Light Painting & Image Stacking Tutorial – Photoshop

Author Happyshopper - Last updated: 29.11.2012

With the nights getting longer I though it would be a good time to write up a light painting tutorial, which can produce results such as this:


Wolseley 4/44 Graveyard Light Painting by jamescharlick, on Flickr

This tutorial will cover both the mechanics of walking around in the pitch black trying not to fall over and the subsequent Photoshopping of the photos. If you have any questions please feel free to ask.

Before I begin let me just say that there are many, many ways of doing this. This is simply my method based on the effect I wanted and the tools I had available on the cheap. It should provide the basics you’ll need for images such as this:


Fisher Price My First Digger by jamescharlick, on Flickr

Here the sky was clear and the surroundings open, where-as in the tutorial it was a cloudy night and I was surrounded by trees so there isn’t a lot of context. It’s the same process though, preceded by the star trail bit which I’ll gloss over briefly later on.


Light Painting – The Underground Reservoir by jamescharlick, on Flickr

This image was actually taken as a single exposure, contrary to the advice I’m about to give you. I have since decided that this isn’t ideal from a processing point of view because it’s a bitch to edit out any mistakes on a single exposure compared to multiple shots. However I include this just to show you that it is possible, although this is better underground where you can get away with a single long exposure in the pitch black. Above ground as per the vehicle graveyards the night sky will provide too much brightness over the time required.

There are more examples available on my Flickr, if you’d like details on exactly how I did something in there or what settings I used please feel free to ask.

Part 1 : Taking The Photos

What you will need for this in terms of tools are:

  • A camera which you can do at least a 30 second exposure.
  • Ideally, a remote release which will allow you to use bulb mode, for flexibility.
  • A tripod.
  • Optical quality coloured gels (coloured plastic sheets). Look on ebay and you should find sets of 5 for around £4 posted.
  • A camera flash, any age will do as long as you can set it off manually.

I already had a camera and tripod, as most of you will, and I got an old film camera, extra lens and a flash from a french junk shop for less than a fiver. The flash works but isn’t compatible with modern DSLRs. So that plus the coloured gels cost me less than a tenner total. Not bad eh?

Once you’re at your location, in this case in a field overgrown with brambles and other spiky plants and nettles, plus a load of rusty old cars, you need to set up the tripod somewhere you can move around it easily without worrying about tripping over or into it. If you move it half way through the shoot by tripping on something or kicking a tripod leg, assuming you’re using a wide angle, you’ll need to start over. This won’t always be doable but where possible it could save a lot of hassle.

You may need to take a few test shots light painting the subject with your torch to sort out your composition before starting. It’s worth doing because you’ve probably driven for over an hour, you’re going to be there for a few hours freezing your bollocks off and then go home to edit images for another hour that might turn out crap because you didn’t check the composition thoroughly.

And that sucks.


Testing the composition

Once you’re happy, if you have no remote release set up the camera to take a 30 second exposure on a 10 second timer. That will give you time to get into place before the shutter opens, allowing you to walk around with your torch on without fear of ruining the shot. Don’t feel you have to light paint for the whole 30 seconds, but you will have time to move around if you need to. I find though that the 30 seconds is better used as insurance and you’re better off lighting one area then shooting the next angle on a different exposure and layering in Photoshop for safety.

If you have a remote release you can use bulb mode and just use the release to open and close the shutter without the need for a timer. This way you won’t be light painting for 10 seconds and then sitting in the dark for 20 seconds waiting for the shutter to close before turning back on your torch.

As far as settings go, sort out your focus with a torch then set up ISO 200, select an f stop which is around f5.6 [ideally 1 or 2 stops from the lowest your lens will allow so that the image isn’t soft in the corners], and you’re good to go. I also fixed my White Balance to one of the presets – probably Daylight. This was to make sure the images all had the same colour settings.

In this case I used f5.6, ISO 200, and built the image over 14 shots. This will vary though, some shots take 4 shots only, but I wanted to get under the rusty wing behind where the headlamp fell out to light inside, and similar things.

Once you’re set just hold a coloured gel in front of your flash and set it off. Depending on the reflectivity of the surface and the strength of your flash you may need to flash 3 or more times from each angle to get a nice colour.

Remember that if you want to shoot different angles in a single exposure, do not change colours on a single exposure. At least, not until you’ve practiced a bit. It’s much easier to mix colours later.


Blue Outer

Obviously I used blue and green, so I started with the main shot: Blue. This was shot from three angles (left corner, right corner and straight on) on one exposure because it was pretty easy to do: I wanted the whole car.

Be sure to check the histogram on your camera because what can look like a good exposure on your camera screen in the pitch black can turn out quite under-exposed once it’s on your computer.

Then comes the more fun aspects, getting in and around the car for the green highlights.

In this case I first headed to the drivers side window because it was open and therefore good to light the interior through. I did this twice lit from the top of the window and the bottom. Because you can’t hide the source of the light when lighting through a glass window without bouncing the flash around with bonus equipment and good access to the car which I didn’t have, you will get blown out areas which is why this was shot twice: You can then remove the burnt out areas later on in post because you have the other exposure as a backup.


windscreen 1


windscreen 2

From here I made several attempts to light under the car with little success. It was sitting too low to the ground to light from underneath in the center. In the end I used these exposures:


Under the broken wing


Inside the grill


Inside the grill again with tire


ground in front plus headlamp


ground in front 2

Notice the shot with the headlamp also lit the ground in a different colour? That’s because I’m allowed to break the rules and you’re not. So there.

Actually it’s because the two wouldn’t come even close to overlapping and I was getting cold and impatient.

