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The technique generally known as "painting with light", which is used in a number of areas of low-light photography, may also be applied to still-life work. The principle is very simple. Adequate light for a satisfactory exposure is accumulated over a period of time by playing a continuous light source, such as a torch, over the subject.

Basic requirements are:

  • A still-life set-up in a darkened room.
  • A camera set up on a tripod and equipped with a remote control.
  • A torch with a relatively narrow angle of illumination - ie a narrow focused beam. If this is not available, try creating a cardboard cone of the required angle to attach to the front of the torch.

In a darkened room, mount the camera on a tripod and set-up the still-life scene. Bear in mind that the colour temperature of torchlight is much lower than that of daylight, so it will be necessary to set the camera to an appropriately low setting - perhaps 2,800K for a tungsten bulb rather than the normal daylight setting of about 5,600K. A halogen light might have a somewhat higher colour temperature of about 3,200K. Any final adjustment for colour temperature can be done later using Photoshop.

To begin, turn on the torch, illuminate the subject, measure the required exposure and then take a photograph . This provides some indication of the illumination required and of how the subject will appear. Then set a small aperture (small enough to obtain the required depth of field) - eg f/16). Focus the camera manually and open the shutter with a remote release using the B-setting or a long exposure such as 30 seconds. Then play the narrow-beam torch over the areas of the subject you want to illuminate. A circular motion often works well, as does the more natural brush-stroke motion. It is often best to keep the torch moving as this prevents the formation of unwanted hot-spots. Since it is unlikely that the result will be correct at the first attempt, examine each image and build in appropriate improvements.

Some photographs created in this way may benefit from introducing coloured filters. Any translucent coloured material can be used for this purpose. A drink in a glass might therefore be painted with red or blue light rather than the normal warm white light emitted from the torch. The filter can also be changed to a different colour during the exposure, allowing a straw placed in the drink to be painted green or whatever is required. This sort of approach requires a good degree of accuracy of painting but excellent results can be achieved with practice.

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