Lighting Means Everything For Solid Photos

In fashion photography, you carefully select the model, the background and the light then direct the model into poses and attitudes that express the fashion idea behind the garment. For my images, I wanted to experiment and exaggerate the fashion concept.

Since I had been working with the Hosemaster, I wondered if I could use it successfully on a model. Since this was not a usual technique for fashion, I realized this would be the something different I was looking for.

I decided on a Western-fashion theme. The background is a key element in any type of photograph, but its interpretation in my Western photograph was especially critical. I carefully planned it for maximum effect.

I was lucky and found most of the necessary background pieces at a local salvage yard. They had what I needed and their prices fell within the project’s budget. Then I went to a stable for the saddle, bridle and bales of hay.


After examining my props, I realized I was going to need some time to set this shot up. So, I dragged everything to the studio and built my set the night before the actual shoot. Once the “wall” and hay were positioned, the rest of the props fell into place.

The hay, though, was a major problem. Dust and debris from the bales drifted all over the studio and covered everything. All the equipment had to be protected – especially the camera, lens and film holders.


As discussed above, Hosemaster-type lighting requires that you manipulate a handhold light source to “paint” a subject with light in total darkness. And it takes time to build just the right exposure.

Such an image also needs an overall fill light to give a base exposure for the background. Since my fashion set-up was in a large studio, and I needed a small aperture to keep everything sharp with the 4×5 equipment I was using. A lot of flash power was needed to achieve the needed f-stop. I ended up using two Norman 4000 power packs for 8000 watt-seconds of power, with four Norman LH2400 heads.

The model (a friend) arrived at 10:30 a.m. As I started making Polaroids to refine my technique and check the images, I found the painting process was taking about 30 minutes per photo. It was about 12:30 p.m. before I got my first good Polaroid.

This caused some problems. The model was having trouble standing still for the entire exposure (not surprising!). I knew I had to give him some support. So I cut a hole in the background and ran a C-stand (a heavy, studio-type stand) through from behind so he could lean against it.

There are about 35 totally different “paints” in the image, ranging from 5 to 45 seconds long. With each Polaroid, I would refine the paints, gradually adjusting each one until I got the results I wanted.

By 8 p.m., I got my first good Polaroid of the entire image, with all the paints correctly determined. I needed to be sure I could repeat this, so I took one more.

At 8:30, I knew I had the right exposure, the right painting procedure and decided to shoot film. We had been shooting for 10 hours. I was tired. The model was tired. It would have been very easy to make mistakes now that would ruin the shoot and waste all our effort.

So carefully keeping our attention sharp, we made the final images. I exposed six sheets of Fuji RDP 4×5 film. This took three more hours.

After all this work was processed, I had only one sheet where the model didn’t move too much. The lengthy exposures did make it a tough challenge. Even in the one sharp shot, he moved slightly, causing the thin black line on his left side.


I was very pleased with the final image. After a week of propping and planning, the shot finally came together a lot better than I had expected. The lighting is almost surreal and gives the photograph a highly unique look.

The biggest problem was the length of time the model had to stand still – a long time! Had this been a shoot with expensive models, I would have had an assistant stand in for the hours of testing, bringing in the model only for the final shots. Also, I could have opened up the shadows by using electronic flash rather than relying so much on the paints. In addition, lighting the background more with flash would have reduced the time the model had to stand still.


I did the flower image to further explore the possibilities of painting with light. I decided to do a simple shot of a vase of flowers next to a window and really enhance them with the lighting. I found the plated glass window at a thrift shop and the Christmas balls at an art store.

The shot took about eight hours to complete, from beginning set up, through tests, to final image. Individual paints of light ranged from three seconds on the flowers to 50 seconds on the background. Overall exposure took about 15 minutes.

I like the final image very much. The center flower is dramatic in its darkness. However, a nice variation might have been to paint it, too. Another variation would be to light the background with gridded flash. The balls came out great and helped give the shot a dreamlike quality.


The paintbrush shot originally started as another floral still life. I had planned to shoot a bird-of-paradise flower and use the paintbrushes and paint cans as background.

But as I tried to place the flower, I gradually found the real image in the painting supplies. My light paints (as compared to the prop paints!) ranged from 3 seconds on the paint brushes to 20 seconds on the cans, with an overall exposure of about 15 minutes.

The final image turned out great. I wanted to give the image the feeling of late-afternoon light coming through a garage window, and I think the picture does that. The selective diffusion and the light painting help to draw attention to the important parts of the shot.


I now have a love of painting with light combined with a bit of dread over the work involved. Although the technique produces truly unique photos, painting with light also requires a lot of work, patience, time and very detailed notes.

One challenge inherent in the technique is that if you paint too much, the photo becomes too much like a computer image. Although that can be interesting, I don’t want the image to look like it came from a computer.

As I’ve explored this technique, I’ve come to realize that the best and most practical ways for me to use it are as an accent light and as a means of lighting objects in hard-to-light places. I’ve had the chance to use several different light-painting devices, and I prefer Aaron Jones’ Hosemaster because it incorporates a shutter and very bright light source.

I’m sure I’ll be painting with light on future projects no matter how much work it involves, because the resulting images are worth it.

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