Illuminating Landscapes

Capturing Brilliant Images After Dark

Illuminating Landscapes

Lightpainting is a beautiful blend of photographic and artistic expression for me. The technique of illuminating the landscape during long exposure times brings to the forefront the idea that light is the greatest influence.

Nikon D800, ISO 4000, 25 seconds at f2.8, Nikon 14- 24mm lens

Arches National Park near the town of Moab, UT is one of my favorite places to lightpaint. The clear western skies lend themselves well to capturing the cosmos over our planet. On this particular morning (at 2:45 a.m.) the Milky Way was positioned directly over Balanced Rock, an iconic landscape formation in the park.

I chose my camera position so that the composition would capture the Milky Way soaring out of the horizon. During the 25 seconds of exposure time I used two Brinkmann Max Million II handheld spotlights to “brush” the light up and down the rock formations and across the desert terrain. I was blown away when the image appeared on the camera’s LCD screen.

Nikon D800, ISO 640, 30 seconds at f2.8, Nikon 24-70mm lens

Finding just the right subject for a lightpainting can take a little time. After a morning of driving around and hiking off the beaten path I located a wonderful cluster of saguaro cacti outside of Tucson, AZ. I wanted the composition to feature a perfect “mind’s eye” cactus and have additional cacti lead the viewer’s eye to a warm Arizona glow on the horizon.

I returned to my newly discovered “outdoor studio” just before sunset and positioned my tripod and Nikon D800 camera. This lightpainting was made about 45 minutes after sunset, which happened in the west behind me. The warm glow on the horizon is from the city lights of Tucson, about 30 miles away. The long exposure time allowed the ambient twilight to be included while stars began to appear. I used a single Brinkmann Max Million II handheld spotlight, with a 20 degree Honeycomb Grid placed over the front element to precisely lightpaint the scene.

Nikon D800, ISO 800, 30 seconds at f8, Nikon 24-70mm lens

While many images can feature an exotic story, this lightpainting was made while I was instructing a class for The Digital Photo Workshops. 

Olympic National Park was a new destination for me and our workshop in 2012. I wanted the class to have a lightpainting experience, so we set our sights on Ruby Beach about 40 miles from the small town of Forks (the Twilight series’ setting…cue howling wolf) on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

A major step in making a large-scale landscape lightpainting is to first capture a “silhouette” image of the scene. I instructed the class to started making test exposures about 45 minutes after sunset. We all used a cool white balance of 4000 Kelvin to deepen the cool-blue twilight evening. None of us could see the glow on the horizon, but I knew it was there…it became visible with the long exposure test images we all made. The time was perfect to reveal our huge subject from silhouette with lightpainting.

Nikon D800, ISO 800, 30 seconds at f8, Nikon 24-70mm lens

I used two Brinkmann Max Million II handheld spotlights to lightpaint the massive rock sea stack and its tall pine trees. The long exposure time smoothed the receding tide water to capture a beautiful reflection. The class was excited to learn this most beautiful photographic lighting technique.

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Dave Black

Dave Black is a photographer, educator and author.
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