Painting with light

One of the most powerful tools of processing a photo (be it in a traditional darkroom or a digital darkroom) is dodging and burning – the process of darkening or lightening parts of the photo. By doing this you are painting with light, you are controlling shadows and highlights and you can dramatically alter and enhance the expression of your art and control where your viewers eyes go when first viewing the photo. The human eyes are always attracted at first to large areas of light or darkness.

Ansel Adams was a master of photography and the darkroom and to see a perfect example of good old darkroom painting with light, have a look at how shadows and highlights are used in this classic Tetons and the Snake River shot to enhance the drama, expression and visual tension. My favourite contemporary landscape photographer is Peter Eastway, an Australia grand master of photography, and his portfolio is a textbook example of painting with light.

As you know I am not interested in a reality that doesn’t exist anyway, and I find myself more and more wanting to manipulate the look of my images to better create the drama, the tension and the expression I’m after. Only I struggle with the techniques in Photoshop and curse myself, my computer and my mouse! I am reading Scott Kelby’s books on Photoshop and photography and practicing but I still have a lot to learn. Unlike say RAWshooter, PTgui  and Lightroom I am still far from getting the results out of ‘painting with light’ in Photoshop that I really want but at least I am improving (ever so slightly, Rome wasn’t built in a day etc!)

Here’s a few recent attempts at painting with light and digital post processing:

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Sortedam Dossering HDR sunset
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

This sunset from Copenhagen is a heavily post processed image with a lot more going on than just painting with light and it’s closer to digital art than photography. I merged two exposures of the same shot into a high dynamic range file in the new Photomatix 3.0 software. This brought out the detail in the buildings (shadows) and the clouds. The HDR software didn’t do wonders to the look of the water though so I decided to completely alter this using motion blur tool in Photoshop. Finally I added vignetting and ‘painting with light’ to the image in Photoshop. The sunset is still real though, it really did look like this! It’s mostly an experiment but I am fairly happy with the results.

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Pandanus Palm at Trinity Bay
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

This is a photo from Australia where I have only used ‘painting with light’ to darken the messy boring bits of the photo (the trees and bushes) and lighten the interesting parts – the combination of the palm tree, the water, beach and sky. I am going for the Peter Eastway effect here and I have to admit I am not totally happy with the results. It’s alright but not totally what I had in mind so I will keep practicing on this photo.

One thing that I find hard is to ‘paint with light’ using a mouse. It’s impossible to do nice curves and strokes using a mouse and I am seriously considering getting a Wacom Intuos3 tablet – anyone have good experiences with using a tablet?

I like painting with light and as I slowly get better at it I see how incredible and powerful a tool it is and it allows me to be even more creative and really work my photos into the exact expression I want. I am still a photographer full stop and not a graphic artist and shooting the photo in the field will always be the best part of the experience for me. But no camera can capture what I want to express so I need to be able to do the digital darkroom stuff to perfection to create fine art landscapes and cityscapes so I’m back to cursing myself, the computer and the mouse!

11 Comments on “Painting with light”

  1. I use the wacom tablet and find it invaluable for painting with light. Definitely worth getting. I would add a gaussian blur to this water as well. That helps soften that tell tale motion blur filter. Only need a little amount! Oh and by the way, is that horizon straight??? 🙂

  2. I love how you have used painting with light in some of your panos Christian, that farming country shot in your podcast looks amazing – I might just invest in a wacom tablet and try it out!

    I tried a bit of gaussian blur on top of the motion blur, but in this case I actually liked the motion blur effect. Maybe it needs a bit of gaussian blur though, just a touch 🙂

    I'm fairly certain that horizon is straight hehe. The buildings are a bit distorted from the 17mm lens but I reckon the horizon is not as crooked as it is down under 😀

  3. Yeah mate I have an Intuos. The best thing is the pressure. You can make the finest changes with the pen.

    Better than drawing with a bar of soap.

  4. Nice artical on painting with light ,
    like the Hdr Sunset shot
    Yeah have been deceiding to get a tablet or not after reading this I think I might investing in one

  5. Flemming… with your photomatix work with the HDR are you doing any tone mapping. I find it very destructive to images with noise. Some people use it a lot and it can look good, but I am always wondering what the image looks like away from a web image and as a large print.

  6. Hi Matt. Yeah for this shot I did tone mapping but just a bit so as to not introduce lots of noise. The bit of noise I did get I removed with Noise Ninja.

    I hate digital noise and always prepare my files for big prints so normally I don't use tone mapping, just the shadow & highlights blending. In this case tone mapping looked a lot better though.

  7. I use a Wacom tablet and yes, it is much easier to control than a mouse!

    I've only recently began learning the dodge and burn tools, too. I'm in the same boat as you.

  8. Nice article. I wonder how would the second photo look if you'd had painted the shore of the beach with a bit of light… 🙂
    Nice Photography.
    Check my post about PerfectRAW. Hopefully it'll be useful. It rescues me from difficult light.Cheers

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