Background Lighting Procedure

How each lighting effect builds up to a final Light Painting Image.

This blog post should give you a better understanding of what my Background Lighting Procedure strategy for pretty much any Light Painting is. How Light Painting works for lighting up the background.

At First. General Concept and Composition:

Ask yourself if you really need to feature the Background/Environment. Remember sometimes simplicity is considered the ultimate sophistication. As Leonardo Davinci probably once wrote about Light Painting; you don’t always need to show the background.
If you ask me I’d say: Just try both. Create one image with and one without featuring the background.

These two examples prominently show the difference in including your background or not. The topic is the same; a Light Painting Ghost Ship. In the end, it’s in the eyes of the beholder as well as you who desires what you like. A matter of taste.

Two Tube Light Painting Boats at the River Le in Xingping, China

Light Painting Ship
Light Painting Boat
Light Painting Gunnar Heilmann Kyoto Playground Hippo

Look at this super happy Hippo and the Pelican on this playground in Kyoto. The setting surrounding them was really not worth shedding any light onto it. It just did not match the funny mood the two playground figures would radiate. So I left them just as a main feature, not to distract from whats happy here by itself. I only shed light on them and the foreground. F22 and a strong Flashlight allowed, when running fast, to get them prominently feature both.

Include your background into your Composition:

In this case, your background is worth including it into your picture or making it a main feature, this is how I approach the topic.

My aim is usually to create a light painting image in-camera as a single exposure. If you follow this ‘way’ it means you may also lose weight and increase your fitness level as aside effect. Also, I can see You will run a lot of times because I am sure you will screw up on a regular base.

Side note: I personally know light painters that light up the background in 5-8 steps, individual images and compose the entire background in Photoshop in layers. There is nothing wrong with that unless you pretend its a single exposure.

Background Lighting Procedure

The Kyoto Bamboo Forest – One example where you need and want to include the background. Whatever light painting comes afterwards this stunning location has to be featured.

Let us say you want to include your background into your Light Painting:

The following example will show you all the steps. Not all steps a needed for you. Many times I do that for the main comfort of knowing that I will have different versions and I don’t have to decide what will actually be published. Often I would run several trails and see how it turns out. Later on, it may be nice when looking at it at the big screen.

Now let’s look at this little chapel. At first, I started to light up the walls of the little chapel ruin to see how much time I will have and see what’s the best angle to shine the light to get some nice texture of the wall. For that, I walk slowly but never standstill throughout the scene. By doing so I will wave the flashlight in continuous smooth waves around shedding the light as equal as I can mostly from one angle only.

Background Lighting

As you see here I was not working very clean and very clear to see I missed lighting some parts of the wall. During the next ‘run’ I discipline my self to remember to shed the light where I want it to be.

After understanding g that process properly I will see if I have enough time for all I want to do and I would go and test if I can add the Light Plants to the wall. That added a few seconds to the exposure, yet it did not overexpose the image in any way. So yes there is more room for additional light features.

Add some more features to the Background

Background Lighting

Then I repeat the same Background Lighting Procedure,

but on top of that, I also walk around behind the chapel and shed light into the forest. Comparing the different effects I can then decide more on my composition. What works and what I better do not. Not always more is better. Sometimes I would end up liking the early stage lighting the most. But hey I can do that when I come home.

Background Lighting
Background Lighting

Once you have done that for a few times it becomes an automatic mode and you quickly figure out what each location holds for you. You will see what are great reflective surfaces and what textures and colors work with the surface of your subject.

StrongTexture Light Painting
StrongTexture Light Painting
Light Painting Background Practice

Then you can go Crazy and add anything you Like! Light Paint whatever you want. It’s always about Fun.

This is how you build up the complexity for the final Light Painting

Just shed light on your subject and then add features step by step. In this case, I wanted to have a nice camera rotation and make sure I put the light onto the pyramid properly. Same principle in mind we went through just before. Then the final Light Painting – Camera Rotation

Light Painting Pyramide Garzau
Light Painting Pyramide Garzau
Camera Rotation - Light Paintung Pyramid Garzau

Light Painting – Camera Rotation at the Pyramid Garzau

Use the Moon as Background Light

If you want a more natural background lighting you can also let the Moon do its job. Denis Smith the founder of the ball of Light is using that very dominant light source in the night sky for his work. May years he would solely time his night adventures to match that time of the month. Then go out and know the background would have a stunning look. Go see his work and be amazed.

My Conclusion

Something I am also still learning is: Less is many times more. Often I would come home and the first Light Paintings I took are the once I like the most. Less play! Simplicity often strikes way more that highly orchestrated complex shots. As much as I like riddles, when a mind takes to long to figure out, what the hell is going on its not exactly touching someone’s imagination. There so many moments I get hung up in delivering the most complex and sophisticated techniques when the simple fast and easy shots create a bridge to the viewer in 2 seconds.

Leaving you with that thought I hope you find this informative. Find your own Background Lighting Procedure strategy and let the Fun rule and guide your art.


Meteor Jam 2022

Beginners Guide to Light Painting

Stolen Images – Internet Plague of Plagiarism.

What’s in your bag?


Leave a Comment