Lightpainting is a process where you take a long exposure image at night, and selectively illuminate what you want to show up with conventional lights (not flashes). So instead of a strobe, you can use a flashlight, and whatever you don't hit [paint] with the light will stay dark. You have to go somewhere that's pitch black, because the long exposures (15 seconds or more) will amplify any ambient light in the background or reflect on the car. Finding somewhere completely dark isn't easy when you live in a city of sprawl such as Houston, Texas.
First attempt: 2012 Chevrolet Corvette
I had a Corvette to review for a few days in December, right at the time of the year when it gets dark at 5:00PM. It was the perfect time to try some light painting, so I got a 100+ lumen LED flashlight similar to this and drove south down on freeway for about a half-hour and turned off to find side street without street lights. Did I mention it was creepy as hell doing this by myself?
After some aimless wandering I got out, set up the tripod and a did a 20 second exposure at f/6.3 while I was still unloading the car. Because it's dark and the exposure is so long, you can walk right in front of the camera and you won't appear in the shot, as long as no direct light hits you. So I ran behind the car and waved the light around to see how the effect would look.
The sky, which looked dark, picked up an orange glow after 20 seconds but the effect (though sloppily done) was striking. So I did it once more, except I shined the light on the Corvette before I ran behind it. It lit up like crazy and looked great. There's a softness to the light that I don't usually see when I use strobes, and the control is greater because you have 20 seconds to plan where the light will go. The colored light prism glares are where the flashlight crossed directly into the camera lens — I tried not to avoid that the next time by shining the light pointed slightly upward.
I tried a few more but in the final shot (as seen on Jalopnik) I tried to light the car evenly and get the wheels lit, and then retouched out some imperfections. I used one shot, I didn't composite different parts of different shots (that comes later). Silver was a good color to experiment with because it's hard to screw up, it catches the light so well. Then, creeped out in pitch black rural nowheresville, I got the hell out of there. (Here is the rest of my Corvette review if you're curious.)
Second attempt: 1993 Mazda Miata
The first try was fun, but I knew I needed help to really explore this properly. My friend Will Pierce is always alarmingly quick to agree to on a random late night creative venture that requires driving, so it didn't take much convincing. We jumped into his Vintage Red Mazda Miata and headed for somewhere without lights. After I insisted we wash the car.
We went down the same highway and had just as much trouble finding a place as I had the first time. We settled on a dark, un-trafficked road that ended up having a fairly large amount of traffic, which was annoying, as the camera was usually set up in the road pointed at the car.
The red reacted a lot differently than silver but the effect was still good. It was hazy outside and the cloud cover seemed to "hold" more light from downtown Houston 20+ miles away, but it didn't really impact the shooting. Having more time to try things and another person to help execute and plan ideas made a huge difference.
This 20-second halo shot is one we really wanted to try. One of us circled the car with the light, and the other one illuminated the car. I like the white reflection of the halo on the shoulder line.
We did another where we surrounded the car with a ring of light. These were really easy to do, and these shots haven't been retouched or processed at all. They aren't perfect, but they look surreal.
After accidentally getting a cool bead highlight in the paint, we tried to do it on purpose across the full length of the car. I really don't know what the proper term for it is, but it's tricky to achieve smoothly and most pros who do this seem to composite multiple shots to the best effect. Basically you shine the flashlight at the car from a few feet away so that, from the camera it appears as a glare. We had one light near the camera as a guide, and the person shining on the car looks for the guide and follows it down the car. It's tough because depending on the curves of the car, the glare can just disappear. This was our best result:
I've always been inspired by some pics from the launch of the Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 in 2006. It's a grey car in a grey studio, but there's evil red light inside the car spilling out. I tried to recreate that by triggering a gelled strobe inside the car, but the results were pretty weak.
Third attempt: 2012 Infiniti G37 Convertible
Charged up from our test shots with the Miata, Will and I were ready to give it a go for the photography for one of the cars I was reviewing. My goal was to do all 15+ final shots with this technique and create a stunning photo set. We went to a different location, this time up north, which was sufficiently dark and had no traffic, but it presented its own problems. The biggest was the gravel. We were on a dirt road, so our just-washed car became coated in a layer of dust, no matter how carefully and slowly I drove. We wiped it down with a chamois, but it was impossible to get up all the dust, and moving the car just to change which way it was pointing kicked up dust and restarted the process.
But that wasn't the biggest problem! After we started, we noticed that the shots were looking awful. Shooting a black (well, near-black, actually purple) car was completely different from red. It absorbed light like a black hole. No matter how much light we threw at it, it looked the same, and the ground, tires and wheel wells got brighter. It was not going well.
I was thinking we were screwed, but actually we were just going about it all wrong. Lighting the car wasn't going to work, we had to create the shape through highlights. We tried the "bead lighting" highlight technique, and that worked much better, though it was much harder to execute. It showed the definition of the car and still gave a hint of the purple hue. In post, I combined the best highlight shots with the best flashlight outline, and flipped it since my photo set had a lot of right facing shots already. I thought no one would ever notice, but just realized that someone may notice the gas filler cap is on the wrong side!
This last one was my favorite shot of the set, probably because it looked so good right in the camera. I only had to take out the light trail artifacts I didn't want, adjust the color and brighten the wheels a bit. I think the wide-angle lens in the shot was more forgiving to the car's shape and captured its proportions better.
Shooting this way with a dark car was a good learning experience and a massive hassle. During 2.5 hours of shooting (not to mention 1+ hour of driving), Will and I got 88 images, of which less than ten were usable. The next morning I got up early to snap the remaining shots I needed, and took 140 images in under an hour. Obviously thats not a great way to measure it, but it shows how much the process slows everything down. (Here are the rest of the finished Infiniti shots.)
I'm looking forward to doing more of this in the future. My friends at Three Sisters Farm have a great road that I can use, a road that's dark and has no traffic, and it's actually probably closer to me than any of the other places I tried. This is just the beginning.