You can light headlamps with your torch for a nice white light that can be easily directed to the right area. Check the exposure though because headlights are highly reflective and can burn out quickly. 3 seconds or so should be a good benchmark.

That’s it. You’re done. Go and get warm somewhere. Somewhere with coffee and biscuits.

Part 2 : Image Processing

You’ll need to open all your images into one Photoshop file on different layers, save for the composition test images, you can delete those. For the purposes of this I’ll be using PS CS5 but the instructions should be fairly universal.

I browse my files using Adobe Bridge so that I can see thumbnails of the raw files. If you do the same then select all the images you want to open in Bridge and go to Tools / Photoshop / Load files into Photoshop layers.

Otherwise just open the images separately in Photoshop and then drag the photos onto new layers in one document. Then select the Move Tool (little black arrow), select all the layers in the layers panel (Window / Layers), then at the top and to the right of Show Transform Tools are your alignment options. Click whatever works to line them all up right, have a play and figure them out, they’re handy.

Once you have the photos in one document and on separate layers click on the top layer and change the layer type from Normal to Lighten. Right click the layer in the Layers Panel and Copy Layer Style, then select all the other layers, right click and Paste Layer Style.

Suddenly it should appear that you have one exposure, albeit over several layers!


The raw combination of all your hard work

Ta daaaaa!

This Lighten Layer style technique is also what you would use to merge 100 30 second exposures into one image if you’re shooting star trails. I recommend shooting the trails first for an hour or two, then doing any light painting at the end. Because there will be longer gaps between shots when light painting you’ll need to mask out the sky on the light painted layers or you’ll get dotted lines at the end of your trails.

Anyway, now you need to do some cleaning up. Create a new layer at the bottom of the stack and fill it with black using the Paint Bucket Tool. This is just in case you delete overlapping areas from all the images in the stack and need something to fall back on.

At this point I’m going to assume you’ve played with my How To Use Photoshop Selection Tool Tutorial.

Hide all the layers except the blue layer. This needs a little work.


Blue Outer

In the final version I have removed any blue from the windscreen of the car, and removed a fair amount from around the car to tidy it up, so here goes.

To remove any lighting of the leaves, twigs, other cars and so on. You can get away with just masking them out with the paint brush. Select the blue layer in the Layers Panel and add a Layer Mask. This is the icon at the bottom of the panel which is a rectangle with a white circle in it. When drawing on this mask anything in white is visible and anything in black is hidden, and grey is semi-transparent depending on it’s darkness. Select the paintbrush tool and draw in black on the mask to hide anything you don’t want – anything that isn’t the main body of the car.

However for a clean edge and to remove the blue from the windscreen I would make selections using the pen tool and fill those selections with black on the mask. It’s a cleaner method and will produce nice neat lines and edges.

Then when you show the other layers again you should get a better view of the whole thing.


Once you have masked the blue areas that you don’t want to see…


…show the other layers again to see what’s going on

To fix the flashes on the windscreen just hide all the other layers and add a mask to those two, then use the paintbrush to hide the corners with the flashes on each layer. The alternate windscreen layer should be good to fill in the part your hiding on each, does that make sense? Use a soft brush so you don’t get any hard edges. You can select a soft brush by selecting the paint brush tool then looking in the top left you’ll see the brush type and size (probably a circle with a number underneath). Click it then select a circle with soft edges. This is also where you can change the size of the brush you’re using.

Then we’ll do the headlight: Select that layer and add a layer mask. With the mask selected hit Ctrl+i to invert the colours, which should make the mask black and hide all that layer. Then use the pen tool to draw around the light, or use the paint brush tool to draw it back in. Remember to draw in white this time to make the light show through. Then use a big brush to show the foreground in front of the car which I lazily took on the same exposure…


Getting there…

At this point you’re almost these. Remove the white blips at the bottom which are probably from my torch or something reflective on the floor, plus anything else you want to tidy up.

Then click on the top layer in the Layer Panel and hit Ctrl+Shift+Alt+E, or create a new layer at the top of the pile and go Layers / merge Visible. Either of these will stamp all of the layers onto a single layer whilst leaving all the ones below in tact and editable still.

At this point you can dodge and burn to add contrast, perform a high pass for sharpening, and anything else you might like. I also generally play with the saturation and hue of the colours: If you look at the bottom of the Layers Panel there’s another icon similar to the Ying Yang symbol, a black and white circle. Click this and then selection a Hue Saturation layer. This will create an Adjustment Layer which can be edited at any time, so if you over-cook the blue saturation you can come back later and tone it down a bit.

You may notice that each Adjustment Layer automagically has a layer mask assigned. I masked out the sky in the background and created a new adjustment layer to deepen the tone without destroying the colour of the car.

You can now play with the colours as you wish!


Done. Woop woop woop woop.

And this is the final Layers Palette I have come up with for this example:


Done. Woop woop woop woop.

The examples above are all obviously rather rushed and arn’t a perfect replica of the final version on Flickr, but they give you an indication of the process and enough information to have a play yourselves!

If you want to try one single exposure be aware that you won’t have very long to do it in unless you’re inside or underground, and be warned: You will set off the flash towards the camera at least once in your first outing, which will spoil the exposure unless you’re pretty nifty with the Clone Stamp tool


Good luck, have fun, and wrap up warm!

Then come back here and put up a report



#1PlazzmiKNovember 30, 2012, 6:36 pm

Thanks for sharing these great tips!

#2Roy ConellyDecember 3, 2012, 2:21 am

This is post is absolutely so informative! This helps struglling artists like me. I would love to make this article one of my references in doing my projects. Thanks for sharing!

#3HappyshopperDecember 13, 2012, 10:04 am

No worries guys! If you have a play be sure to stick the results up in the forum 🙂

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