How to use Light Painting in LEGO Photography

Posted: May 12, 2021 by stories_in_bricks

Once more the discussion on the Brickcentral Discord server about a topic lead me to write something about some tips and tricks and how to use them in LEGO photography. This time the topic is light painting.

You could call photography itself painting with light, but the term “light painting” refers to a technique where light sources are used to either illuminate an object in a special (artistic) way or by moving the light source in the frame and “paint” something with the light trail.

You can use the light trail to write something or add interesting patterns to or around an object. The limit is just your creativity (and maybe some technical or physical boundaries). Light painting is mostly used in nighttime photography, since you need long exposure times to paint and the sun outshines almost any light source.

Gear

Apart from the obvious camera, location and object, you need some lights to paint with and a tripod is mandatory since these are long exposure photos (several seconds). Almost any moveable light source can be used to create some creative light painting: flashlights, single LEDs, LED Christmas lights, colour changing gimmicks, etc. There are also special light shaping forms you can buy to realize particular effects.

Some of the gear I used for the photos here is shown in the picture above. I used battery-powered LED light chains (top left and right), single LEDs (left middle), flashlights with colour gels, and light shaper (bottom and right side). If you work outdoors during the night, a headlamp (lower left) and a remote trigger (not shown and used) are highly recommended. The headlamp is for safety while out in the dark and the remote is optional – depending on how quickly you can cover the distance between the camera and the area where you want to paint. But for toy photography the self-timer of the camera should suffice for most cases.

Light painting changes the illumination of the subject and the surrounding, you need to work in manual mode to set exposure time, aperture and ISO manual to get the right exposure. Since this depends on the kind of shot you want to take and the lighting conditions, this is experience and some trial and error. But in general your main goal is to get an exposure time of several seconds to have enough time to paint.

It is also possible to make long exposure shots and light painting during the daytime. For this, you need a neutral density (ND) filter. These filters are available with different densities i.e. how much light they let pass. The higher the density, the longer the possible exposure time. But be aware – if you want to use a high ND filter you need also a strong light source or the light intensity might be too weak to show up as “paint” in your photo when you move the light source. Here I used a ND 1.6 filter for my outdoor shots and some of the indoor shoots. The latter had the reason, that I cannot completely block the outside light in the room where I took the photos and wanted to sleep during the night 😉

If working in low light or with ND filters the autofocus is not always reliable. A better way to focus is to (auto) focus while lighting the subject or without ND filter. Then switch to manual focus/deactivate the auto focus and switch off the light or attach the ND filter. Depending on the type of ND filter and lens you must be careful not to change the focus while attaching the filter by touching the focus ring of the lens.

General tips and notes for the painting

In general when using light painting, and you or part of your body has to be in the frame to move the light, you should wear black/dark clothes, position yourself so that (spilled) light doesn’t illuminate you, and don’t stand too long in one spot. All this will reduce the chance that you inadvertently show up in the picture.

If you want to paint patterns, words, or something in the air or near the edges of the frame, put down some inconspicuous markers on the ground or somewhere not visible in the photo. This gives you some guidance and orientation, so you don’t paint outside the frame or in areas where you don’t want to paint.

Two technical notes to finish the tech-talk that might also be relevant for light painting:

  • LED flashlights: When not used at maximum power, many LEDs can be dimmed by switching them on and off very fast. This is imperceptible to the eye but can show up while light painting as a “dashed” light trail.
  • ND filters while using a motive with very dark/black parts (like the ship example below): I found that this combination unfortunately brings out the hot pixels of your camera sensor very clearly, i.e. faulty pixels that give coloured spots in your image, and you might have to tediously clean them up in post-production. For this kind of motives I would recommend shooting them without filter at night/in a darkened room.

Post-processing

If the maximum exposure time of your camera (mostly 30s without using bulk mode) is not enough to paint, or you want to do something very elaborate painting, you could break the painting up into different parts (i.e. photos) and blend them together later in an editing software. Since the pictures are taken with a tripod (and if you don’t bump it) the alignment should be perfect. Taking the photos in manual mode with all the same settings also eliminates the need for different adjustments to each photo before the blending. This allows complex drawings with reduced time and frustration, if you make a slightly wrong movement and don’t have to do everything all over again.

