a couple of times but each time seemed to struggle at achieving an image that worked when I returned it to colour despite following the instructions closely.

I’ve shown below the original image, black and white split contrast result and the image returned to colour after applying the split contrast effect.

I was also interested to see how the split contrast effect compared to just using dodge and burn on the image – I felt that the end result must be very similar since surely I was just lightening and darkening selected areas of the image – but this was not the case:


Exercise 2.12 Pixel Painting

This exercise involved manipulation of the pixels in an image in Photoshop. I really enjoyed doing this piece of work, despite finding it more laborious and time-consuming than I had expected. I would have liked to play around with more options but I am conscious that I am moving through this part of the course very slowly.

Below are both the end result of my experimentation and the original image I started with:




Exercise 2.8 Fill-flash

I used the backdrop of the mountains outside our apartment in Switzerland for these images – waiting several days for the clouds required to make it work. My long-suffering youngest daughter was the model once again. I found it technically quite challenging to find a balance between the flash and the background and ended up feeling that the images looked quite artificial and over saturated. But when I looked again at the Martin Parr images I realised that many of them had the same sort of effect so decided not to try to alter them too much. I think the white balance was a bit off though.

Using the manual setting as instructed I adjusted the speed on my camera to 1/ 320 which is the highest my cameral would allow with a built-in flash. I then varied the aperture settings (between f9 and f11)  as well as the flash strength. I struggled at times with the light of the flash bouncing off the grass when I was sitting low down to take the image or a shadow being created by my body that was distracting. I edited these out where possible.

Overall although the results don’t look especially natural I am quite pleased with them. I have learned a great deal about fill in flash through this exercise and overall how flash can be used effectively. I’m looking forward to using this technique in situations where the background to an image is in danger of being over-exposed.




Exercise 2.10 Dodging and Burning

This exercise involves the use of lightening (Dodging) and darkening (Burning) tools in Photoshop. It was an interesting exercise. I have used these types of tools, albeit clumsily, in the Snapseed app on my phone but never before in Photoshop. I discovered it is very easy to overdo it (which I feel may be an issue with the end result). There are many variations available that I think I still need time to get to grips with.