One of the best tools for nighttime photography is a good LED flashlight.
Flashlights are especially useful when the main exposures are long, such as when shooting HDR sequences and when shooting in very dark situations. These days, almost every image I take at night is an HDR exposure sequence. In nearly every one of those sessions, I use a flashlight to add a bit more lighting to at least a portion of the scene.
During a multiple exposure sequence based on whatever lighting exists, there is usually plenty of opportunity to paint light into those darker subjects that would otherwise be too dimly illuminated to record.
Light painting with a flashlight is a way to make sure that the important subject details are illuminated in the final rendition.
Sometimes the exposures I make can be several minutes long depending on the scene in front of the camera. I have found that in many cases there is very little to no light in parts of the scene where I really would like to have detail. The long exposure times give me the opportunity needed to expose those areas using a handheld flashlight. While I can see the details with my eyes, I know that they will need some extra light to be captured in the final image.
In order to blend the light, I brush the light into the areas that I want to emphasize. The method used depends on the subject, the amount of light required, the intensity of the beam, and other factors. In many ways, it is very much like dodging and burning in photographic darkroom work. However, in this case, I am adding light or additional exposure to a portion of the scene. It is amazing how a small LED flashlight can light up details even a block away when used properly. The trick is the long exposure to the beam of light that is emanating from the flashlight. As with the rest of the exposures for my sequence, the light on the sensor is cumulative with time.
For me, the flashlight has a number of advantages over an electronic flash. For instance, it is easy to see exactly where your light is shining. It is also easy to walk around the scene in order to produce a variety of light angles. Brushing the light also allows feathering of the shadows created by light painting. Electronic flash usually produces a harsh burst of light, which is much more difficult to control edges and reflections.
At first, the process requires a little bit of trial and error, but the efforts once mastered, are well worth the effort.
Usually, I carry a few different flashlights in my camera bag that I use for making camera settings, checking inside my camera bag or finding a dropped item. At times, because I am in the dark, I use them to momentarily allow me to illuminate an area that may be too dark to focus the lens.
Most of the LED flashlights that are on the market produce a very even brightness throughout the beam. Many of them also offer a variable beam angle, which allows you to control the size and intensity of the light. I choose those that are easy enough to carry and feel comfortable in the hand. Most of mine are also fit in my pocket.
A few months ago while out shooting very late at night, I used one to flag down a sixteen wheeler for help when my car battery died and I couldn’t get my car started. Without the light, nobody would stop.
It is great to find that there are some good people out there in the dark.
I never go out in the dark to make images without a few trusty flashlights loaded with fresh batteries.
Read more about great photographic techniques in my book Rethinking Digital Photography.
My book – Rethinking Digital Photography
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