The easiest way to blend the layers together is by using the blending mode “lighten”, as this only shows the highlights. Especially if the whole picture is more low-key and the light painting is for the highlights, this is an easy and fast method. If you have been careful with spilled light during the exposure and have painted only what you wanted, there should be no need for extended mask layer work.

From the real world to the toy world

Now after covering the theoretical basics of light painting, we have to reduce the scale for the use in toyphotography. This gives some advantages, but also some disadvantages.

An advantage is that in most cases you are not in the picture and therefore not necessarily need to wear dark clothes or use a remote trigger. If a hand, arm or any other aid to move the light would be visible in the frame, you could still darken it or cover it.

A disadvantage is the smaller scale itself. The movement of the light has to be very precise, since every slight movement is visible and “magnified” due to the scale. So if you want to write something or draw some clean shapes, you need a very steady hand or use some tricks (see below).

For most cases the smaller scale requires smaller light sources. If this is an advantage or disadvantage depends on what you want to do and what light sources you have at hand.

Now after all this tech-talk and general blabbering, let’s get to task at hand and show some examples of what could be done with light painting and how to do it:

Softbox alternative

Let’s start with something very simple and a tip that could help you for your general photography, if you don’t have fancy photo equipment.

As Four Bricks Tall showed in one of her videos controlling the reflection on LEGO can be hard. Also if you only have small light sources, you might not be able to light your scene evenly, as shown here with the ghost knight. When using just one small light source there are sharp shadows, clear reflection spots and the background is much darker than the figure.

If you don’t have bigger lights or softboxes to create a greater light source, you could “imitate” them by painting with a small light source. During a long exposure the light is simply moved around/over the scene to create an evenly lit scene.

Colour painting

By bringing colour into play and restricting the light beam, a single light source like a flashlight can be is used to illuminate parts of an object in different colours.

I didn’t have a good model (and idea) at hand for a good example of this in LEGO scale, so these examples are just to show the technique. As one example a small car model was used, but the bigger the model the easier this kind of painting. So for a second example the Creator pirate ship was used. In both cases, the model was surrounded with dark paper.

The camera settings were set so that without the light painting it would be “just a black picture” i.e. very underexposed. Then a small light with different colour gels and a snoot (to restrict the light cone) was used to illuminated different parts of the model in different colours.

Thunder and lighting

Moving from “big lights” to smaller, but more lights, the next step is using multiple LED like in a Christmas light chain. As mentioned above, due to the small scale any light source, that directly shows up in the picture has to be moved very precisely or any shake will show up in your picture. For the examples with the Christmas lights this shakiness can be used as advantage as its part of the effect and is therefore easier to realize.

To give some dynamic to a picture of The Flash, a LED Christmas light chain (with rigid wire) was used as light source. The wire chain is bend, so the LEDs are approximately at the points of the figure where the streaks should emanate from. The rest of the chain is covered with LEGO bricks, so not needed LEDs don’t show up in the picture. As a kind of grip, this also improves the handling of the lights. The lights are then moved with some slight jitter motion to get the lightning streaks.

After the lightning comes the thunder, so the same technique was used to make this picture of Thor wielding his hammer inspired from the scene during the Battle of New York during Avengers. The white balance was adjusted in post to make the lightning more bluish, but the shape of the lightning still needs improvement…

Colour trip

As with the general light painting, colour can be brought into the picture by using a coloured LED chain. Here a LED chain (with soft wires) is wrapped around a strong wire for shape and better handling and then moved around the model in one direction. In this case showing The Doctor with his alternative time machine in the time vortex (or just driving very fast in his new car by some lights). An acrylic glass plate under the model adds some nice reflections to the picture.

From big to small

Now we switch from “big” or multiple light sources to small spot LEDs for other kinds of light painting, but also increase the difficulty level.

In the big world a single light source like a flashlight can be used to write words in the air in night time photos. With some experience writing words or drawing patterns with light is not that difficult and with some body control can be relatively precise.

To bring this into the LEGO world, you can use a single LED. This can be some self-made construction or something commercially bought. For the following examples a commercial bought single LED was used, which is intended to light up LEGO models. The LED was taped to the end of a black painted stick for better handling. To achieve different colours, coloured LEDs can be used, but also coloured foil or transparent bricks can be stuck in front of the LED. Be aware that the light will illuminate the (edges of the) brick so the shape might be visible, what can be a (dis)advantage, but more on that later. Sticking (very little) cotton wool in front of the LED can be used to reduce the “sharp” edges of the light trails.

Small gear for writing and drawing

Practical special effects

With single LEDs some precise “practical special effects” can be realized, like wizard spells or sci-fi weapons blasts.

In these scenes from Hogwards, the LED with different coloured transparent bricks is just moved along the intended spell path. For the torch light some cotton wool was added to diffuse the light and soften the edges of the light.

Staying in the fantasy world, but moving outside, this picture of a Druid doing some magic was taken during a cloudy day in the woods with a ND filter. Cotton wool was used to diffuse the light from the LED (with a transparent green brick for colour). Since the white cotton also reflect the daylight, it adds a slight white veil to the light trail, but it fits the theme of the picture very nicely.

Moving from fantasy to science fiction, light painting can be used to show some sci-fi action. These pictures were also taken outside in the woods with a ND filter. In the first picture a transparent red round brick was used to give the colour. In the second picture cotton wool in front of just the LED was used to reduce the “sharp” edges of the light trails. In both cases the light was switched on an off to get the individual blaster shoots.

After these “simple” effects we come to the master class of light painting, i.e. the most difficult, time consuming (and frustrating):

Writing and drawing

As mentioned above, you can write things like symbols and words in the air with light painting. The problem with writing in this small scale is the magnification of every involuntary jitter in the movement of the light. Also any offset between letters and a shaky hand can make this a difficult task with many attempts – See the two examples of my first try. So either you have a steady hand, take many tries – or use some tricks for better results.

To reduce the frustration (and number of tries necessary) some thinking was necessary and the develop of a little trick: As can be seen in the BTS picture, I drawed the words/figure I wanted to paint on some paper and hung it above the scene on some LEGO build traverse. Then I used the upper end of the LED stick to trace the drawing and voila, the LED on the lower end of the stick paints the wanted drawing. With this trick and some practise, the lettering is much better and even complexer drawings can be made with relative “ease”.

Light modifiers

Now let’s increase the challenge just a little bit more and move to drawing (with light modifiers).

For “real world” light painting there are modifiers that can be put in front of the light source to make special patterns. I personally don’t have any, but I tried to recreate some effect in LEGO scale with transparent parts and self-made modifiers.

Light modifiers

As mentioned above, by sticking a transparent brick in front of the light source the (outline of the) brick can be visible. By using a transparent yellow square 1×1 and the paint aid above the scene, this painting inspires by a D&D Cleric with her “Wings of the Everlight” was done.

In the next step I tried some other transparent LEGO parts as light modifiers and put them in front of the LED. By just holding the pieces at one position and switching on the LED only while holding still, the illuminated modifier is visible. As an example here a wizard is making a small campfire with the use of a lightning and a flame part.

13s, f/8, ISO 400, Indoors (Dark), Separated Exposures for every painted part

Moving the modifier during the exposure leads to trails in the form of the modifier. For example with a transparent green rod , aka a light saber blade, a gateway for an alien can be made. Here you can see an important property of a light modifier. The light can only be seen by the camera, if it shines directly into the lens or is scatters at rough surfaces, edges or imperfections in the modifier. If you look at the detail picture above, the green rod has two bubbles inside. Since the rod is moved relatively fast perpendicular to the camera, only the light scattered by these imperfections and the edges of the rod can be seen in the picture.

After these “ready-made” modifiers, I also wanted to make self-made “leaf form” modifiers. I cut little leaf shapes out of thicker plastic foil and glued them in layers together. I also tried to scratch a leaf pattern into one of the forms to see if it would show up in the pictures. With these modifiers I created a picture of a Druid using her powers to sprout some mystic flower. The stem was done with a green round brick and the leafs were done with the self-made modifiers.

Putting the leaves at the right spots took some tries and the ones at wrong positions were later masked during post processing. As a bonus I added some special effects to the staff for one version with the same technique used for the outdoor shot of the druid.

Now it’s your turn to switch on the light

After this overview of different kinds of light painting techniques, I hope it has stimulated your ideas. So get some lights and illuminate the dark with your creativity!

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